Let’s stop pretending they count
Word came down last fall that the Seattle Film Festival, the country’s largest, would happen in April 2021, and would exist exclusively online. SIFF did this, they said, “to feature films in advance of the 2021 Academy Awards and encourage audiences to engage virtually before the Seattle weather gets nice.”
This seemed like a strange choice. You can never guarantee nice weather in Seattle, or anywhere. But SIFF usually runs in May or June, when Seattle has pretty good weather odds. Also, though it’s no guarantee, it seems somewhat likely that the COVID pandemic will be in retreat by June. All festivals need to plan ahead, but why change the schedule on purpose to guarantee no human interaction, when, by June, some human interaction might be possible? If it’s not, and they had to, they could pivot. The entire world pivoted to Zoom in about a week last March.
If you have to go virtual, fine. But no one actually likes virtual festivals. Like everything related to virtual COVID culture, virtual festivals suck. They’re not even actually festivals. They’re virtually nothing, just another waypost in our endlessly Zooming content void. Cultural products that depend on festivals for exposure are already up against tough odds. Making the festivals virtual multiply that struggle tenfold. It’s like starting every at-bat with two strikes. Why shoot yourself during the first reel?
Festivals are about people
People who go to film festivals do so because they love film. But they also love watching movies in the presence of other people. And a lot of people attend film festivals not only as fans, but as professionals. They go to promote, to make deals, to schmooze, and to have late-night conversations about film with their peers, their fans, and random strangers. Consuming content in the lonely confines of your apartment and watching awkward, boring Zoom conversations with other people trapped in the lonely confines of their apartments is not a festival. A virtual festival isn’t a celebration of culture, it’s a retreat from culture. And we’ve all had enough retreat from culture in the last year.
But at least with virtual film festivals, you can watch films. While I prefer seeing movies in the theater, there’s certainly something to be said for being able to pause films for bathroom breaks and not dealing with other people’s mouth noises. But other kinds of cultural festivals make zero sense in the virtual format.
As an author of great international fame, I’ve been lucky enough to attend many book festivals over the last two decades. Though my experience may not be universal, my favorite part of those festivals isn’t watching other writers read from and talk about their work. My most memorable moments came when gossiping with peers over drinks, or eating a churro, or watching jealously as that guy’s line of people who want autographs grows to twice the size of mine. None of that is possible with virtual book festivals. It’s just an endless series of awkwardly-filmed author talks. You’d be better off reading a book. Or watching a film. Virtual book festivals aren’t festivals. They’re just a catalog of Zoom calls.
It’s almost impossible to quantify how much culture we’ve lost during the pandemic. Every kind of festival has gone online, leading to some deep absurdities. The Rio Grande Valley bird-watching festival streamed live in November for people who enjoy watching birds on Facebook. Who among us didn’t delight in the online Chanukah festival in suburban Detroit? My hometown of Austin, Texas, which bases half its economy on live festivals, featured an online art festival this fall to replace its booming “East” and “West” studio tours that are normally so large they blot out the sun. This year, it was just a bunch of sad livestreams of painters sitting in their garages.
Speaking of Austin, which people do a lot in Austin, no type of festival suffers more from the virtual-festival curse than the music festival. South By Southwest was the first major cancellation of the COVID era, and only an act of the gods would cause SXSW to be anything less than totally online this year. The virtualizing of SXSW crushed the local economy, threw thousands out of work, and shattered the tenuous dreams of musicians around the world.
No amount of live-streaming and passing around the virtual coin bucket can substitute for the thrill of playing in front of a live audience of anywhere between five and 5,000 people. This year’s Austin City Limits Festival, which mixed live-streamed performances with highlights of past festivals, was a pathetic ghost whisper of festivals past. Maybe countless thousands watched and enjoyed it. But there’s no way they enjoyed it as much as they would have an actual festival.
Some good can possibly emerge from our era of virtual festivals. We now have the technology to put them on, lame as they might be. And it might allow people who can’t travel, or can’t afford to travel, access to certain cultural experiences. My wife has enjoyed a couple of New York gallery art talks. I’ve attended some author events hosted by bookstores 1000 miles away from me and a handful of virtual concerts. When the pandemic ends–and it will end–hopefully festivals will continue to offer virtual options atop the regular festival events. I long to see Adam Gopnik interview David Remnick about Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker Festival without having to actually attend, as long as they don’t let Jeffrey Toobin in on the call.
No one’s going to throw an in-person festival right now, or even three months from now. We’re going to limp along virtually until then, but we don’t have to pretend it’s worth much. Virtual festivals need to stop existing the first day they possibly can. Until we can have actual festivals, let’s not have any festivals at all. Like everyone else, I long for the day when you all can annoy me in person again.