Cov...adis Cinema? The Future of Cinema With & After Corona
In short texts, commentaries, statements, or personal opinions, representatives of the film and festival scene describe how they are dealing with the current situation and what their hopes, ideals, and fears in the time of Covid-19 are. Analog films in digital space, the oft-heralded death of cinema, withdrawals from a collective moviegoing experience—here, the authors share opinions, consider ideas, and take (preliminary) stock. This series of texts was published during Vienna Shorts Online Edition 2020, in collaboration with the festival.
by Philipp Fleischmann, film artist
I hope you are doing well and enjoying the festival. I would love to show you my 35 mm film, 'Austrian Pavilion'. I would be curious to hear what you think of it. Yet, I can’t. Much of our social life is still under strict regulations. Culture cannot be experienced as we know it. Cinemas are not allowed to reopen yet. We cannot gather as a temporary collective. Our bodies simply shouldn’t meet. What to do?
Like many other film festivals, Vienna Shorts decided to change their gears and switch to the possibility of a digital streaming event. So that things can happen, at least. So that art can be seen. So that films can be enjoyed and discussed. It does make sense. But, at the same time, it doesn’t make sense when it comes to analog film. And it doesn’t make sense when it comes to any other work that involves a live audience.
My films only exist and think through the medium of analog film. My whole filmmaking process starts with the materiality of the celluloid filmstrip. This is why I decided from the very beginning to only project my films analogically. I’m certain this is the only way these artworks have the possibility to speak, to articulate themselves, and to talk about their concerns. But what now? Isn’t this the time to react and adjust? Isn’t this the time to stream online?
Somehow, I simply don’t want to do that, to change all my convictions of more than a decade of artistic production. To make an “exception,” again and again, and justify it with words and good intentions. To contribute to a bigger effort of moving culture away from personal and material encounters. No. I do not agree. I prefer not to.
Though, there is this strange feeling that I should apologize. To you, the viewer, for not sharing my work online. To you, the festival, for having a different point of view. To you, the digital realm, for not really being into you. But then, why should I?
'Austrian Pavilion' is the latest and final entry in my analog film series about five Austrian exhibition venues. All of these films are independent projects. Working independently can mean a lot of things. In this very moment, one simple aspect becomes crucial again: When one is not involved in the money game and has no distributor, one can decide for herself or himself. I simply decided to wait. To wait for the next chance to meet as a collective again. To show you 'Austrian Pavilion' in a cinema.
Therefore, for the Vienna Shorts, I made something new, a digital audio commentary for 'Austrian Pavilion'; consider it a bonus track. I hope you enjoy it.
Thanks and see you soon, preferably in a cinema.
by Barbara Fränzen, funding
An existential crisis in all respects, the pandemic brings to light what before was only somewhat discernible: In the film world, it primarily intensified artists’ precarious working and living conditions—due to previously already inadequate remuneration policies, the migration into digital space has been unable to compensate any revenue deficits whatsoever. Streaming technologies have in part helped us get through the crisis and given some presence to films that couldn’t open in cinemas or festivals, in different appearances and with interesting creative solutions that should continue to exist after the crisis. What we must now fight for is fair pay for the digital distribution of intellectual property.
The gradual replacement of analog media has become even more evident, not just in distribution and reception but also in production. Differentiation and choice should therefore be writ large: for filmmakers, these processes begin in the preproduction stages with the choice of artistic means—it wouldn’t be tenable to only use digital media for mere technical reasons—and the audience should get to choose how it wants to watch a film.
As a funding institution, we advocate the greatest possible artistic freedom, which we must defend against market constraints. And let’s not forget: no screening platform can ever replace the experience of a movie on the big screen—an intense, focused experience we get to share with other people. That’s why the task of funding bodies is to preserve movie theaters as places of great cinematic variety. Not only cultural variety for an elite group with elite programming—as some like to predict the future of cinema—but as a vibrant meeting place to exchange and discuss ideas, especially for young audiences. This is what we miss at the moment—social interaction. To remain attractive and agile in the entrepreneurial sense, cinemas should make greater use of digital technology and its potential, for instance in areas such as public relations and marketing.
Life as we knew it before Covid-19 is not likely to return. But that is exactly why we have an opportunity to try new concepts and different paths based on our collective experiences of the past few months. And we need to seize this opportunity.
by Jurij Meden, film historian
It only took a few days of social distancing measures as the consequence of the current global pandemic before several film producers, distributors, and exhibitors, both commercial and cultural institutions, started reinventing themselves as streaming platforms, thus bypassing the usual—and currently banned—idea of a public screening as the primary exhibition site. The swiftness and ease of this transformation was a reminder that the coronavirus crisis merely accelerated a certain widespread and growing trend of consuming moving images that has been steadily emptying movie theaters all over the world for two decades. To be more precise: the crisis not only accelerated, but enthroned this trend of domestic viewing as the only legal option.
In this situation, any self-respecting film museum in the world must have recognized that its raison d’être actually goes far beyond film curatorship in terms of actively, selectively collecting, preserving, documenting, and exhibiting films; far beyond insisting on carefully curated film programs, and on exhibiting films in their original formats.
In this situation, a self-respecting film museum has realized that its core mission has always also been the preservation of its audience. The audience in this context should not be understood as statistics, as an amorphous mass of consumers led to believe that each one of them is an individual curator of their allegedly unique online viewing habits and additions. Instead, we are talking about preserving the audience as an actual, material group of people, who have gathered to celebrate the critical idea of an actual, material public space, to participate in an act of resistance, a reenactment of the ritual of a museum visit, to reply to the idea of a public film exhibition with a public exhibition of human curiosity and mutual respect.
Only by preserving the idea of a film museum as a public space can a film museum in turn preserve the idea of an audience as an active entity, and consequently preserve the freedom to experience cinema one way or the other.
Jean-Paul Sartre famously defined freedom as nothing but the existence of our will and added that it is actually not enough to will, but necessary to will to will. It would probably not be too much of a stretch to imagine this Sartrean gap between “will” and “will to will” as a perfect illustration of a gap between a semi-conscious “click to watch next” and a deliberate trip to your local cinematheque. If your local cinematheque—that is, freedom—will still be there after the crisis.
This text first appeared as a blog article of the Austrian Film Museum.
by Martina Menegon, digital media artist
I thought the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown would not affect my life as a teacher and as an artist, since I both teach and create virtual art and experiences. Yet it did. Before the lockdown I was ready to teach Motion Capture for VR in my class at the Transmedia Art Department of the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, while continuing to work on my new single-user VR experience 'when you are close to me I shiver', a piece that addresses the human position in a world in ecological and therefore social crisis. I also had an upcoming group exhibition at the Laval festival and a few more events to prepare for.
Once the pandemic and the lockdown measures started spreading, some of the shows I was supposed to participate in canceled or postponed, others switched to a virtual format, which meant they made sure my work was not only shown but also better accommodated, as it is digital and created for the virtual space. I also had more requests for artist talks and walkthroughs of my work, I guess partly because it was easier (and I dare say cheaper) to organize over Zoom. Also, extra attention has been paid to artists and artworks that chose to work in the virtual medium and on the relationship and dialogue with the self in both physical and virtual realities long before Covid-19 happened.
So far so good, right? I generally work with tools that are not accessible to many from their homes. I work with devices we might feel uneasy wearing in public after the Covid-19 crisis. To be honest, I cannot imagine feeling safe wearing a VR headset someone else had worn before, disinfected or not. So, in the past weeks, I realized I could not bring myself to work on my single-user VR piece, and I could not teach VR to students, who can’t access the still rather expensive tools needed for my class. I was frustrated that the medium everyone praised as the best tool to escape reality right now was also so problematic to use as an artist and as a teacher. I felt I needed a type of platform for virtual experiences that is free, easy to use, and accessible from any device. I was so happy when I found out about Mozilla Hubs, thanks to a post on social media by Matthew D. Gantt. Since March I have been obsessing over it. Not only do I teach it to my students (who are creating already creating amazing experiences on it), I also use it to create my own art.
It represents what I think VR should have right now: accessibility, interaction, and community. I plan to keep using it in the future, as it does not feel like a temporary Band-Aid: Its potential resonates farther than that. If it’s not Mozilla Hubs, it will be some other platform or tool that has the same potential. Of course, we are all waiting to have physical social interactions again and will visit physical exhibitions and gatherings once the lockdown measures are over. But being allowed to go back to a (new) physical normality should not exclude nor dismiss the virtual one(s). I think physical (local) art communities can and should remain connected through digital channels and virtual (international) communities. As for me, I will keep working on virtual experiences that create a sense of community online, while keeping both physical and virtual realities together and in dialogue. And I won’t be the only one in my field to go in this direction.
by Marija Milovanovic & Wouter Jansen, distributors
The cancelation of SXSW was probably the first moment we realized Covid-19 would have a big impact on our work distributing shorts to festivals. In no time, a lot of festivals had to cancel their upcoming editions or figure out how they could shift their program online. Because everything happened so sudden, the conditions for the screenings got made up along the way and differed from festival to festival. We all were expected to be flexible, as the industry would also become more lenient in this situation, at least that’s what people kept telling us.
What we have observed two months into this online shift is that for short film, it’s mainly the festivals that make the decisions. Filmmakers agree to new terms for online screenings, trusting the festivals’ decisions, without knowing what it means for the rest of the film’s career. Sometimes they are not even left any choice but to agree to the new conditions, as otherwise they might be excluded from the competition, even after having been selected. As distributors we haven’t been included in many discussions with festivals about what would be the best terms. From what we know, the same goes for sales agents. This feels troubling. We hope that any festival will always try to do what’s the best for the filmmakers, placing their interests first.
We are aware that sales are not a given for most short films, and it’s not for nothing that festivals have mainly been pushing the aim of discovering and supporting talents. That’s why we think it’s all the more important right now to still function as a platform for these talents. Especially now when all aspects of the film industry are undergoing change, we have to figure out new standards for us all to adhere to, standards that won’t damage a film’s chances and the filmmaker’s career. And also maintain our role as matchmakers between filmmakers and the industry, because that part seems to have disappeared completely. While the social aspect of the festivals was always very important, now even a simple guestlist is hard to come by.
Considering that online festivals will probably be the norm in the coming months, it seems important to draft guidelines that festivals can follow and also give filmmakers something to hold on to. Festivals should start communicating what they will do in case their edition will not take place physically and to what terms filmmakers then have to agree, so that the latter feel a bit safer submitting their work to upcoming festivals and know what to expect. It’s important for other industry players to be included in these discussions, so that we can guarantee our short-term decisions also work in the filmmaker’s favor in the long run.
Marija Milovanovic & Wouter Jansen
by Wiktoria Pelzer, curator & cinema manager
I am an optimist—and a huge cinephile. The closing of movie theaters came as a shock to me. Inconceivable, hard to accept. On the one hand, I wanted nothing more in the past weeks than to start our cinema back up, get the projectors rolling. Ideas swirled around in my head: Just imagine the panel discussions we could host, the guests we could invite, the people we would discuss movies with afterward and gain new insight from. On the other hand, the past weeks also raised many questions: Is the speed with which we work in the cultural scene too high? Are we doing too much? The first weeks of lockdown provided a perfect mirror for our inner conflict: Everything was canceled, but at the same time the “substitute” of online streaming was waiting on the doorstep, ready to go. Its volume equally overwhelming as that of analog events before. Was pulling the emergency brake perhaps an (unintentional) opportunity to think about these things?
The cinema we want to provide is a political space that places artists’ works front and center and takes a stance. The place itself: a realm of experience and a realm where one can be with others and alone, all at once. I do not believe in the death of cinema, even if it has been in upheaval for years—which will not go away by us stubbornly “plowing along.” But the past weeks without cinema have shown that people are eager to get together; they long for the ritual of a collective experience. How does the Stereo Total song go? “Wie soll ich mich nach dir sehnen, wenn du immer bei mir bist?” (How am I to long for you if you’re always around?)
To me, shifting content into virtual space has made one thing clear after such a short time: The input may be there, but the experience is not. Our need for cinema is exemplified in the strange resurgence of the drive-in. You simply can’t replace this collective moviegoing experience. Does that mean we just have to communicate it better? It looks like Amazon is getting ready to buy AMC, the largest movie theater chain in the world: At worst, this constitutes a usurpation, at best, it’s an admission that Amazon cannot do without cinema.
The current crisis will surely jeopardize some people’s existence, and we will forfeit some diversity. But I am confident that the live experience of cinema will gain importance, and that a respect for curating, contextualizing, and educating audiences about movies will soon thrive again. Perhaps this extreme situation will have brought cinema and the online world a bit closer together, because it has become much clearer where the differences are.
by Julian Ross, programmer & writer
I think back to the moment when this crisis really “hit” me. It was at the hotel reception in Cartagena, Colombia, where I’d just arrived for a film festival. I checked in at the lobby, signed some forms, and went to sleep. The next morning, the same lobby attendants were wearing masks and gloves, and cleaners wearing special gear were hurriedly deep-cleaning the lobby. So much had changed in just a few hours. “Cinematic” was how Arie Esiri, codirector of 'Eyimofe (This is My Desire)', described the scene when I shared this experience with him.
What was eerie to me about this scene was that the virus was nowhere to be seen. Of course, SARS-CoV-2 was invisible to the human eye. It reminded me of my short-term stay in my home city of Tokyo, a year after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, where fear of radiation had been palpable, although everything had looked exactly the same. I saw many filmmakers struggle with this: to depict something we could not see. Most resorted to filming villages destroyed by the tsunami, unable to find the audiovisual language to convey the fear of the invisible, the anxiety for an uncertain future.
In a crisis like this, we yearn for how things used to be and are easily sidetracked. In the case of Japan, we saw the return of conservative Prime Minister Abe and the distraction of the impending 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I see our film industry doing the same—we’re scrambling to bring things back to “normal” and distract ourselves with this endless stream of content. Just like with Japan, I’m worried we’ll forget about the many problems of the film industry and how they were just beginning to get exposed, in our short-sighted endeavor to bring it back to its former glory. Structural issues are invisible, but they’re omnipresent—and just like the virus, they’re harming us.
FIRST LOVE... LAST RITES? by Neil Young, programmer & film critic
Life comes at you fast. Death likewise. On March 16th, when the lockdowns-and-social-distancing realities of The Situation were still in their early days as a truly global phenomenon, cinema was abruptly pronounced DOA.
Above a sepia-tinted illustration of a crowded old-timey movie house, one of the noisier members of that nebulous worldwide community known as “Film Twitter,” Peter Labuza (aka @labuzamovies) wrote “1895–2020, birthed by capitalism + technological innovation, ended by capitalism + technological innovation.” The provocative tweet made the desired impact: at the latest count, 10 retweets and 147 likes!
What is it about blokes called Peter confidently announcing The Death of Cinema? In September 2003 at a lecture in Utrecht, the Welsh writer/director Peter 'The Belly of an Architect' Greenaway specified that “Cinema died on September 31 [sic] 1983 when the zapper or remote control was introduced into the living rooms of the world.”
Politely leaving aside the rapidly terminal post-2003 decline in Greenaway’s own output, the bigger picture needs to be painted. Cinema has been “on the way out” since its earliest days. “An invention without a future,” was how no less an expert than its coinventor, Louis Lumière, famously (though actually allegedly) put it way back in . . . 1895.
Talkies, color, TV, VHS, DVD, MCU, zappers, home cinema, box sets, digital, iPhones, Lav Diaz . . . Coronavirus is just the latest in a long line of dreaded, cinema-killing menaces. Grounds for cautious optimism are currently abundant, even if they flourish in some unlikely places.
Such as the field out the back of the “Biker-Treff Vogel” boozer in Marl, North-Rhine-Westphalia, which since early April has been the site of a 640-square-foot LED screen and a drive-in cinema. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the—somewhat bizarre—opening night double-bill of 'The Lion King' and 'Parasite' “sold out in a matter of hours.”
Air-travel’s loss may be cinema’s gain: among the thriving drive-in locations to pop up in recent weeks the main apron at Vilnius International Airport, with regular screenings organized by the city’s international film festival. The sure-fire opening-night crowd pleaser: 'Parasite'!
As so often before when “last rites” have been pronounced, a loud knocking is heard from inside the coffin, and cinema emerges, Lugosi-like, unkillable, immortal, maybe—whisper it—never really alive to begin with.
A thing of transient shadows, whose original medium—celluloid—was cooked up using (among other things) microscopic fragments of deceased critters. The last word therefore goes to esteemed critic Nick Pinkerton (@nickpinkerton), whose “pinned tweet,” in dutiful homage to Mel Brooks’s 1995 'Dracula' spoof, reads: “Cinema: Dead and Loving It.” 43 retweets, 270 likes.
1 'Australian Pavilion' (Philipp Fleischmann)
2 'when you are close to me i shiver' (Martina Menegon)