Tabitha Jackson has had a helluva year. Back in January, the filmmaker got married on the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival, where she headed the documentary program for six years. At the festival’s close a week later, she was named director of the whole thing. That was February, and by this point you know where this story is heading. Jackson watched as other festivals in Toronto and New York went (mostly) online and tried to reengineer what Sundance would look like in a pandemic.
When Sundance kicks off on January 28, it will look unlike any other in the festival’s 42-year history. Yes, the coronavirus vaccine has begun rolling out in the US, but the process is expected to take months; it’s unthinkable right now to usher thousands of people into Park City, Utah, for quaint snow-covered events as in years past. And so Jackson’s plan is a festival that takes place at several small independent theaters and drive-ins across the country, while the rest unfolds via virtual screenings, parties, and Q&As. If Covid cancels the in-person gatherings, that’s OK; the online fest continues. The point is flexibility and access.
“What I’m saying to myself is that this festival, the 2021 festival, is a big collaboration, it’s a grand experiment,” Jackson says. “We are trying to double down on our values and meet the moment in the way that we can. It’s not a blueprint yet. It’s an opportunity to gather evidence for what we might wish to see.”
A lot has been lost this year due to Covid-19: lives, jobs, important moments with family and friends. It has also put most forms of large in-person gatherings on hold. Concerts, film festivals, opening weekends at the multiplex—all of these things became potential super-spreader events. Some events, like South by Southwest and E3, got canceled or postponed. As the year went on, more moved online. For many people, it was a huge blow to have shared cultural experiences stripped away. For others, it meant their livelihoods were upended. But the pandemic also opened the door to creating events that, like Jackson’s, are available to a much larger and more diverse audience. And that could lay the groundwork for long-needed updates to traditional formats.
Using the lessons of the pandemic comes up often when talking to event organizers. Like anyone, their lives would be easier if everything was just like it was in 2019. But even back then, events like Comic-Cons were starting to lose their appeal as fandoms splintered and Hollywood studios wavered in their loyalty. Reimagining events, then, becomes not only an opportunity to address the issues created by lockdowns, but also the ones that have been plaguing cultural events for years. Like, say, accessibility. Not everyone can afford to travel to comics conventions or film festivals (or concerts or car shows or whatever). Some people don’t like crowds, or are unable to physically maneuver in them. Having events that stream online or in some form of XR gives some folks—the ones who have broadband, at least—more chances to participate.
New York Comic Con, for example, streamed all of its big panels on YouTube in 2020, allowing people stuck at home to watch from all over the globe. That made online “attendance” significantly larger than it was in past years—typically a big NYCC panel would have 5,600 people watching live and another 10,000 viewing online; in 2020, the average views per panel were around 60,000—and, according to Kristina Rogers, NYCC’s event director, it helped bring more people into the NYCC fold, and into nerdom in general. “That’s a silver lining for us,” she says.
Virtual panels and similar events have their own glitches, of course. “We have established,” Rogers says ruefully, “that everybody has terrible internet everywhere, and getting five people on the same video call and not having one of them drop off is practically impossible.”
Another thing that’s proven wildly popular at virtual events? Online gaming. ReedPop, the company that puts on NYCC, also produces the PAX video game conventions. This year, those conventions morphed into PAX Online, which streamed on Twitch, YouTube, Facebook Live, and other platforms. The event also had a very active Discord server, something that could easily be set up for future nongaming events, allowing “attendees” to break off to play Among Us or other games between sessions.
Bringing big Twitch energy has been a goal for event organizers of all kinds this year—including even political ones. While the Trump campaign continued to hold large in-person rallies and other events—with predictable public health results—Democratic candidates up and down the ballot shifted their campaign operations online. The party’s national convention this summer felt like a Zoom call. Fundraisers, meanwhile, happened on all sorts of digital platforms.
Much like watching a Verzuz battle on Instagram Live, people who engage with political theater—or any kind of theater—online want to be able to interact, says Eli Stonberg, CEO of Hovercast, which helped organize livestreams for Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. Unlike many one-way streams, Hovercast’s tools made the events interactive—sharing comments and questions from people in the audience within the broadcast. “Zoom was OK right when the pandemic hit, but pretty soon after folks wanted something that was more interactive and engaging,” Stonberg says. Ultimately, Hovercast wants to offer its platform for all kinds of live events, like concerts and panels, allowing viewers to comment on them as they’re happening and even project those chats onstage with the show.
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Even with all the successes of virtual events this year, organizers are eager to be able to host more traditional in-person gatherings again. “We’ve now done a bunch of online conventions across our video game shows, some esports stuff, and NYCC, and what we’ve found is that pretty consistently the fans really like it,” says ReedPop president Lance Fensterman. “But they’re not in love with it. The missing element is not surprising: It’s that shared emotional experience.” It’s the physical, tangible benefits of conventions, like conversations with strangers or sharing cosplay, that are still difficult to replicate when everyone is remote.
Concerts, conventions, festivals, and other events are also big business, bringing millions of dollars not just to the companies that put them on but to local economies. In 2020, Sundance brought some $150 million to Park City. Music festivals Coachella and Stagecoach generated more than $700 million just a few years ago. That money doesn’t get spent if people physically can’t show up. Canceling SXSW, for example, led to an estimated $350 million hit to tourism income for the city of Austin. Lots of people will want to see these events come back in person as soon as it’s safe.
That’s not to say everything will look exactly the same. Some events won’t be coming back at all. Earlier this month, for example, ReedPop announced that it “retired” BookExpo and BookCon. And even the events that do return to business as usual could still see some changes, thanks to the lessons, and opportunities, of 2020.
Shari Frilot, who runs the forward-looking New Frontiers segment of Sundance, admits that while planning a film festival in a pandemic proved challenging, it also “felt like an opportunity to do something brand-new.” She was able to move a lot of her programming online and, thanks to a partnership with Oculus, get all of the filmmakers VR headsets. Typically, directors only got to experience New Frontier’s XR offerings if they went to a dedicated space at the festival; now all of them can join. Perhaps that’s a cold comfort, but it connects creatives in a way they maybe wouldn’t have otherwise.
For both Frilot and her compatriot Jackson, Sundance’s mission of highlighting filmmakers' work has taken on new meaning in the midst of the pandemic. “At a time like this, things don’t make sense. How do we make meaning from it?” Jackson says. “So in that sense, even during the most fleeting moment of thinking, ‘Should we even be putting on a film festival in times such as these?’ the answer came back a resounding, ‘Yes.’ That’s what we’re here for.’”