How an independent film festival thrives during dark times

The cultural sector was dramatically hit by the COVID19 pandemic, a rather evident fact. The film industry — and particularly film festivals was one of the branches that suffered the most. As one can imagine, the story is a bit different for independent, smaller organizations that already fight to thrive without a world pandemic going around. Vulture, the entertainment news branch of the New York Magazine looked at how some of the main film festivals are dealing or dealt with their 2020 editions. Some of them had to be canceled, some carried on with new sanitary restrictions, and some created their own platforms for an online edition. It was exactly what the organizers of Écu — The European Independent Film Festival did for its 15th edition in the dystopian year of 2020.

Écu is a festival based in Paris, France. It was founded in 2006 by Australian filmmaker Scott Hillier. CultureXChange interviewed the festival’s current manager Giedre Bumbulyte to understand what kind of conversation happens in the room when a world pandemic hits the industry and about the importance of a film festival in this streaming-cinema age.

2016 edition of the Festival ® Photo Courtesy of ÉCU – The European Independent Film Festival

CultureXChange: What’s the importance of the festival for you?
Giedre Bumbulyte: There was not really such a thing as “an independent film festival” on a European level. We all know about Sundance, which was super independent back in the day (although now that’s debatable) — but there was no such thing on the European level. It was created with exactly that idea: If I’m a student and I make a film, where do I send it to? As we know, there are so many festivals they can submit to — like a national film festival and small specific ones. But here in Europe if you wanted to just run for the “Best independent film” or “Best independent student film”, there was no way to do it. Then, if you win the best independent European film, you have a little thing of your own: “hey, this won the best European independent film”. Rather than saying this won the “slam dance” film award. “Ok, so what is slam dance again?” If you don’t know, you don’t know. It was thought of on that premise, and it’s been 15 years that we’re continuing with it, this whole idea of discovering, projecting, and awarding the best independent films from all around the world (although European ones are the focus at the end of the day).

CXC: How does the European factor weigh-in for its importance — rather than a festival for a specific country, language, or category?
GB: We do go to a lot of — well, did: COVID — we did go to a lot of film festivals, and with all due respect: I come from Lithuania. If I talk about a Lithuanian film festival in Paris you probably wouldn’t care. That’s the case for a lot of people. But there’s also the difference in categories. There’s one film festival in the UK that I attend every year, and they screen their films by separating blocks into categories. So you have an hour and a half of shorts, an hour and a half of documentaries, an hour and a half of music videos. I love music videos, but would I go to specifically watch music videos for an hour and a half? Probably not. I would just go “oh it’s a music video, I’m just gonna go on YouTube, right?”. So there is the fact that we have these differences in categories and differences in countries. When we program the festival to screen them, we mix it up. So you have a chance to really go from A to Z, all over the rainbow.

CXC: About the current pandemic: What was the conversation like for you guys when this started to solidify?
GB: We kept hearing about the virus and Italy was particularly bad. We had all this Italian staff around the table and they didn’t know what to do about it. It was still not as bad in France, the mood was more “ça va aller”, we’re gonna keep moving. Then it came the day when Macron gave the official announcement: “ok, lockdown”. So all our staff went quickly overnight. I was just sitting here with Scott [Hillier, festival’s director and founder] in the office and we just went… “Right. Here our options: we either postpone it, or we do it online.” We didn’t really want to do the restricted thing because there were a lot of filmmakers planning to come, crew members planning to come and no one really knew what the situation was going to be, so that was out of the picture. We didn’t want to postpone it either because we thought “fine, everyone’s postponing it to September and October… Nobody knows what’s gonna happen then, and there are going to be thousands of film festivals happening at the same time.” So the online option seemed like the way to go.

CXC: Were you already deep into the organizing for this edition?
GB: At the time, there had been a couple of weeks that we already had all of the films selected. We had all the approvals, we’re downloading DCPs, and had all the additional files and everything was flowing. Cancelation was not an option, that’s for sure. So we ended up sending letters to the filmmakers saying “we don’t know what’s going to happen in France, you don’t know what’s going to happen in your country, so here are the options and let us know what you think.” We opened this dialogue with all of them, and we had about 87 Films to be screened. We specified that if you don’t want your film to be seen online but want to compete for the awards, that’s absolutely ok. We will make sure to do a password protected thing, and everything in our power to make sure that your film is not going to get pirated. There were a couple of filmmakers who didn’t want their films screened but wanted to compete for the award, there were filmmakers who wanted out of the festival altogether. A couple of them pulled out — which is understandable. But a lot of the filmmakers were actually really really ok with the idea and didn’t want to have yet another festival postponed. Many of them had spent a year making a film and just wanted to get it done, wanted it screened and move on because so many festivals were postponed to the fall. It just wasn’t working for them.

Giedre Bumbulyte representing ÉCU at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival ®

CXC: Filmmakers who had that chance for the first time…
GB: Exactly, filmmakers in that exact position in which all they had were postponed submissions like “Damn, I just spent so much time making this thing and now I have to postpone it”. Another thing with film festivals is that a lot of them are requiring a specific finish date for the submitted film. So your film could not be finished later than “xx/zz/yyyy” to compete for this year’s edition. A lot of them were borderline on the date. Then lockdown happened, and we just happened to run the film festival out of our own separate houses, whether in France, Italy, or the US and it actually went really well.

CXC: Objectively, If you could put the amount of work in balance and compare, how would you talk about the online edition versus the live ones?
GB: I’m gonna start with the positive. Two cool things — and there were a lot of cool surprises — happened with the online festival. Number one: It reached an amazing number of people. Normally we have a maximum of 3 thousand people passing through the festival in the cinema. Over these four days online we had about 7 thousand people logging in. That was incredible. We were one of the first festivals to go online, just because of our date timing with the pandemic, which was interesting. The second cool thing was the Q&As, which were great because we had most of the filmmakers this time. Not all of them, but we got most of them in to talk about their films. This normally wouldn’t happen because they’d have to come to the festival in person and a lot of them can’t, obviously. I would say we normally get about 40% of the filmmakers to come during the live editions, but now we had about… 85 or 90% of them joining on the Q&A. Which is absolutely great. We did have to prep and pre-record them and then edit them together and put it into the software that we were screening in, there was a lot of work. But it was absolutely worth it. I am a little bit upset that we missed out on the live opportunity of the Q&A. But the truth is we did not want to do it live first because it was our first time doing it, and second, because we wanted to avoid the whole thing of logging in and “hey – hey, can you hear me — hello, hello?”. Or when someone sort of freezes for a long time, I just hate these technical problems. We really wanted to avoid them and it would be annoying for people to watch and for the moderator to conduct.

Trailer for ÉCU’s 2020 online edition

CXC: Although this year’s streaming video was an ally, is it normally something you think about? Do you get scared of losing the relevancy in the world as a festival in a way?
GB: There are two answers I can give you: Platforms like Netflix, Mubi, etc… They’re always going to be a bit of an issue. For a lot of people — perhaps the majority would think “why would I go to the cinema for random weird-quirky independent films when I can go on Netflix from the comfort of my own couch and know what I’m gonna get out of them?”. Because of this, we’re always trying to find the people that would actually be interested in this kind of thing. I personally never considered running the festival online before. I know Scott has, but we never approached it. This year, one of the coolest things was that we could reach people from all around the world. And also the way we set up the program was that if your film is from Australia or China it will be screened in the morning and if it’s from the US it will be screened at night. All done so that the filmmakers in their timezone could access it and see it along with their friends. One of the things that popped up in the conversations after the festival was “why don’t we do it simultaneously both in the cinema and online next year?” so that we could reach all these people. I’m still hesitant about it. We do this tour already called ‘Écu on the road’ which takes these films around the world to be screened in different places. So if you’re from Brazil and you can’t come, why don’t we organize a screening in Brazil? I also think that for the filmmakers, especially for feature films, they do the festival run and they have to get distributed. So you have to find a distributor and for that, you can’t risk your film being online. Normally for them, it’s a no-no but this might have changed this year. So many film festivals went online and they saw it’s actually doable if you do it through a password protected program and no one can download it in any way. For us as well, because no matter how good the online screening goes, it can never replace the actual physical experience of when you meet people, talk to them, ask questions… That’s a fact. You can’t replace it. I know for a fact that Écu will never go fully online and we just did it very exceptionally this year because of the circumstances. But with this idea of reaching so many more people, we just have to have a much smaller team to run this thing online as we go along. It wouldn’t be one or two thousand people in the cinema anymore. And I also feel like at the beginning of the pandemic there were people tuning in to watch other film festivals, thinking “this is something new, this is exciting, ‘cause although I can go back to Netflix anytime, this is an event!”. There were literally people dressing up, putting their tuxedos on, and holding a glass of champagne. I feel like it has worn out now that this momentum has passed. I still think that the way everybody sees online events has changed dramatically. We don’t know how it will continue. On one hand, I do believe that it has changed and people liked and approved of it and don’t see it as evil as they did before. On the other hand, we know that people now have pandemic fatigue. Everyone’s sick of this thing, everyone’s sick of sitting at home, of wearing masks and social distancing… And they just wanna go out and do things, and not sit at home and be a part of yet another zoom event. So I honestly don’t know what the world of events is gonna look like even in six months’ time. We’ll have to wait and see.

CXC: Was there ever a concern about the point of doing it at all, once it went online?
GB: Ideologically, no. Again, the goal is still to screen the world’s best independent films. And what we did was just to move to a different platform. Which allowed us to reach a lot of people. The events we do are relatively small and cozy, it has its own vibe… We tried to transmit that digitally as much as could, hopefully, it worked a bit — it’s not up to us to judge. But from the ideological point of view, we just keep on carrying our flag. It’s important for us to support the small independent filmmaking even through the craziness of these times.

How an independent film festival thrives during dark times

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