Organizers behind Germany’s Munich Film Festival, set to take place June 25 to July 4, decided to call off the annual event completely rather than postpone or go digital — a choice that came down to concerns around rights, piracy and accessibility.

The idea to postpone was discounted because of an already congested fall film festival schedule, which will soon leave little to no space to add events. Meanwhile, it’s still unclear when widespread coronavirus lockdowns will abate so that large gatherings can happen. Germany’s own lockdown was enacted March 22, and extended until April 19, while France and Italy’s lockdown measures will remain in place until May.

The assessment over whether Munich should put on a digital festival, however, was more intense. “We feel there are very limiting factors in going digital when you are a festival that plays a lot of films and tracks a lot of industry audiences,” says Christoph Gröner, artistic director at Munich.

The first concern was over the rights situation of films. “Dealing with streaming rights is like being in a jungle,” says Gröner. “There are no established rules, so you have to go film by film, and if you play 200 films, that’s 200 very complicated processes, and like many festivals, we don’t have an in-house legal department.”

It explains why festivals that have gone online since the coronavirus outbreak, such as CPH:DOX and Visions du Reel, have predominantly been documentary events. “They have a highly active industry audience in a field that is less complicated in terms of dealing with rights issues,” says Gröner.

Further, if the rights were secured, how then to prevent piracy? The best method thus far has been implementing closed industry spaces, where everyone knows who is accessing the films, on platforms such as Festival Scope and Cinando, where an assessment of trust with the viewer has been predetermined. It’s not possible to do this for the wider public.

Munich was also worried about the technical quality of the on-screen experience. The quality and stability of the images would have to match that of global streamers. It is especially hard during the coronavirus crisis because of the calls to reduce streaming bandwidth, particularly in Europe, given the increased demands on the Internet. Gröner quips, “The Munich opera recently went online and you have the opportunity to see actors freeze on stage.”

Another consideration was rolling out online streams, and the question of how much to price per stream. “Other companies throughout the world have educated their consumers on a subscription model, and now we would want them to pay stream-by-stream,” says Gröner. “We would also want to share revenues, probably with cinemas that are currently out of action, and that would be difficult to convince the audience to pay for each stream.”

They also debated how they would allow audiences to access films. Gröner believes the best way to mimic the festival experience is streaming at a specific time to leverage appointment viewing, rather than a VOD model. “Television seems to be closer to the experience of festivals than VOD,” says Gröner. “You have to be there at a specific time, or you’ll miss it.”

There was also a concern about the fate of independent films. “One of our core missions is to support small German films, and if you put a film like that out in the digital sphere, I fear it might get lost,” says Gröner. “Whereas if I have the right audience in the right cinema at a specific moment with good trade journalists interested, I can suddenly do something for a film.”

Then came the question of the community experience. Film festivals forge a community of cinephiles, where people can meet and discuss films. “Most importantly, we are creators of the now,” states Gröner. “Munich is all about being on the sunny side of life, audiences sitting beside the river, in the beer gardens, and then going back to the cinema. That is something you can’t transport to the digital space.”

Throw into this mix filmmaker introductions, and post-screening Q&As, and suddenly, “This is costing a lot of money with not much visibility on the outcome,” says Gröner.

Ultimately, rather than go forward on the 2020 edition, Gröner says it is best, “to go into thinking mode, a strategic and development mode, and come back next year with new elements added that would enhance the experience of being together, interacting and communicating.”


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