The show must go on, say panel of experts, describing the changing nature of film festivals and the need for new content to incentivise cinemagoers
Sharjah, October 17, 2020
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus earlier this year, which sent ripples across the global film industry, saw film festivals being cancelled, release dates postponed, and movie theatres being shut down. Amid a pandemic, how is the magic of cinema being kept alive? This was the focus of a panel discussion held on Friday, the concluding day of ‘Let’s have FUNN’, a first-of-its-kind virtual media arts event organised by FUNN – Sharjah Media Arts for Children and Youth with Sharjah Media City (Shams) as Platinum Partner of the five-day event.
Discussing ‘The effects of the pandemic on the film industry’ via Zoom were panelists Ahmed Al Mulla, a Saudi poet, scriptwriter, and founder and director of the Saudi Film Festival; Giulio Vita, co-founder of Italy’s La Guarimba Film Festival that showcases dynamic, boundary-pushing short films; and Fredrik Jonsson, CEO, Novo Cinemas. The discussion was moderated by Pulse95 Radio presenter Sally Mousa.
The pandemic hit just when Saudi Arabia was beginning to embrace culture and the arts in a big way, and plans were afoot to have 200 theatres with 2,000 screens within three years, said Al Mulla, whose non-profit Saudi Film Festival moved to a virtual platform in its sixth edition in September this year under the unusual circumstances imposed by the pandemic.
“The six-day virtual festival gave 24-hour access to 25 films that was broadcast on YouTube, reaching an estimated 27 million audience,” he said. “The reach has been phenomenal but going online meant filmmakers lost out on the opportunity to engage with their peers. Going forward, I hope to see the film festival retain its spirit of networking and cross-cultural collaborations while also offering virtual segments to cater to audiences in different time zones around the globe.”
Safely navigating the coronavirus crisis, La Guarimba’s goal of ‘bringing the cinema back to the people and the people to the cinema’, seemed more critical this year than ever before, said co-founder Giulio Vita. “We rejected the idea of going online because a film festival is not just about screening movies. It is a meeting place to experience new cultures, new ideas, and La Guarimba is first and foremost, all about the community.”
He said: “I like the idea of online films and we should learn from this unprecedented experience, but I do not think we should accept it as the new normal. As humans, we need to interact to learn and grow; and we need to experience this human connection in proximity with each other; not behind online technologies.”
With most major releases cancelled or pushed into the new year, and cinemas in the UAE currently operating at half or one-third capacity in line with physical distancing guidelines, the pandemic has taken a toll on cinema houses, admitted Fredrik Jonsson, CEO, Novo Cinemas. “Even before COVID-19, the increasingly competitive streaming environment had set in motion an alternative way of seeing content – yet another challenge for movie houses.”
He added: “Ultimately, going to the cinema is an experience, and we are blessed in this region to have unique offerings that elevate this big-screen experience. It is still one of the few markets in the world growing year on year.”
Although coronavirus fears are keeping people out of theatres, Jonsson pointed out that Novo Cinemas was adhering to all the precautionary protocols mandated by the UAE health authorities including physical distancing, compulsory use of face masks, temperature checks, restrictions on capacity, and sanitisation after each show. “To really drive us forward, what we need now are new blockbuster content and the presence of moviegoers to revitalise the industry,” he said.