By Mark Peranson
A lot has happened just in the past few months in the film biz, considering that a fair number of us still aren’t supposed to leave our homes for non-essential reasons, cinemas still remain closed in many places at the time of writing, and publications still insist on releasing top-ten lists before the year is over. We are going through the process of forced adaptation, which is, pace Sontag, like a foreign object entering a body and the body having to react and adapt, hopefully for the positive, which is what is happening metaphorically in the film world right now. The idea of a vaccine presumes that once we have reached herd immunity, things can go back to the way things were…is that the way it will work in the distribution and exhibition world? That’s what Warner Bros. seems to think. (After all, the mostly virus-free China is going just fine, unless you are the producers of Monster Hunter.) But what if the shift to streaming is a virus that keeps mutating and can’t be stopped? Do we really want to make movies great again? Can we?
As I write and you read, it’s become clear that we will have a full year without a “normal” festival circuit, with Berlin being the latest to have to modify plans for a public event. As someone who was involved in trying to think of how a festival could possibly function without an online component, I can attest that these issues remain problematic and the current results are compromises that, as it is in their nature, please nobody. Much more detail is required to hash this out, and festivals have different qualities, but in a nutshell, festivals have two reasons to exist: to present films to a viewing public (whether in or outside a cinema doesn’t seems to matter currently, so let’s dispense with a collective, in-person experience as a necessary component), and, here I would say more importantly, choose which films to present.
The idea of a festival as a firewall seems to be stating the obvious, but 2020 has answered the question: what if you throw a film festival and nobody shows up? The curatorial purpose of film festivals, and how they can play a part in a changing distribution landscape—by highlighting films and providing the initial platform for presenting them to the industry and an international audience (domestic audiences will matter less and less, it’s just a fact)—is the reason why we’re all struggling to keep them going when it would just be easier, and less financially crippling, to flat out cancel not only 2020 but also 2021. This remains essential, as otherwise we’ll just leave it entirely up to Netflix et al. to determine what will be available to be seen. Because even if the actual vaccine does its work, the virus has infiltrated this business and it will keep mutating.
Which brings me back to thinking about the purpose of a film magazine like this, which some folks would say has outlived its usefulness, and failed to adapt to changes in things like, but not exclusive to, film criticism—the rapidity with which people online insult, debate, insult, conclude, then move on within a week of a film being released (or dropped) until the next hot topic comes around, and which will spiral as global piracy enters its golden age. Though some new films have been released (or dropped) in the past year, which even made it possible for us to put together a “Fall Festival Spotlight” (laugh if you wish, but a lot of work was done to keep these festivals alive), there has certainly been a shift to writing about films that people who aren’t global travellers have the chance to see, sooner, though without the rush to throw something online within the week. Or even, as we see in the pages that follow, to pick up a book, which doesn’t just mean “reading film criticism” in the traditional sense, but sometimes treating a book as a film. However tantalizing the prospect is theoretically, I don’t think that it’s possible to have a film magazine where nobody shows up to read, so let me conclude with another plea for support, because maybe the sole thing that is within our control is to continue to resist together.