IDFA Festival Chief Vows to Show All Films in Theaters, Regardless of Audience Size (EXCLUSIVE)

When the world first went into lockdown in March, few had any idea how the coronavirus pandemic would affect the world of film festivals. Even now, the template is a movable feast; after Cannes became almost entirely notional, offering its selection a boutique “label” instead of screenings, Venice—against all odds—mounted a successful physical edition, while Toronto opted for a halfway house involving cinemas and streaming. IDFA will follow the latter’s example, but artistic director Orwa Nyrabia is keen to insist that, at this year’s festival, every film will receive a physical premiere, no matter how small the audience.

“It seems that many people are speculating [about us],” he told Variety, “and some rumours went around that we are cancelling our physical activities altogether, which is causing a lot of misunderstanding and confusion. The main point [of this year’s event] is the idea of protecting the first encounter between the film and an audience, no matter how many are allowed in. I’m trying to make it a good experience for the filmmakers.”

Variety spoke to Nyrabia in advance of the announcement of IDFA’s competition lineup, which will take place on Oct. 28.

How prepared were you for the events of this year?

We’ve been working since March on this, so we are very prepared for various scenarios. We’ve not really been rattled by the changes, and we are still going to be flexible, should things change. For the online possibilities, we worked together with the other Dutch festivals, such as Rotterdam, the Netherlands Film Festival and Cinekid, and together we developed an online platform, a solution for holding our activities online. That includes film screenings and ticketing, and also creates one interface for all the different services that are needed for our festival, like the video conferencing tool, the online talks and panels tools, the film screenings, and the Q&As. We are consolidating, or aggregating, all of these different services into one user interface, so we are presenting a different integrated solution for taking the festival activities online.

How will this affect premieres?

Our mandate is not just to show the films—our mandate is to celebrate film and also new media. So while cinemas are open to, as of today, 30 persons per cinema only, we do not think that this is nothing. We think that the value of holding screenings in a cinema, even for a 30-person audience, is still a meaningful thing to do. So the current plan is simple: every film at IDFA will first get a theatrical screening, no matter how many audience members can safely attend. We will have very strict health and hygiene measures in place. But as long as cinemas are open, we are going to keep partnering with them, and with the distributors, and with the people we work with. We’re not going to just withdraw and go online while they are trying to stay open. And, on the other hand, we have seen a lot of frustration from the side of many filmmakers regarding their world premieres and international premieres being only online. So we are trying to offer this first experience, even if it’s symbolic.

And after that?

[After that] we will take the films online, in collaboration with the right-holders, and we will do two different things. First, there’ll be a revenue-sharing scheme in place that makes sure that they are actually getting a good part of the income. And, secondly, we are doing our online screenings in a very different way from others this year: we’re not providing our audience in the Netherlands with a VOD platform, we’re doing scheduled live-streams of the films. So there will be a normal festival schedule—a cineplex online—and you will choose what films you want to watch at what time and see what’s available, like a normal theatrical experience. And this way, we are hoping that we will make it a more collective experience for the audience and for the filmmakers, and have less of a sense of this virtual… [Pause] What to call it? This sense that we are lost in a digital world, and we don’t know who’s watching and when.

Are you inviting international guests such as talent and press?

We just have to follow the government recommendations on this. And currently there are only, I think, seven countries on the map that are colored in yellow, which means that a visitor from these countries to the Netherlands will not have to self-quarantine for 14 days before going out. However, almost every other country requires a 14-day self-quarantine, and, in principle, we cannot invite people to come and wait 14 days before the festival. When it is possible, we will welcome the guests, but a lot of what we are going to do, outside of film screenings, is going to be online, including most of our talks and most of our activities. And even our industry activities will be completely online. We are sad to say that being at IDFA physically in Amsterdam for international guests is not going to be the same experience as before. But we are preparing a lot for internationally accredited guests and press through our new online platform.

Aside from the pandemic, was this a normal year in terms of the selection?

We were already revamping our selection process, so it was quite a special time, because we were already starting a new system where we’d changed the viewing and selection process and put together a selection committee for every section of IDFA’s film program. And it was a very dramatic thing, because we were trying to compare with last year. And we could sense a general frustration in the industry, because we started to get [fewer] films all of a sudden. However, the thing that gave us energy, really, was that we were so humbled by the quality. I think this is a year in documentary film that is so impressive that, as a festival director, you cannot just think only about the interests of the festival, or about what suits us, because there’s a big number of exceptionally good films that clearly confirm the value of this thing we are all doing. And so we have to do our best. The great work of filmmakers forced us to do the best possible job.

(See link here for the full statement from IDFA.)

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