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This is the time when major fall film festivals like to rev their engines as they jockey for bragging rights to the best world premieres. Now, all four heavyhitters — Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York — have released a most unconventional joint statement. In light of the pandemic, and the crises facing cinema as well as the world at large, they are working together in a “collaboration as we never have before.”
What does that mean? In a letter signed by the heads of all four festivals, they state:
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This year, we’ve moved away from competing with our colleagues at autumn festivals and commit instead to collaboration. We are sharing ideas and information. We are offering our festivals as a united platform for the best cinema we can find. We’re here to serve the filmmakers, audiences, journalists and industry members who keep the film ecosystem thriving. We need to do that together.
It’s a positive statement that says almost nothing. However, while the collaboration doesn’t extend to going on the record with specifics, the release appears to signal that the 2020 editions of these major festivals should be viewed as being in a state of truce. While there won’t be an Avengers-level super-festival, expect more overlaps in programming and behind-the-scenes coordination that will help all of them operate as smoothly as possible in a very weird year.
Beyond the niceties of creating a support system during an unprecedented crisis, there is also a practical reason for this approach. With the 2021 Oscar season pushed to April, Netflix holding off on premiering any films at festivals, and studios postponing many titles until next year, there are fewer big, snazzy titles to go around. Additionally, in light of current travel challenges, all four festivals are likely to cater to regional audiences more than international crowds, which takes some of the onus off the world premiere game.
Of course, all of this assumes the four festivals can take place. No amount of cooperation can overcome the full range of pragmatic questions that still haunt every public event. Insiders say that, for now, the festivals have not been sharing programming decisions so much as anticipating operational challenges and changes to the industry as a whole.
Both TIFF and Venice have already announced significant curtailing to their usual vast lineups, with 50 movies playing in each. (TIFF usually programs over 300.) Telluride and New York also will have smaller lineups and don’t utilize specific premiere policies, but they have been looking at many of the same titles in the programming process. Even without a specific mandate to combine forces, considerable overlap would be inevitable.
This time last year, we had headlines about “Joker” heading to competition in Venice, where it would eventually win the Golden Lion; “Jojo Rabbit” going to Toronto, where it would score the audience prize; and “The Irishman” opening New York. Whispers circulated about everything from “Uncut Gems” to “Judy” making a soft launch in Telluride’s ultra-secret program.
Back in April, as the fate of the Cannes Film Festival remained uncertain and spring festival mainstays SXSW and Tribeca were off the table, the leaders of all four festivals — Venice’s Alberto Barbera, Telluride’s Julie Huntsinger, TIFF’s Cameron Bailey and Joanna Vicente, and NYFF’s Eugene Hernandez — began having regular conversations on Zoom. On the surface, those discussions might not look altogether unlike the way countless arts organizations have been sharing intel and supporting each other as the pandemic-related shutdowns have created an unprecedented crisis. However, given the accelerated competition between the fall events, that engagement would have been unthinkable until now.
Telluride’s ability to launch films with its secretive lineup ahead of TIFF led to the Canadian festival’s 2014 policy barring films that played at Telluride from premiering at TIFF on its splashy opening weekend. In 2015, TIFF relaxed the policy somewhat — Telluride premieres could play early at TIFF, but not in its biggest venues — but the tension simmered. The two festivals serve discrete audiences while seeking the attentions of the same national media, which meant constant standoffs and studios forced to make tricky diplomatic choices.
Venice played its own aggressive world premiere game, but as it typically arrives on the calendar a few days before Telluride and a week in advance of TIFF, it gets a jump on a few major titles looking to make a global splash. In July, savvy followers of festival lineups know that when TIFF announces a movie as an “International Premiere,” it will probably head to Venice first, garnering buzz in European markets ahead of North America.
By comparison, NYFF — the last of the four major fall festivals — has largely stayed out of the competitive game, instead utilizing its curatorial identity to fuel a “best of the best” brand. But even if the New York event doesn’t chase world premieres, their options for opening, closing, and centerpiece films are often impacted by whether or not studios choose to launch their films at earlier festivals or hold off in order to stand out from the noise.
Ironically, so much of this consternation is strictly inside baseball. In any year, the obsession over world premieres is something that few audiences care about or understand. Since there are plenty of movies to go around, and each festival has its own unique profile, wouldn’t it make more sense for everyone to work together?
The festival heads jointly declined to comment for this story. However, sources said that Venice was ambivalent about whether official “collaboration” between the festivals would impact a change to its premiere policy, since it comes first in the calendar. However, the festival was exploring the possibility of hosting joint premieres timed to take place simultaneously in Telluride.
For the most part, insiders said the festivals’ conversations have not focused on programming decisions. Instead, they have tracked the constant upheaval of their business as it raised new questions every few weeks. Early on, they would muse on whether Cannes would happen, and how its absence might impact their own programs. When the French festival postponed, a new set of questions came up about how to handle the films it selected.
The programming heads debated the merits of holding virtual editions if physical gatherings become impossible; for the moment, all four festivals are exploring ways of combining physical and virtual aspects of their programs. That led to conversations about the ideal online screening platforms, safety standards, and protocols for handling filmmaker and industry guests, should choose to travel. This has meant that studios with the final word on whether their films will play festivals no longer have to look at it as a game of chess. Everyone is on the same page.
Nevertheless, the programming will differ in at least one key manner: In an effort to maintain some measure of exclusivity on the European circuit, none of the “Cannes 2020” selection of 56 films programmed by the canceled festival will screen at Venice. The other three festivals are digging through the Cannes offerings. However, Kate Winslet-starring lesbian drama “Ammonite,” a Cannes 2020 selection set to open this year from Neon, is slated at both Telluride and TIFF; NYFF, which has yet to lock its full lineup, has yet to make a final determination.
It’s unclear how many films could wind up following last year’s “Parasite” and “Marriage Story” by hitting all four festivals, but that well-trod path may create opportunity for lower-profile titles. “Notturno,” a documentary from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi set in the Middle East, will also hit the quartet of fall festivals with eye towards making its way into the documentary Oscar race.
No matter what lands where, premiere status will be less relevant than ever before. All four festivals are expected to be mostly local events, with little in the way of out-of-town media or talent. TIFF, which usually welcomes the largest international contingency, has yet to find out if Canada will reopen its borders at the end of this month. Venice is in the EU, which has banned American travelers. And Telluride faces a vote from the Colorado mountain town’s city council on July 15 to determine whether it can hold the event at all, though it has chartered flights from New York and Los Angeles in the hopes of attracting out-of-town guests.
Meanwhile, the organizations behind these festivals share a precarious state. In March, Film at Lincoln Center laid off half of its full-time staff; TIFF let go 17 percent of its own staff last month, a few days before announcing a handful of titles. Telluride and Venice have managed to avoid those fates, though they face the same long-term existential challenges. All four festivals thrive on each year’s publicity. That calculated impact is no longer guaranteed, they need all the help they can get — even if it means giving up some ground to competitors.
The joint festival statement represents an effort to tell various stakeholders, from media to studios to boardrooms likely convening on Zoom calls of their own, that they have to cross frenemy lines. “The art form we love is in crisis,” the joint festival statement reads. “We knew we had to adapt.” It remains to be seen how that adaptation will play out, but those words alone represent a dramatic new step into unprecedented territory.
Read the full festival statement below.
This year, we saw the COVID-19 pandemic devastate communities all over the world, and bring life as we knew it to a halt. As supporters of global cinema, we watched as the work of film artists stopped in its tracks, and the culture of film itself was challenged. Films come alive with audiences, who could no longer gather in the ways we had for over a century.
The art form we love is in crisis. Our own organizations have seen unprecedented challenges to our work and our financial security. The pandemic caught each of us as we were preparing for the biggest event of our year in the fall of 2020. We knew we had to adapt. We decided to collaborate as we never have before.
Venice is the origin story for every film festival in the world. Telluride is one of the world’s most influential festivals. Toronto is home to the world’s largest public film festival. And the New York Film Festival curates for one of the world’s most storied, sophisticated film cities. Our four festivals share a love of cinema and a devotion to filmmakers. We also share a short span of six weeks each autumn. This year, we’ve moved away from competing with our colleagues at autumn festivals and commit instead to collaboration. We are sharing ideas and information. We are offering our festivals as a united platform for the best cinema we can find. We’re here to serve the filmmakers, audiences, journalists and industry members who keep the film ecosystem thriving. We need to do that together.
We believe cinema has a unique power to illuminate both the world around us, and our innermost perceptions. In a crisis, films can transport us. They can enchant, inform, provoke and heal. As we work through challenging circumstances this summer to prepare our festivals, we will work together, in support of film.
Cameron Bailey, Toronto International Film Festival
Alberto Barbera, Venice Film Festival
Eugene Hernandez, New York Film Festival
Julie Huntsinger, Telluride Film Festival
Tom Luddy, Telluride Film Festival
Joana Vicente, Toronto International Film Festival
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