Due to the ongoing pandemic, this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF) is going predominantly digital for the very first time, replacing nights out at the Civic with nights in-front of the living room TV. Aaron Yap explores both the upsides and downsides to this unprecedented shakeup, and wonders if film festivals in the Covid age will ever be the same again.
Back in 2017, Bill Gosden, the former director of the NZIFF, opened his annual foreword by remarking on “a year fraught with changes you might not want to be reminded about”. The line, alluding to the rise of a certain ghastly political power, sounds a little quaint now. But it’s adopted a different kind of grim, uncanny resonance in 2020. Changes? Yes, things have changed, and then some.
This year, NZIFF is shaking things up. Rebranded Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival, the event will make its biggest leap into the future, offering a “hybrid” programme of predominantly online screenings with a selection of in-cinema ones. Excitingly, it’s the first to do so in the world, ahead of higher-profile film fest players such as Venice and Toronto. At the same time, this pivot heralds a potential permanence: the film festival, as we’ve known it, may be over.
Like many businesses in the experience industry, the team at NZIFF have been forced to rapidly navigate the complex impacts of Covid-19. The pandemic has effectively shattered the filmmaking and film-going ecosystem. Those industries within – production, distribution, exhibition – that fail to adapt to the outbreak’s wildly capricious nature will ultimately be left behind. In many cases, it’s accelerated the need to find a financially viable solution for the harmonious co-existence of the theatrical and digital experience.
In pandemic-gripped Hollywood, franchise reboots such as The Batman and The Matrix 4 shuttered their costly productions for a temporary period. Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated sci-fi-spy blockbuster Tenet, pegged to lure audiences back into theatres after lockdown, has been delayed twice. Industry pundits predict more to come.
With other big-ticket items like Wonder Woman 1984, Mulan and Black Widow succumbing to similar setbacks, 2020’s box office has become a desolate ghost town, littered with the souls of laid-off theatre workers. The fact that Netflix is powering on, and studios like Disney and Universal now have the ability to drop films on their streaming platforms without the middlemen, brings no solace to those suffering on the exhibition side.
On the home front, we’ve also seen the fallout from Covid-19 restrictions. New Zealand’s largest cinema chain Event Cinemas announced nationwide job losses in June. But it’s also heartening to see independent outfits like Auckland’s Academy Cinemas, in the early days of lockdown, mobilise to provide an on-demand service.
Powered by Hamilton-based out-of-the-box streaming provider SHIFT72, Academy Ondemand – content-wise, at least – has proved to be an ideal complement to the theatrical experience, featuring a selection of recent world favourites including this year’s Oscar winner Parasite and the widely acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire. By that same token, and the emergence of “virtual cinemas” globally, NZIFF’s move to hybridisation (also powered by SHIFT72) seems like a natural, sensible evolution.
But it’s already not the same.
On a psychological level, Covid has knocked the wind out of whatever eager anticipation I’d generally experience during the onset of winter, knowing NZIFF was just around the corner. Even with at least 26 films of this year’s slimmer programme screening in select theatres nationwide, a “festival at home”-type proposition doesn’t have the same urgent kick.
Under normal circumstances, NZIFF would be the country’s biggest cultural force. An event that would stimulate tens of thousands of Kiwis every year to rug up, brave the dipping temperatures and take a punt on some cinematic unknown from the other side of the world. But hybridisation offers a choice. And humans, by nature lazy sods, will tend to choose the path of least resistance when it suits. NZIFF is now something that isn’t too far removed from the pyjama-clad utility convenience of a Netflix or Neon night-in.
The positives aren’t lost on me. Gone is the stumbling-in-the-dark awkwardness of having to leave for a toilet break in the middle of a screening. Rude, chatty patrons who treat the cinema as their own living room won’t be missed. And I’m fine with not attending densely packed spaces that practically operate as powerful incubators for the winter cold.
From a reach perspective, the online option means that anyone with a decent broadband connection in New Zealand can feasibly access every film. Smaller regional centres needn’t have to settle for a pared-back version of the programme. If you can’t leave the house due to a disability or if you don’t live close to a cinema, the festival coming to you will be a godsend. It’s great for filmmakers who want eyeballs on their work.
But the truth is, those cosy, romantic rituals of fest-going will be diminished this year. They contribute, in large part, to the exuberant festival atmosphere.
For Aucklanders like myself, an opportunity to be immersed in the gloriously lavish surroundings of the Civic Theatre – absent as a venue this year – is never to be missed. As silly as it sounds, I’m already nostalgic for the opening night – the only time where you’ll find your Instagram feed cluttered with photos of the Civic’s great Flamingo Curtain in one concentrated burst.
It’s also a strange thing not to experience the delight of picking up the glossy printed programme, which is currently provided as a PDF download from the website. It’s not really a festival until you can leaf through every page of the programme, scan exhaustively for the can’t-misses, and scribble notes across the schedule.
What about the caffeine-addled rush of pre and post-film encounters with regulars and friends, scrambling from theatre to theatre when you’ve got an intensely scheduled day of film? And the way the Civic’s mighty screen envelops every pore of your being and warmly transports you into another realm of existence? These sensations are difficult to replicate in an online setting, and particularly now that we’re presented with a choice.
Taking over the reins in 2020 can’t have been easy for new festival director Marten Rabarts, who’s spoken about his “initial heartbreak” when faced with the possibility of a film festival without any in-cinema screenings. But it’s also a fortuitously rewarding opportunity to re-imagine the New Zealand International Film Festival, after four decades of status quo, from the ground up.
The new branding – less metro, more spiritual – and those extra steps to build a “virtual festival” through initiatives like the #NZIFFAtHomeOnline campaign are commendable. There will be challenges ahead, and fascinating insights to be gleaned after it’s all over.
In that 2017 foreword, Gosden makes a reference to the poster art, a painterly portrait that beckons us to “Come in out of the rain” with its snapshot of fest-goers, armed with umbrellas, walking off the street and into the theatre on a wet night. For future film festivals in this Covid-stricken age, there’s a good chance that battling the weather might soon be a problem of the past.
Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival is screening online and in selected cinemas and venues from 24 July to 2 August.