With all due respect to the streamers who kept us distracted during the pandemic, movies were meant to be seen on the big screen, in the company of others and, ideally, debated and dissected with fellow cinephiles as we exit the theater.
Cautiously reopening megaplexes have restored that experience to some degree, although film festivals have been a bit more cautious to return, given that they bring together audiences from all over the world — the perfect petri dish within which a virus might spread. Now, after a year of COVID-induced cancellations and online-only backup plans, the world’s leading showcases are back in business. Sort of.
Cannes was the first major festival to offer more than just outdoor screenings (though the Berlinale and Tribeca made valiant efforts to present plein-air alternatives to the public). One could sense that Cannes topper Thierry Frémaux didn’t want to be outdone by Venice (which had proceeded with an in-person event last summer) and threw caution to the wind, delivered a supersized lineup — considerably more movies than the fest would show in a normal year — with minimal COVID restrictions: basically just adding masks to the notoriously strict dress code (bow ties for men, formal shoes for women).
It felt great to gather again on the Croisette, but frustrating as well, as the few protocols being followed had been put in place to meet government mandates rather than commonsense safety guidelines (like asking foreigners to take spit tests in order to access the spacious Palais, while packing unchecked audiences like sardines into the Lumière auditorium).
Taking place over Labor Day weekend high in the Colorado Rockies, the Telluride Film Festival adopted a more logical strategy: Since the event is held in a relatively isolated locale, organizers opted to treat it like a giant bubble, obliging anyone attending screenings to present a negative PCR test before collecting a badge. That meant audiences — sparser than usual, many returning to movie theaters for the first time in more than a year — could focus on the screen, rather than whether they might die from the stranger coughing somewhere in the dark.
In Venice, the festival insisted on social distancing, ensuring an empty-seat buffer between people by instructing attendees to reserve their tickets in advance. That cut down on spontaneity, making it hard to dash into a movie last-minute for those who like to adapt on the fly, but also ensuring a safer experience for everyone — and it seems to have worked, in terms of attracting top talent to the premieres (Telluride had a tougher time with this, as Riz Ahmed, one of three Silver Medallion honorees, and others couldn’t enter the country).
Toronto was late to commit to its own strategy, crippling its usual position as an awards season launchpad by waiting till the eleventh hour to announce how (or even whether) the festival would happen. As a result, most of the higher-profile contenders — movies like “Dune” and “The Last Duel” — opted to world premiere overseas instead. While TIFF organizers didn’t discourage press and industry figures from attending, they made it easy to stay home, offering a hybrid in-person/online program. With the city only freshly emerging from one of the world’s longest lockdowns, the event protected its patrons with a reserved-seat system. By showing half the usual number of films at a fraction of the old capacity, TIFF found a way to responsibly deliver the appreciative communal experience for which the North American festival is known.
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