The show must go on, even in the socially distanced era of COVID-19. While shelter-in-place orders and travel restrictions saw the Cannes Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival postponed indefinitely, the virtual We Are One Film Festival was created as a direct response to these obstacles.
A joint effort by YouTube and Tribeca Enterprises, the festival ran from May 29 to June 7 and featured selections from 21 festival organizers, free of charge (excluding optional donations to COVID-19 relief). We Are One was far from the first online film festival, but its timeliness and scale turned it into an unprecedented event. For YouTube’s chief business officer, Robert Kyncl, the festival acted as a worldwide platform for showcasing independent creators and maintaining the communal spirit of physical, in-person film festivals.
Should We Are One set the standard for COVID-19-era film festivals? That depends on what attendees — most importantly, the filmmakers involved — want from these events in the first place. Some perceive film festivals primarily as a chance to connect with like-minded people; others look to make a deal with companies that can distribute their work. While most of the film community understands the necessity of switching to online services during the pandemic, there has been much debate over how virtual events like We Are One can best support indie filmmakers.
For attendees, We Are One was a refreshingly democratized film festival. The absence of an admission fee coupled with YouTube’s wide-reaching platform allowed typically exclusive indie films to be admired by a much larger audience than the average physical film festival. Because of this newfound accessibility, viewers of We Are One that are now attuned to the indie market feel a greater inclination to attend physical film festivals or explore indie titles in the future.
On the creators’ side, most of the festival’s featured content was still from extremely selective film festivals (for instance, all of the “Big Five”). However, it is worth noting that We Are One featured less commonly acknowledged formats of video storytelling, such as “video essays,” a medium that is popular within YouTube and is essentially an interpretive commentary on an existing film or scene. The YouTube channel “Lessons from the Screenplay” was featured in We Are One for a video essay analyzing Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” The festival also featured a VR category, in which a viewer could use YouTube’s built-in virtual reality interface to interact with a film directly. This broader, tech-savvy approach to the film festival format fits perfectly with the online origin of We Are One and presents an opportunity for a wider range of content creators to engage with the film community.
John Levy, an independent filmmaker from Novato, California, and recent We Are One attendee, was enthusiastic about the idea of having an online audience. While he expressed a deep appreciation for physical film festivals — specifically the “unparalleled” experience of being able to meet others who relate to the film development process, make connections or simply converse passionately about film as an art — Levy also noted the disappointment many of his colleagues have faced in attending their own festival screenings. “I hear filmmakers tell me all the time, ‘Oh, there were only eight people in the theatre.’”
The format of We Are One presents a unique opportunity for low-budget indie filmmakers to bypass this obstacle. An online copy of a film could potentially reach hundreds or even thousands more than it could in a single festival showing, especially if it is being promoted and curated alongside other similar works. Of course, We Are One operated on a very selective basis, being composed of works from some of the most elite film festivals on Earth, but the general concept of online curation has already been used to successfully bring indie films to interested audiences. Sites like No Budge and Short of the Week have already proven that there is a thriving indie film community online, and echo Kyncl’s vision for YouTube’s role in events beyond We Are One: “The role that YouTube can play for all the festivals in the future is, we can extend their reach.”
When Levy was asked whether he would be comfortable having one of his short films premiere worldwide online — which was the case for 13 different films in We Are One — it did not take long for him to decide. “I’m a real small filmmaker, getting premiered anywhere is the whole idea.” Even if the film in question was a full-length, feature film? “Even a feature film.”
The subject of online premieres has become a battleground of opinions following the announcement of We Are One. The excitement and apprehension that met the idea of an online debut reveal an interesting disparity between filmmakers and their views regarding online film festivals. For some indie artists — chiefly low-budget filmmakers who are not looking for formal distribution of their work, but instead post their content online for free — an online premiere seems like an obvious benefit. If the artist’s content is going to be on the internet anyway, or at the very least not directly monetized anywhere, any public showing of the film in question only boosts its impact — there is nothing to lose.
For indie filmmakers that are looking for a distribution deal (usually for feature films), online premiers and festivals like We Are One sit in an uncomfortable gray area. On one hand, the publicity and buzz about an online premiere could greatly increase the reputation of a filmmaker’s work, thus making it a more notable property for distribution companies to acquire.
On the other hand, as pointed out by Petaluma, California filmmaker and producer Cathy Maley, any film that is intended to be distributed for monetary gain could drastically lose value by premiering online. Being featured on a platform like We Are One runs the risk of piracy, with YouTube downloading sites now being commonplace. While Maley admired the technological progress made in festivals like We Are One and supports the concept of online film festivals, it was clear that the potential for piracy was a deal-breaker: “It’s 2020, [online film festivals are] the future … I think it’s inviting and at the same time, you need to be cautious about the safety of your own film.”
A recent article by producer and distribution consultant Brian Newman revealed a parallel sentiment when he said, “[Distribution companies] do not see [online premieres] as word-of-mouth building, or good PR, or a way to test/prove audience demand. They see it as a distraction at best, and lost income, or a loss of control or a loss of premiere status at worst.” Even beyond the risk of piracy, distributors consider the element of interest for low-budget filmmakers — widespread and long-term viewership — as a lost opportunity for an artist to sell to their target audience.
While the filmmaking community may be split when it comes to the viability of online premieres, there is one consensus that has rung true throughout, exemplified in Peter Bradshaw’s recent Guardian article: “People will want to go back to the flesh and blood experience, to see the films on the big screen … people will want to talk about films: talk about them over coffee, over lunch, in the street outside in the cinema. That is the festival experience.” Virtually no one sees We Are One and similar events as a substitute for physical film festivals and all the discussions, screenings, panels, coffee talks and networking mixers that accompany them.
Not even YouTube itself sees We Are One as a surrogate for Cannes, Tribeca or any of the other prominent film festivals that — beyond screening movies — provide an environment for filmmakers to express themselves. While We Are One offered many pre-recorded lectures, a chat room and several live Q&A events for its audiences, these do not equate to the delightful randomness of meeting an equally passionate artist on a walk to the next screening, or trying to “see the film in the filmmaker” after watching someone’s work, as Levy put it. Even with Cannes’ upcoming Marché du Film Online, which will provide opportunities to attend virtual conferences, meetings and discussions in a more bustling, almost simulated festival environment, many doubt that events like it will be able to emulate the full, immersive festival experience.
But perhaps that was not the point. Perhaps it is closed-minded to judge online festivals solely by the metric of other, physical festivals and their respective attributes. While there has been intense disagreement surrounding the future of online film festivals, We Are One has kept the world talking about them. We Are One was never intended to replace Cannes or Tribeca or Sundance. Instead, it has acted as a “to be continued” message for the festival market, a reminder to all that creativity can blossom in even the direst circumstances, and people will continue to recognize it.