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You, in your bedroom, with your laptop. That's not the future of film festivals | Peter Bradshaw | Film


Every year, at Cannes (and other festivals) there’s a plaintive argument about what Cannes (or other festivals) are really all “about”. Some Savonarola-type person will dash the glass of rosé out of your hand, throw your canape into the Med and tell you Cannes is not about red-carpet narcissism, not about stars preening in the flashbulb glare of celeb-worship, not about L’Oréal sponsorship, not about getting drunk at a million late-night parties. It’s about the movies, about cinema itself.

Of course. And that’s what the new Covid-19-related We Are One: A Global Film Festival appears to offer: the 10-day online festival, beginning 29 May, curated by Jane Rosenthal of the Tribeca film festival, featuring arthouse films (though not the big-ticket Hollywood items) from Cannes, Venice, Berlin and many more, streaming for free in return for an optional donation to the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 fund. So there you have it. A festival with all the frills and extras and flummeries stripped away. Just you, in your bedroom, with your laptop, communing with cinema. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Well … no, of course not. For a start, cinema has to be about the big screen, people all joined together in the dark, with no social distancing, thrilling to the communal experience – which sadly was also the attraction of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It has to be said that Thierry Frémaux, artistic director of Cannes, appears to have relaxed his objections on this score, just a little; having initially derided suggestions that Cannes itself would go virtual, now he has allowed some Cannes titles to go into the We Are One mix. And there have already been gags on Twitter about how online festivals will have virtual queuing – a “wheel of death” buffering delay that may or may not end after 15 minutes.

And after all, the whole business of streaming has – for the moment – kept cinema alive: new films can get released for streaming during the lockdown (although the halt to production may well cause a famine a year or so down the line). The cinema experience is soldiering on – and for many people, for many otherwise inaccessible world cinema films, it has already been small-screen. And the films included in this online festival will be just this kind of movie.

The difference, naturally, is money. Streaming isn’t usually free, although there’s almost a gold rush in progress now among film writers and cinephiles to find old movies available gratis on YouTube.

This We Are One Festival is basically going to be a loss leader for all the big festivals, who might now be effectively conceding the reality that 2020 is the year of cancellation (though Berlin and Dublin escaped), putting aside their habitual competition with each other and making the best of things. They want to keep their various brand identities alive, though many will want to make no secret of the fact that this temporary arrangement, however bold with its We-Are-The-World body language, is indeed second-best. Festival directors will want to get people back to the real-live event with ticket sales, sponsorship, and the boost to their cities’ economies and international prestige – in 2021. Or 2022.

But there is a possibility that the We Are One online festival could be a “legacy” project, as they say during the Olympics. It could be a new way of people engaging with cinema. There could be an audience award, with people voting online the way Bafta members do, with every individual required to register with an email username and password. And if the We Are One’s entire selection is kept online for the entire 10-day period, as opposed to each title being available for just one or two days (the way it would be in a non-virtual event) then this might be a way of getting round a perennial festival problem – everyone hearing in the first few days about a great new film from a talented young film-maker, only to find there are no more screenings. We Are One could, in some modified form, survive as an annual event around November or December.

But in the end, after this is all over, people will want to go back to the flesh and blood experience, to see the films on the big screen, that sense of occasion that is the vital curatorial tool for focusing minds on a new film. And people will want to talk about films: talk about them over coffee, over lunch, in the street outside in the cinema. That is the festival experience.

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