A critic’s assessment on “attending” film festivals affected by COVID-19

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Zach Gilbert
NEWS EDITOR

Bernard Ozarowski, a film critic for Loud and Clear Reviews, details the difficulties of a film festival season like never before, while also highlighting advantages that arose. Photo courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center.

At the start of every awards season, indie films far and wide kick off their Oscar campaigns by premiering at film festivals across the country, but with the chaos of coronavirus, such plans weren’t plausible.

Bernard Ozarowski, a senior staff writer at Loud and Clear Reviews, has frequented in-person film festivals in the past (including the New York Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival), and this year, he “virtually” attended fests like Toronto International Film Festival, AFI Fest and the Sundance Film Festival. In Ozarowski’s eyes, the events he “experienced” this season came with both positives and negatives.

“The biggest pro is that it’s so much easier to see a whole bunch of movies in a day, or over an entire festival,” Ozarowski said. “The cons are that, even when run well, the virtual festivals simply cannot emulate the sort of excitement that comes with a traditional festival experience. There’s something about being the ‘first’ people to experience a movie in a group setting that simply can’t be the same in a virtual setting.”

Additionally, Ozarowski, a father of two, had to contend with distractions from children when engaged in at-home viewing.

“I’ve had to pause movies on occasion or fight through a youngling’s shouts or cries to stay focused on a film,” Ozarowski said.

Likewise, the temptation of technology is yet another encumbrance Ozarowski encountered.

“I’m far more apt to occasionally glance at my phone or at the clock [when watching a movie at home], which I would never do in a theater,” Ozarowski said.

Still, this unconventional season has had its strengths as well. For example, many film fans have been able to partake in festivals for the first time ever.

“The best part is that, for a viewer who wants to watch a ton of movies, that experience comes far easier,” Ozarowski said. “Not traveling or waiting in lines or battling for tickets/seats is also a relief.”

Furthermore, the lack of major studio titles allowed smaller films to thrive and find their space in the spotlight.

“There’s certainly a bit of a gap from the high-profile stuff one might usually see at a festival,” Ozarowski noted. “Mid-budget conventional studio movies like ‘Joker’ or ‘Ford v. Ferrari’ that would usually premiere at fests were not released last year, which led to a bit of a trickle-up effect where lower-profile (which isn’t to say low quality, to be clear) films are sitting in more prominent positions [this season] than they might be in more ‘normal’ years.”

Such films include Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” an Oscar frontrunner that just won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama.

In the end, while Ozarowski hopes for a return to normalcy next awards season, he does admit that there is room for festivals to adapt.

“While this has been a noble effort to adjust to the pandemic reality, it’s simply not as good an experience as the conventional festivals, but I do wonder if the future may hold hybridized [events], where some films are reserved for only in-person screenings and others are opened to virtual options,” Ozarowski said. “It seems to me that the virtual component should stay as an option for those that prefer it, especially as so many other festivals have either built or signed on to streaming infrastructure.”

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