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Can the film festival save cinema-going from the streaming service onslaught?

Head to the cinemas while you still can. In the United States, cinema attendance plummeted to its lowest in 25 years. At home, Screen Australia’s CEO Graeme Mason said movie theatres are surviving on blockbusters alone. With streaming platforms like Netflix freeing us from the collective watching experience – anyone who loves popcorn, a choc top and a group of strangers experiencing something new together should be getting nervous.

But there’s hope. Just beyond the multiplex, there’s a hothouse environment where cinema culture is still alive the buzz is vibrantly high and the big-screen experience is welcomed with open arms. It’s the film festival.

At a film festival, moviegoers can still feel that the warm glow of cinephilia that’s missing from the 2018 cinema experience. A person who even thinks about taking their phone out and illuminating others with that blinding white light does so at the risk of fiery audience members. Festivals are a hub full of filmmakers, critics, and the general public – all talking, writing about, and compulsively watching the same thing. People line up around the block, waiting in anticipation for the ticket-scanning machine to beep one more time. Emotions run high: gasps and laughs sound through the cinemas like an orchestrated symphony. It’s an interconnected experience where the buzz becomes so strong that it changes the way we watch and talk about the movies.

Increasing festival attendee numbers, both overseas and in Australia, over the years testify that audiences want more of these infectious, communal, big-screen moments – something that’s lacking when you play the same movie on an iPhone. A festival’s packed spaces instigates excited conversations between strangers and friends, and this hyped, positive word-of-mouth here can have important ramifications within the industry. For some films, festivals are their only place of exhibition; the rave reviews, prizes and audience attention become essential ingredients for a film’s future prospects.

Film festivals are one of the few mechanisms still keeping the cinema experience alive.

Festival attendees are there to absorb all films, from independents to headliners, but they are inclined to discover gems that might fall under the radar. Films on the festival circuit, like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, are examples of the way festivals have given arthouse films an opportunity to flourish against more mainstream fare. At the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2018, artistic director Michelle Carey programmed an assortment of independent Australian films, such as Alena Lodkina’s Strange Colours and Thomas M. Knight’s Acute Misfortune – films that might not have enjoyed a cinema or home entertainment release without festivalgoers’ enthusiastic responses.

“At a festival, you feel a connection with those around you”, Carey tells me. “The response is stronger because there is a community.” This live atmosphere, she says, ignites a “thrilling emotional response.”

And Netflix has a role to play in taking audiences away from this real-life community and bringing it online. Their strength lies in global distribution – where its convenience and accessibility are core to its small-screen business model. And it’s got a successful track record to prove that its day-and-date releases work. Its latest suite of original romantic-comedies, that includes Claire Scanlon’s Set It Up and Susan Johnson’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, were watched by more than 80 million of its subscribers in the span of a few months – showcasing their powerful social media influence over internet fan-bases to channel audience numbers to an under-appreciated film genre.

But can these home viewing trends abolish cinemas altogether? The answer may not be so clear-cut. When Graeme Mason of Screen Australia dismisses the theatrical experience as a poor economic option for independent films, calling it a “train-wreck” for cinema releases outside studio films – it paints a defeatist picture of the tension between digital and theatrical exhibition. As Carey puts it, Mason’s simplistic call to Australian filmmakers that “OK isn’t good enough” suggests certain important gatekeepers “seem to be operating in a landscape of reaction, rather than a proactive vision about what could happen”. While online streaming may be on the rise, audiences still appreciate big-screen theatrics – but there must be new ways of ensuring its continued existence, and they have to come from the top down.

Even Netflix’s evolving model for its original film slate indicates that theatrical exhibition can’t be annihilated altogether. Their desire to produce films worthy of awards contention saw them acquiring distribution rights for Dee Rees’ Sundance-adorned Mudbound and producing Bong Joon-ho’s vibrant albeit unconventional giant-pig adventure Okja in 2017. But this only served to highlight the shortcomings of Netflix’s no-theatrical distribution model. Despite their complex algorithms, they struggled to find niche, cinema-appreciative audiences outside movie houses, and on their streaming service, the sheer abundance of content severely limited audience reach. Mudbound managed to snag a few Oscar nominations (Best Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress and Cinematography) but the traditional studio route is still considered a superior mode when it comes down to statuettes, and the prestige and promotional word-of-mouth that comes with them.

Festivals are playing a significant role in encouraging Netflix’s move into hybridising the theatrical with the digital.

This difficulty in penetrating the awards system has led Netflix to embark on a new festival and theatrical strategy with Alfonso Cuarón’s upcoming film, Roma. It’s a surprising choice, given the Oscar-winning director’s film seems made for the big screen, boasting black-and-white cinematography shot on digital 65mm. It became a centrepiece to the Cannes controversy earlier in the year, with Netflix pulling out of the festival due to Cannes’ rule that films playing in competition must also enjoy a long window of exclusively theatrical distribution in France. However, the film has since headlined the fall festival circuit at Venice and Toronto to rave reviews, and a watershed theatrical release strategy accompanies it – that’s due to break Netflix’s longstanding day-to-date release policy for its Original Films.

Netflix’s newfound recognition that the festival setting offers them access to a market of people otherwise untapped through their digital service, only accentuates the fact that films are experienced differently on a mammoth screen; that word-of-mouth coverage, on which a lot of Netflix movies rely on, can also be made stronger because of it. Come awards season, whether this signifies a ground-breaking turn for the streaming channel is yet to be seen, but if the Roma teaser trailer, a wordless montage of evocative images, notably missing the company’s trademark logo, suggests anything – it’s that film festivals are playing a significant role in encouraging Netflix’s move into hybridising the theatrical with the digital.

Festivals are one of the few mechanisms still keeping the cinema experience alive. And if they can expand that remit and make it desirable for streaming services to make their big-screen mark, they will be securing the future of the cinema. How we celebrate and value the theatrical experience is changing, and the film festival offers new ways in which potentially clashing models can co-exist – to further enrich the way we watch movies. Just like the beauty of moments shared between ourselves and others in the cinema.

Image: Opening night at the Melbourne Film Festival 2018

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