Since the very first Venice Film Festival in 19321, film festivals have been an opportunity for film fans to discover and appreciate a wide swath of films while also enjoying the company of the artists that created them. As cinema became more of a cultural and financial juggernaut, festivals would become a vital part of the film ecosystem. Films premiered at festivals in order to be sold to major distributors. Space in the festival lineup was dedicated to showcases of films vying for awards contention at the end of the year. Audiences consisted of select members of the film media, local film fans, and people who can afford travel expenses and the rising cost of festival badges. The hype produced by festivals was reaching a global scale, but the amount of people who could truly participate was only becoming more selective.
That changed in the last year when festivals had to adjust to challenges brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic. Festivals, at least the ones that didn’t cancel their 2020 iterations, began to transition into virtual or semi-virtual events. This allowed viewers from different locales to access the festival’s exclusive lineups and the adjacent events without leaving their homes, bridging the geographical gap between festivals and their prospective audiences.
It also made the festival experience affordable to the out-of-town viewer. During the 2020 Sundance FIlm Festival, a ten ticket pass for the festival cost $700, which does not include any travel expenses. During the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, you could buy a single film ticket for $15, meaning you could buy 10 for $150. This opens up the festival to those who can not afford to experience a festival in the traditional sense (i.e. taking off of work, paying for travel, and spending extended amounts of time in an unfamiliar city). Continuing to add a virtual option as an alternative to the festival experience increases accessibility to all of the benefits a festival allows.
And accessibility is what festivals should be chasing. If you are a festival and your goal is to embrace the discovery of certain types of films that are not widely available in American multiplexes, then gathering more viewers allows you to reach that goal on a wider scale. If you are a studio and your goal is to generate hype for an upcoming awards release, then getting more people to be able to see and talk about the film guarantees a wider volume of hype.
Loosening up who constitutes a festival attendee allows for the larger inclusion of participants while also making these major festivals a bigger cultural force. And, in the grand scheme of things, the festival experience does not change. You can still hold an exclusive event for the cinematic elite in glamorous locales around the world, but a virtual experience allows people of lesser means and different geographies the opportunity to see what everyone is raving about.