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The films will be geoblocked to Ontario audiences and tickets for each screening will be sold on a first-come, first-stream basis on HotDocs.ca starting May 26.Gabriel Li

This year, Hot Docs is going online-only. Like every arts organization around the world, North America’s largest documentary film festival has been forced into a corner – with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no conceivable way of holding an on-site event. But rather than cancel this year’s festivities outright, or delay until the fall when the world might look more normal, Hot Docs announced Tuesday that it, like the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and Fantasia Festival in Montreal, is choosing the all-digital route.

From May 28 through June 6, Hot Docs will make 135 feature, mid-length and short titles – about 56 per cent of the 238 productions originally announced in its 2020 programming last month – available online for $9 a film ($8 for Hot Docs members). The films will be geoblocked to Ontario audiences only and will have only a limited number of tickets for each screening, sold on a first-come, first-stream basis on HotDocs.ca starting May 26. (A “majority” of titles will also be available for extended viewing windows until June 24, according to organizers.)

“We had a small head start because we’ve developed our Doc Shop digital marketplace over the years, so a lot of that back end has been adapted for this purpose,” says Hot Docs executive director Brett Hendrie, whose team also launched the organization’s video-on-demand service, Hot Docs at Home, last week for titles that would have been exhibited at the year-round Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. “But it’s been a monumental effort by the team that will continue this month, especially as we develop the bonus content, Q&As and value-adds that we want to bring to this online festival experience.”

The move is a strategy shift for the Toronto organization, which last month announced its 27th festival lineup, but without any details on exactly when those films might be available to view.

The plan then was to secure dates for on-site screenings when the world inched closer to normalcy, and the idea behind announcing the programming was one of celebration and marketing for films that rely on Hot Docs’ imprimatur to secure sales and awareness. As programming director Shane Smith said at the time, it was a chance for “filmmakers to start officially talking about their work, to build buzz and let the industry side – buyers, sales agents, distributors – know about films that haven’t been publicized yet.”

As it became clear there was no definitive timeline for reopening, though, Hot Docs decided to look for immediate solutions. “We started talking to our stakeholders in the community, but also to our audience members, and we heard from them loud and clear that there was a strong appetite for this,” Hendrie says. “And the response we had from Hot Docs at Home, and our partnership with the CBC, grew our confidence in being able to execute this.”

The festival will still “open,” in a manner of speaking, with the Canadian premiere of Softie, director Sam Soko’s doc on the life of Kenyan photojournalist Boniface “Softie” Mwangi. But not every film initially listed in the fest’s 2020 lineup is able to participate in this digital-only iteration. Some producers opted to wait in the hopes of securing a physical premiere, while other filmmakers had rights issues and sales concerns that an online screening might complicate.

“The opportunity was appealing to a lot of filmmakers, though, because we have the membership to reach audiences, and the media attention of having a festival is compelling,” Smith says. “We’re trying to make it as engaging as possible. We’re planning to record Q&As and offer some semblance of audience engagement and the festival experience."

Asked whether the year-round Hot Docs organization would survive financially without some sort of annual festival – online or not – Hendrie cites his group’s mission statement. “I would say the primary pressure was based on our mission, which is that we have a firm commitment to supporting and championing these films,” he says. “I think the alternative of abandoning them – there are financial considerations, yes – but more importantly, we wouldn’t want to forsake our raison d'être.”

The 27th annual edition of Hot Docs runs May 28 through June 6 at HotDocs.ca