Digital and drive-in, film festivals try to salvage a season

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FILE - Jury President Cate Blanchett, center, is seated at the start of the opening ceremony of the 77th edition of the Venice Film Festival at the Venice Lido, Italy, on Sept. 2, 2020. This year, three of the four major fall film festivals, including Venice, are going forward despite the pandemic. Those in Venice acknowledge it hasnt been anywhere near the same. Masked moviegoers in set-apart seats. A barrier walls off the red carpet to discourage crowds of onlookers. Greetings are kiss-less. A little bit of the romance of movies has gone out. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis, File)

NEW YORK – This is normally the time of year when flashy premieres march down red carpets and proclamations of Oscar buzz circle the globe. An avalanche of new films topples onto screens. The movie houses of Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York shake with applause. The movies, more than ever, feel alive.

This year, three of the four major fall film festivals – all but Telluride, which had to cancel – are going forward despite the pandemic. But the movies are a sliver of what they normally are. Most premieres in North America will be held digitally or at drive-ins. For a season predicated on badge-wearing throngs and marquee movies, it’s meant rethinking what a film festival is. Or maybe just doubling down on a mission.

“A situation like this forces you to assess what is fundamental,” says Dennis Lim, director of programming for the New York Film Festival. “What do you really need for a festival to happen? You need films and you need audiences. It’s our job to select the films and put them in front of audiences in a meaningful way. If we can’t do that in a cinema, what can we do?”

The answers, for the programmers of the New York Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, will begin unspooling later this week. TIFF opens on Thursday with the premiere of Spike Lee's David Byrne documentary “American Utopia.” New York follows Sept. 17 with Steve McQueen's “Lovers Rock.” Venice, the world’s oldest festival, has been running since last week.

Those in Italy acknowledge Venice hasn’t been anywhere near normal. Masked moviegoers sit in set-apart seats. A barrier walls off the red carpet to discourage crowds of onlookers. Greetings are kiss-less. A little bit of the romance of movies has gone out.

But not all of it. Jury head Cate Blanchett said it was kind of “miraculous” that the festival was happening at all. Pedro Almodovar compared months of lockdown to a prison. “The antidote to all this is the cinema,” he said.

Unlike the canceled Cannes Film Festival in May or the improvised virtual edition of SXSW, Venice has managed to host an in-person festival, albeit at a much reduced scale. Toronto and New York are aiming for hybrid festivals. New York has partnered with Rooftop Films to hold drive-ins in Brooklyn and Queens far removed from the festival’s home at Lincoln Center.

Toronto is doing likewise but also with indoor screenings (of just 50 people) at his downtown hub, the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The festival is currently mandating mask-wearing only when moving around a theater, not during the show. Even days before opening night, indoor screenings aren't completely off the table for New York, should the state’s theaters be reopened.