In Denmark the restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus went into effect on March 12. This meant the end for the 17th CPH:DOX Festival in its usual form. However, just six days later the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival kicked off in a digital space including all the competitive sections and the professional platforms such as CPH:Forum or CPH:Lab. We talked to festival director Tine Fischer about team spirit, a decision without any alternatives and virtual solutions in times of a real crisis.
We’re having this conversation from home office to home office while the CPH:DOX festival is running on private screens and infinite digital spaces. Before we talk about the framework of the 2020 CPH:DOX online edition you have developed in the space of a few days, I’d like to ask how it feels right now to be confined to your private place while you’re conducting your “orchestra” from afar and the festival is taking place.
TINE FISCHER: However strange it is to be at home, the feeling of both community and belonging – and I mean it in a much larger sense than
with regard to our own work community – has been strengthened to a degree that moves me and also surprises me, in terms of
how it happened. When we all parted on the night of March 11 and went home knowing that we would not see each other for a
while, my biggest fear was loss of contact. Since creating a film festival is so much about team spirit, it was hard to imagine that this could work without being together
energy-wise. The opposite turned out to be the case. I think the reason is that it’s about a spirit not only among us as a
team but also within a much larger community. It’s happening right now, not merely within a larger festival community but
in society in general. The feeling of community and civic engagement shows that you’re taking responsibility not only for
your own business or family, but also for the larger community around you. That’s what happened with the festival. The national
community around us, meaning the audiences and also the international community. Our partners let us know, “It’s amazing that
you’re doing this, and we’re here for you, supporting you. Use us in any way you can, and we will try to make things possible
that would otherwise not be possible.” I have the overwhelming feeling of being part of something. It’s a long time since
I had a feeling like that.
The 17th CPH:DOX film festival has been scheduled from March 18 to 29. On March 12 you published a press release announcing the cancellation of the physical festival and the launch of digital festival edition. In Austria, COVID-related measures came into effect rather slowly at first and then much faster from around mid-March. When did the thought that your festival might not take place as planned first cross your mind?
TINE FISCHER: There were only ten days from the last weekend of the Berlinale and our decision to cancel the physical festival. You can hardly say this year’s Berlinale was business as usual, but people kept doing business in the sense of coming together in a global environment with lots of people. When we came back from Berlin, I was in contact with the Danish health authorities and held board meetings every day. The authorities were consistently saying that we shouldn’t cancel, since they were only banning big sporting events and concerts with more than 1,000 people in one space. During those days I knew we had to explore all decisions that would be necessary in the case of a shut-down or transformation. To be honest, it came down to just two days before the total shut-down. During those last 48 hours I was in a sort of war-room situation with my management group, planning how we could possibly transform the festival into something digital. All the important decisions were taken in those two days. We had meetings in digital spaces with all the digital providers that could be part of the solution.
Given this high speed re-think of a digital festival option, who were your main partners in terms of technical know-how that gave you the confidence to greenlight a virtual festival for both audiences and professionals?
TINE FISCHER: The most crucial part was whether we could get the rights holders’ permission to switch from screening their movie in a theater to screening it online. We couldn’t put this question to the rights holders until we went public. If we had started to call the companies before the decision was officially announced, it would have shaken the entire festival. We could not predict whether we would be able to preserve with the entire program. Digital platforms exist, some of them function very well. We only knew that the crucial question was whether we would get the right to stream, which had nothing to do with regular festival rights. Surprisingly, this turned out to be the least of the problems we faced. All sales agents and rights holders have been tremendously good about working with us to make it happen. What could have been the biggest headache of all turned out to be the easiest part. There was such a sense of community, a desire to make it happen.
In terms of setting up the digital spaces to make the professional meetings such as the CPH:LAB or the CPH:Forum happen, I worked with various people, but I’d like to mention two of them in particular. First, Mark Atkin, who runs our interactive activities. He’s been working on digital transformations and interactive media content for very many years. And secondly, we had the media tech entrepreneur Sten Saluveer, who is also Head of NEXT at the Cannes Marché and who is curating our Tech and Innovation Day. It was crucial to have them on board. They have know-how in terms of establishing contact to the right people. Once this was done, there was such a huge willingness to make things happen in a very short time. We had long meetings at night with the platform providers (Shift72) sitting in New Zealand in order to place the entire program online within 48 hours. It was an extraordinary and unusual situation, but I didn’t encounter anybody who said he had to go home or it would take at least a week to make something happen. Everybody on board was ready to make it happen within 24 hours. It was a kind of very big Yes-situation. Of course there are things that do not work, but everybody was extremely helpful.
Was it one of the hardest decisions you have had to take in your professional life?
TINE FISCHER: In a way it was the hardest, because to be honest, I had no idea whether it would work. But it was also an easy decision in that I couldn’t see any alternative. You’re thrown into deep water, and you swim. You feel such a strong survival instinct in that situation. It’s not a survival instinct focusing on the question of bankruptcy or not. The focus is on the fact that we have been working on this festival for 15 years, and we spent a whole year on this particular edition, making sure producers and filmmakers could present their work. And suddenly you have to face the option of letting it all go. It’s not that we are heroes, but in this moment you feel such a big sense of responsibility for the people you work with. We’re talking about 200 filmmakers and producers this year alone. I remember the moment when I thought that if we didn’t go for it, my team and I would suffer physically as a result. We needed to make it happen. Internally speaking, it would have been a disaster not to do it. It was a crazy decision, but it was also a decision that somehow took itself.
CPH:DOX analog had on its program 220 films, 700+ screenings, 160 debates. You needed to react on the levels of technology and communication, but first of all on the level of the festival content. How could you assure the quality of the film program and succeed in maintaining the competitive sections?
TINE FISCHER: The first films we released were non-competitive films, since it was easier for them to accept being presented online. I was aware that we could keep the films in competition only if we could promise producers and filmmakers a sort of world premiere comparable to what they would have had if it had happened physically. Meaning international press attention, international juries and availability of the film to buyers and sales agents online. I was determined to ensure all the elements that are part of a world premiere at an international film festival were provided, even though I am extremely aware that producers and filmmakers would miss out the essential point of being physically present at that moment. Once we had secured that, we called all the producers. The journalists were ready to support us. They appreciated that we were trying to preserve the festival. It was a particular situation even for the journalists, since they saw themselves as a part of something that had to be saved. Their attitude made us believe that we could do something for the competition films, even though they wouldn’t have a regular premiere.We also contacted the international juries, and all of them agreed to fulfill their jury duties. They’re actually deliberating as we speak. We’ve also organized an award show, with the announcement of the winners and the jury statements read online so they can be shared with the press and the international film community. We’re trying to maintain the critical part of what an international festival represents, if it were a physical festival.
I suppose tickets for the physical festival had already been sold. How did you switch from an analog to a digital mode of ticketing?
TINE FISCHER: We first thought we could simply transfer the physical tickets to online tickets, but it didn’t work. We had to set up a new system, since the platform ticket system couldn’t communicate with the other ticket system. And of course, the VOD ticket price is only half the ticket price of the ticket for a cinema. We offered either a voucher or a refund to people who had already bought tickets. We will certainly be facing a loss in ticket sales, which we knew. On top of that, all this was in the week of an all-time peak in Internet use due to the confinement measures taken by the Danish government in relation to the coronavirus. It was crazy. During the first two days we had additional server problems and had to shift to bigger servers. People used the internet 350% more than they regularly do. Servers were boiling. Everybody who had bought a festival accreditation has access to an industry space through Cinando, where you can watch 155 films. The regular audience has to buy online tickets, and I think you have 48 hours to watch the film. Many people mailed us asking if we could prolong the service, so they would have an alternative to Netflix or public broadcasting. That’s why we asked the producers and filmmakers whether they wanted their films to be open to the audience for one more week, and most of them agreed. So we actually extended audience access to the festival, which is limited to Danish viewers by geo-blocking until April 5.
In your mission statement on the CPH:DOX website you underline the direct impact of your festival in a social context. Does this mean you consider all debate around the films one of the essential features of your festival? How did you handle the 160 debates you had put on the festival schedule?
TINE FISCHER: That has been perhaps the saddest part for us. CPH:DOX has become a very strong social and political scene. At first I thought the debates would have to be completely cancelled. I felt it would be impossible to redesign a debate setting entirely in a digital space. In the end we couldn’t do them all, but we’ve managed to implement 20 of the events. Last night, for example, we had an online talk with Edward Snowden about the influence of artificial intelligence on our surveillance and our free society. 2000 people gathered around in a direct discussion with a live link to Edward Snowden in Russia. It ran live on YouTube and our own platform, where you can ask questions and talk among each other within the audience. For me, the concept of community has suddenly become something I hadn’t imagined before. That was really a touching moment. We put the live talks within this digital space called ZOOM and ran it through Facebook Live, where you can watch people on the panel and also see who’s attending. If I have to point out one thing about moving from a physical to a digital festival: digital development has happened at such high speed, I can hardly breathe. It’s a good thing, since we will proceed in this direction during the coming years and use this experience in a very different way. On the other hand, it has also reaffirmed the great value of the collective cinema space and physical meetings between people. These aspects are of course completely missing in a digital festival. In a very strong way we have received confirmation that cinema as a physical meeting space will never die. It has a value that cannot be replaced by a digital space. But the digital space has a huge potential to bring people together who would otherwise never make that move, and it speeds up the interaction. Once you’re there and you’re connected, you can stay connected, whereas when you leave the cinema space, you won’t see each other again. I think this particular situation has immensely strengthened both ways of meeting around cinema.
On top of the artistic program CPH:DOX also includes a whole range of parallel programs for professionals, such as CPH:Market, CPH:LAB and the CPH:Forum. Are they all running as scheduled?
TINE FISCHER: The pitching forum is starting today, March 24. It will be starting at a very strange hour, 5pm CET, which is due to the time zones. It’s the best time of the day for people from the American west coast, Europe and Asia (even if it’s pretty late for them) to meet. Hundreds of people who have been invited to the Forum will be in the same digital space called ZOOM. There will be five opening speeches, all related to what is happening to us, the film industry, in times like this. One will be given by Lucia Recalde, Head of Unit at Creative Europe Media, and another by the Danish producer Signe Byrge. After this opening round with speeches, everyone will go to their respective digital meeting rooms. There will be 500 meetings handled by our own team and 450 meetings that will be conducted in between participants. Each project will have all its meetings with the many different financiers. We have been testing for three days now, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that it will work technically.
I want to underline the importance of a wide-range professional meeting at this very moment, since I want to draw particular attention to the need to continue film development and production in this difficult situation. The creatives in the film industry in particular - the filmmakers – will be left behind if we stop financing films now. I hope that this CPH:Forum 2020 will be a way of saying (even though we’re being separated physically right now), that we have a huge responsibility to our community, which needs to keep going.
How would you assess this experience, if we take a look into the future? Your spontaneous reaction to the circumstances may become a role model for other festivals and a launch pad for future CPH:DOX editions. Do you think this unexpected and totally uncontrollable situation might have fundamentally reshaped the concept of film festivals?
TINE FISCHER: I think there are things that are specific to film festivals in particular, but many issues are similar to the entire art
sector as well. The entire creative sector travels a lot and we consider it to be a necessity. There’s no doubt that real
social meetings are very important. But I also think it’s crucial that our sector accepts its responsibility with regard to
the climate situation. I think something will change. There is a disruption now that had to take place sooner or later, but
nobody was prepared to consider the changes involved. Whether we go to art fairs, book fairs, international festivals or markets,
we’re all travelling around to meet, and of course it’s hard to be first mover as an A-festival and address this issue, because
it’s part of the entire business model and core DNA. It can only be solved by collective responsibility. And I think this
situation will change, and for that reason our way of running festivals in the future is about to change.
Interview: Karin Schiefer