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This year’s virtual Sundance kicks off this week with a handful of curiosities, including the sci-fi drama After Yang and the Dakota Johnson romantic-comedy Cha Cha Real Smooth.Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP

Who cares about film festivals?

This is an honest question, especially now, when it seems that most 2022 film fests will be reduced to either online-only, hybrid or heavily compacted in-person affairs for the second (or third!) time in a row. Already, Omicron has forced the Park City, Utah, institution Sundance, the most prestigious film fest in the United States, to go online-only Jan. 20-30. And the COVID cards seem similarly stacked against the Berlinale (in-person but halved in size and scope, Feb. 10-20, True/False in Columbia, Miss. (in-person, March 5-9) and SXSW in Austin, Tex. (in-person, March 11-20).

But: so what? If a film festival of all things has to forgo parties and premieres and red carpets while a pandemic rages, who cares?

Well, a lot of people. Even you: a consumer who may have no intention of attending a film fest any time soon, and who may not have even stepped inside a theatre since March, 2020. As much flak as film fests receive for being week-long Grey Goose-sponsored bacchanalias, they are (to varying degrees) essential to the health of the entire global cinema ecosystem. If you enjoy watching movies that don’t involve superheroes or Ryan Reynolds or Lin-Manual Miranda-voiced kinkajous on any sized screen, then you care, unwittingly or not, about whether film festivals can survive this prolonged stretch of extreme uncertainty.

Simply broken down, film fests – meaning full-court in-person events like in olden days – accomplish three things: They act as launching pads for lower-budget movies that require word-of-mouth to survive in an increasingly franchise-first marketplace; they connect emerging talent with established industry gatekeepers, ensuring a healthy new stream of creative voices to counterbalance over-relied-upon Hollywood names; and they provide an intimate, energetic and serendipitous atmosphere for Marvel-free deals to get done. Using the Oscars as a measuring stick is a crude tool, but think of it like this: Every Best Picture winner over the past decade and a half – Parasite, Green Book, The Shape of Water, Moonlight, Spotlight, etc. – began its journey at a film festival.

Colin Farrell as Jake in After Yang.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

And, so far, not one of the pandemic era’s online-only fests has broken a true zeitgeist-catching hit. Sure, last year’s all-virtual Sundance delivered a handful of productions that secured critical acclaim (Passing, CODA, Summer of Soul, Flee), and the 2021 online-only Berlinale programmed some truly wonderful work (Petite Maman, Night Raiders, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?) that I guarantee most of you have unfortunately never heard about. But despite programmers’ best intentions, the digital events couldn’t deliver a fraction of the impact that an on-the-ground extravaganza, complete with hyperventilating press and power-drunk producers and scene-and-heard dispatches, typically delivers.

This is all secondary concern, of course, to the financial health of the festivals themselves, with each designed to be dependent on revenue from a flurry of in-person screenings and corporate-sponsored events, not to mention the trickle-down regional tourism dollars that keep government subsidies flowing. A film festival that exists only online is a film festival that is ultimately brand- and purpose-less.

This year’s virtual Sundance, which kicks off this week with a handful of curiosities including the sci-fi drama After Yang and the Dakota Johnson romantic comedy Cha Cha Real Smooth, seems to be operating on a wavelength of even lower-than-2021 expectations. At least last year’s virtual premieres had a novelty aspect. Today, there is a distinct sense of fest organizers grinning and bearing it until a genuine “normal” comes around again. That, or you get lucky with between-COVID-wave timing like last year’s in-person-only Cannes, Venice, Telluride and New York fests. What’s more: Filmmakers are clearly uncomfortable with this digital-only stopgap.

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in Cha Cha Real Smooth.Picturestart

After Sundance announced that it was going virtual instead of its previously planned hybrid format, the team behind Oscar-winning filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’s new movie Final Cut pulled the picture from the lineup, explaining that “we believe that it is best to premiere Final Cut in a theatre with a live audience.” Reports also suggest that hot-shot U.S. indie distributor A24 was reluctant to send some of its top 2022 offerings (the Michelle Yeoh comedy Everything Everywhere All At Once, the Pete Davidson horror movie Bodies Bodies Bodies) to Sundance due to its virtual component.

As a Toronto-based critic who has never been able to afford visits to Park City, Berlin or Austin, I’ll admit that taking in last year’s Sundance, Berlinale and SXSW programs from my couch was an incredible opportunity – but they also paled, in terms of programming and sense of communal excitement, to any in-person go-round at TIFF or Hot Docs.

Speaking of: both of Canada’s biggest and most prestigious film festivals remain in 2022 at the mercy of unpredictable timing.

At the moment, this year’s Hot Docs, scheduled for April 28 through May 8, is planning for a hybrid edition.

“Our first choice, of course, would be to offer our passionate audiences and filmmakers the joys of a full in-person festival experience,” Heather Conway, Hot Docs’ newly appointed co-president and executive director, said in a statement. “We’ve got a framework in place to bring this year’s selection to audiences both in cinemas and at home, and are prepared to pivot as needed should cinemas remain closed or reopen at a limited capacity.”

After Sundance announced that it was going virtual instead of its previously planned hybrid format, the team behind Oscar-winning filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’s new movie Final Cut pulled the picture from the lineup.Courtesy of Sundance Institute

TIFF, which offered most of its 2020 and 2021 programming online as well as in-person, is keeping a similarly close eye on the public-health situation. But organizers remain optimistic for a return to form this September, when Omicron is expected to be less of a concern.

“We’re planning for an in-person festival and a return for the industry and everyone to Toronto. But we know how to do the other elements if and when we need to,” TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey said in an interview. “We have the digital platform that’s available, but we’re waiting a little bit to figure out what scale to do it at. What worked well in 2020 wasn’t what worked well in 2021. I personally don’t see the same appetite for drive-ins, either. What we’re best at is the excitement of a festival in theatres and on Festival Street.”

This means, in an ideal TIFF scenario, a larger number of films than the 2020 (50 feature-length titles) and 2021 (132) editions.

“Scale is something that we’re working on. We’ve had years of almost 300 feature films in the festival, which is probably more than I’d want to go back to any time soon,” Bailey said. “But somewhere in the vicinity of 150 to 200 is the ballpark that seems to make sense for the coming year.”

Bailey, who was planning to attend Sundance this year, says that virtual fests should be applauded for trying to approximate a real-deal experience – but it’s hard to compare or compete.

“Some of that excitement and anticipation can be delivered online. We tried to do it at TIFF, and what Sundance did last year well, was a creating a limited time window for viewers to watch a film, so you get that collective response on social media,” he said. “But it is not the same as the reaction in the Eccles Theatre in Park City.”

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