The Cheltenham International Film Festival was on course to launch the second edition of the film festival; the dates had been set for 25th May to 30th May. All changed on 23rd March when the government announced the lockdown. The organisers quickly had to consider options; in order to maintain the brand, cancellation was out of the question. In the end, it was decided to put the festival up online which ran from 8 June-14 June.
Take the film festival online to audiences in their homes - locked down, self-isolating and social distancing
Keep to the spirit of an in-venue, live Festival experience
Further the overall aims of the Festival to screen the films of emerging filmmakers from around the world
Leave no audience behind – which an online festival is well placed to deliver
Maintain the brand identity of Cheltenham International Film Festival
Reached new audiences who had never attended a film festival and without the opportunity to watch newly-released, independent films from around the world.
Audiences recognised the online event as a ‘film festival’ and did not perceive it as just another streaming platform.
The online festival provided a diversion and escape for members of the audience in lockdown and in many instances isolated from loved ones.
Sharing the online festival with local, independent cinemas and film festivals closed because of the lockdown. They partnered with us as Virtual Screen Partners to promote the Festival on the basis of a commission on ticket sales.
Premiering the films of young and emerging filmmakers, from around the world, which had not been screened in the UK and were not available on other streaming platforms.
High number of films directed by women.
35 feature films from Iran to Canada from Bulgaria to China were screened plus a feature length reel of film shorts. The Festival premiered a number of films including the Canadian film, Antigone - Best Film and Best Actress (Nahéma Ricci) at the Canadian (“Genie”) Oscars and Canada’s entry to the Oscars. IMDb recognised the Festival for the UK release of the documentary, Scheme Birds .The Festival also screened critically-acclaimed, emerging filmmakers: Polish filmmaker, Bartosz Khulik (Supernova); In-betweeners actor, Simon Bird’s directorial debut (Days of The Bagnold Summer); and Iranian director, Mahnaz Mohammadi (Son-Mother), who has been imprisoned three times by the government, among others, for promoting women’s rights and whose film portrays the tragic circumstances of a mother balancing economic survival with cultural traditions.
The Festival partnered with local, independent cinemas from around the country, as well as film festivals, BFI film hubs, film societies, local authorities and organisations such as Cinema For All. Partners were designated as Virtual Screen Partners, to promote and direct traffic to the Festival web site in return for a commission on ticket sales. The Festival also agreed a partnership deal with the streaming platform, Shift 72, to host the Festival. Shift72 had established a reputation for security which was recognised by sales agents and distributors and a platform which was robust, simple and attractive.
Budget in brief
Our partnership with Shift72 provided a safe and secure platform which reassured sales agents and allowed us to access film titles for the festival programme.
Partnering with independent cinemas, film festivals, film societies and film organisations, as Virtual Screening Partners, worked well and gives us hope and inspiration that broadening and deepening this association re: other online film events is the way to go forward.
The Festival in its first year attracted a number of celebrated filmmakers, Mike Leigh, Jan Komasa, Josie Rourke and Steven Berkoff. In 2020, the association with more good ‘names’ – Simon Pegg and Simon Bird - as well as personalities such as Dom Jolly, who was on the film jury before the lockdown forced cancellation of the in-venue event, helped to raise the Festival profile via social media.
The Festival team’s rapid response to audience members with technical issues turned these viewers into solid supporters of the online festival.
What has been difficult
Going online gave concern to UK distributors who were less inclined to break the distribution window, and allow us to screen films online.
We had more success with international sales agents who had a more open mind to the online event, but getting a response was slow and in some instances, mainly with American sales agents, getting any response was impossible and non-existent.
As a new festival in its second year, we can be happy with the media exposure we received. On the other hand it was difficult to obtain media coverage relative to what we had achieved as a pioneer of online film festivals.
We were a small band of dedicated professionals with knowledge and experience of in-venue film festivals. The team did not have knowledge and/or experience of online events. This was a new venture; having to gain speed and take off in a very short period of time – from cancellation of in-venue event to going online. Difficult!
What you would do differently if you did it again
Given more time, which we did not have, we would seek to secure films for the programme earlier. This would allow for an earlier start to the sales & marketing programme.
We would start earlier with partnering independent cinemas and other film festivals as Virtual Screen Partners. We were operating within a short timeline but going forward we would initiate and seal partnerships much earlier in the day.
Balance films with more commercial appeal with films that are more challenging.
Awareness / Attitudes
“Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places, they open doors and minds”. Martin Scorsese.
Films that were selected for the Festival speak to today – socially, politically, culturally. Son-Mother (Mahnaz Mohammadi), portrays a woman’s place in Iranian society; Antigone (Sophie Deraspe) based on the Ancient Greek tragedy reveals the prejudice faced by immigrants in today’s Canada; One More Jump (Emanuel Gerosa) relates the frustrations of Palestinian youth. The above and other films programmed for the Festival provided an opportunity for audiences to view, consider and discuss the world we live in.
It is difficult to answer the question given the audience was virtual, but the Cheltenham International Film Festival, whether in-venue or online is open to all, promoted to all and welcomes all audiences to enjoy the selection of films we screen.
The selection of films reflects societies across the world, providing an insight into other cultures and gives view to issues related to the human spirit, socially, morally and materially, among others.
Knowledge & Experience
Integral to the film festival programme was and is education. In the spirit of a live, in-venue film festival, filmmaker Q&A sessions were organised after a select number of film screenings. The intention was to give insight into the filmmaker’s vision and approach to their films. In the event, we were delighted so much of our audience was composed of people under the age of 34. Likewise, the Festival continues to run workshops in the arts & crafts of filmmaking, originally scheduled to run during the Festival but because of the change from in-venue to online event, the workshops are now taking place online, following on as an extension of the Festival.
There is one word to define the change from in-venue to online and the gratitude of audiences – “lockdown”.
Lockdown has meant isolation. By going online the festival encouraged people in the community to interact during this difficult period of lockdown, self-isolation and social-distancing. A number of people wrote in to say that they would watch a film at the same time as friends – as in a festival – and would then Zoom to discuss the film they had just watched.
The impact on wellbeing is reflected in the response provided under Social Cohesion. The act of bringing people together at a time when social distancing was not only encouraged, but ordered by the government, helped to raise the wellbeing of people who have suffered through isolation. Human contact via Zoom with a shared experience of a film helped to raise spirits and “was a diversion during this lonely, difficult time”, as expressed by one audience member.
It was vital to move ahead with the second edition of the film festival. Had we not done so, it is likely that the festival would have died. Film festivals are integral to the social and economic well-being of a town, so our intention to maintain continuity was (and is) to draw audiences, near and far, towards independent cinema. Integral to the festival is to organise a programme of education directed at young people, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the event, we seek to bring economic and social benefits to the town and to the community.
What audiences said
The Festival received many emails from members of the public expressing similar views and thank you’s.
“My husband and I watched three films over consecutive nights and enjoyed them all, as well as the experience of a mini festival in our own home. It really cheered us up in the current circumstances."
“I would like to thank you for the opportunity to participate online in the Cheltenham International Film Festival. We had a fantastic time watching the films then catching up on Zoom to talk about them……”. “Many thanks, it was such a fun experience and a great distraction."
“Thank you for engineering such a wonderful online event. It was welcome as we have been unable to run our local film club during the current restrictions."
“A big thank you to you and all of your team for organising this online for us to enjoy. A few of us watched some of the films individually and then discussed afterwards on Zoom. I hope next year we will be able to visit Cheltenham in person for the film festival."
“Just want to say thanks to everyone who was involved in the festival. I thought the programme was excellent and although it was a shame not to be able to see the films on the big screen, at least watching online meant I could view more. Hope it all happens again next year."
“Thanks for setting up this festival and moving to online, a great selection of films to choose and the Q&As have been brilliant."
What professionals, press and partners said
“It pleases me that Cheltenham on becoming the first international film festival in the UK to go online to the British public is reaching out to audiences, many of whom never have the opportunity to visit a film festival or watch the best of new, independent films." - Simon Pegg
“You’re pioneers. Visionaries…….we appreciate you giving us the opportunity to offer interesting and valued film content to our audience. Looking forward to the next time!" - Martin Campbell, Programme Manager, Pound Arts, Wiltshire
“This could well be the future of film festivals in the short- to medium-term. Great selection, good prices, live Q&As, limited seating, timed availability, yet all from the comfort of your own home. I have already started buying my tickets and will be at the Q&A for the opening film tonight. I was going to really be missing Edinburgh later this month and so this comes at a most welcome time”. IMDb Founder, Col Needham
“This could well be the future of film festivals in the short- to medium-term. Great selection, good prices, live Q&As, limited seating, timed availability, yet all from the comfort of your own home. I have already started buying my tickets and will be at the Q&A for the opening film tonight. I was going to really be missing Edinburgh later this month and so this comes at a most welcome time." - IMDb Founder, Col Needham
Coverage was received in the local and national press, specialist and industry web sites, and broadcast and social media. All helped to raise the profile of the film festival.
BBC Radio Gloucestershire interviewed Simon Bird about his directorial debut (Days of The Bagnold Summer) with frequent references to the film festival. Bird said film festivals were “an absolutely crucial part of the independent film industry."
BBC Online gave us coverage (which remained onsite throughout) under the heading: Coronavirus: Simon Pegg opens Cheltenham virtual festival. Pegg said it was a “virtual homecoming” as he had grown up in Gloucestershire.
Gloucestershire Live (front page): “Gloucester-born actor Simon Pegg's new film will open Cheltenham International Film Festival - the UK's first International Film Festival to go online. The Hot Fuzz star's new film Lost Transmissions will open the Festival on Monday, June 8 and will take part in an audience question and answer after the film screening."
Punchline – Gloucestershire: “Simon Pegg will take part in a live Q&A after starring in the launch screening as Cheltenham International Film Festival kicks off online today…….Pegg, who was born in Brockworth and is the festival's honorary patron, stars with Juno Temple in Lost Transmissions at 6pm with the Q&A due to start at 7.50pm…….It is one of 41 screenings scheduled for the festival which closes on Sunday with a screening of White Riot, a documentary tracing the roots of Rock Against Racism."
Visit Cheltenham The Festival Town (front page): “Some exciting news. Rather than cancel the Cheltenham International Film Festival (CIFF) the organisers are taking the festival online." (The full programme was printed).
Eye For Film: Re-printed the full programme in its report about the Festival.
Sight & Sound magazine. “My association with Cheltenham International Film Festival is founded on a personal commitment to support and help to bring the best of independent cinema to the next generation of audience." - Simon Pegg
Screen Daily: Daily reference to the Festival
CfA SW eNewsletter: “Cheltenham International Film Festival invites you to participate in its online festival”; there was a report about reaching out to independent cinemas to become Virtual Screen Partners.
Bristol 247: “We have been impressed and excited by CIFF’s determination and hard work in pivoting the Festival online in response to the current crisis." - Tiffany Holmes, BFI South-West Hub
The Film Stage: Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago Review – A beautiful city symphony…….plays at Cheltenham International Film Festival this Friday, June 12.
Cheltenham Chamber of Commerce Newsletter: Video interview with Leslie Montgomery Sheldon.
Anna Smith, film critic, broadcaster, Chair of UK Critics’ Circle and contributed to major broadcasters and national press tweeted about the Festival, and facilitated the Simon Bird Q&A. Others who supported us on social media included, Simon Pegg, Dom Joly, Col Needham (IMDb), film distributors such as Altitude and the Italian Embassy in London