Every year I wrap up my coverage of Fantasia with a last post looking back at the festival, reflecting on the experience. This year’s edition of Fantasia calls for reflection even more than most. I have a couple of posts still to come taking care of loose ends from previous years, but here are a few final thoughts on the all-streaming 2020 Fantasia Film Festival.
First, as always, thanks go out to the team of people who made the festival possible. This time out I want to especially thank the social media team who kept a Discord channel going through the festival, answering questions and maintaining a group space for talking about movies, particularly Social Media Strategist Alyssia Duval-Nguon. The festival was always going to suffer from the inability to hang out with friends in person, but Fantasia’s people did the best they could under the circumstances.
Which I think sums things up for this year. I have no idea what things were like behind the scenes, but from my perspective as viewer and critic the Festival was the best I could imagine it being given the state of the pandemic. Technologically, my experience was as smooth as I could reasonably hope. It’s unfortunate that the festival lasted only two-thirds as long as usual, but the films had the level of quality I’ve come to expect. It seemed to me there fewer big-budget movies, but the range of smaller films meant I didn’t miss them much.
Still, it is clearly obvious that a theatre environment would have been a better way to watch these movies. Some of them, like Hunted, seemed to aim at using sensory power to overwhelm the viewer in a specific way; but all of them would have gained by the theatrical experience. It’s not just a question of the size of the image and the loudness of the sound system, but of the details that come out when you see the picture blown up and when you hear the sensitivity of the speakers. And in my experience films are only helped by watching them along with a Fantasia audience.
I also have to say that while the technological side of the event was run flawlessly by Fantasia, I personally had a couple of issues due to the equipment I was using. My laptop’s not the newest, and had a tendency to stop once or twice per film to buffer for a few seconds. Generally the streaming experience shifts some of the burden of keeping things running onto the audience. Usually to be sure of watching a movie I want to watch, I just have to make sure I’m in the right line at the right time. Watching a stream means I have to be sure that my computer’s not feeling temperamental, which is hard to guarantee; for example, I almost missed Jesters: The Game Changers because my firewall acted up. So there was a bit of unusual stress involved in watching the scheduled movies.
That pressure wasn’t there with the on-demand, and I’ll note that I personally preferred having the ability to set my own schedule in watching the films. I felt that the value of having films scheduled for a specific time was minimal from my perspective; there wasn’t a crowd experience, and while watching a live question-and-answer period with audience interaction was fun, I wonder if the same experience might have come about by scheduling the Q&A periods instead of the films.
Finally, I’ll note something that may be specific to me: I didn’t end up watching as many shorts as usual. This is mainly my fault. Usually Fantasia puts a short in front of some of their features, as seems thematically appropriate for the films, while this year they bundled shorts with features so that you could watch the short any time after the feature (or before, for the on-demand films). I understand the logic, and I imagine it works for most audience members, but I found I had an increasingly limited time to watch the features I wanted to watch. And so tended not to follow a feature with its bundled short. That was my own choice, but I don’t think it was entirely illogical.
I would say the negative aspects of the virtual experience were nobody’s fault, just characteristics inherent to the process, and things which I think and hope will keep online film festivals from becoming the sole or even dominant form of festival. But there were also positive points I want to mention.
Firstly, the Fantasia team intelligently made use of the virtual format to expand the number of panels and filmmaker Q&As. These things were and are free and are still up on the festival’s YouTube page, where they’ll remain, a useful document to future audiences, critics, and scholars. Since theatres didn’t have to be cleared in order to make room for the next film, on average the Q&As ran much longer than in a normal year, which I greatly appreciated.
On a more personal note, as I didn’t have to travel back and forth to the physical theatres I was able to manage my fatigue much better than I usually could. And, of course, there was no waiting in lines (it’s usually a good idea for a critic to get in line early for a film to be sure of getting a spot in the theatre). These things together meant that I was able to see more films per day than usual — the festival lasted two-thirds as long as a typical year, but I saw about four-fifths as many movies, which is not bad at all.
Finally, I also want to observe that this year’s festival answered a nagging question for me. I have access to three movie streaming services (plus things like YouTube and the Internet Archive) and I find that watching a movie on a given service has a tendency to frame the film for me. This is most obvious with the Criterion Channel, which often includes supplemental materials and links their films in collections, but is somewhat the case with Netflix and Disney+ as well. I’ve seen movies that played Fantasia on Netflix, and while often good it also felt like I was seeing them in a different context. So I’d always wondered if watching Fantasia movies at home would have the same feel as watching them in a theatre — would the festival maintain its identity?
I would say yes. Definitely, certainly, wonderfully yes. Fantasia was different this year, but it felt the same. It changed to adapt to new times, as we all must, but it changed in ways that fit what it essentially is. It was a different experience, but recognisably of a part with what has come before (and, presumably, whatever comes next). It was one of the high points of my year, as is always the case with Fantasia, and made these past months much easier to bear. I’m happy to have had the experience, this year as every year, and I can only hope for more in the future, in whatever shape that takes.
Find the rest of my Fantasia coverage from this and previous years here!
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. You can buy collections of his essays on fantasy novels here and here. His Patreon, hosting a short fiction project based around the lore within a Victorian Book of Days, is here. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.