Morgan Little had the cheese board and a nice drink ready to go. He settled down and got comfortable, all set for the film premiere.
Everything he wanted from a film festival was in place. Except the eager crowd to enjoy it with.
“I realised I really missed it … that experience of being in a cinema,” the MIFF regular says.
It was the beginning of the Melbourne International Film Festival 2020, with Australia’s biggest film festival faced with the task of creating a whole new experience amid a lockdown.
Last year, Morgan would’ve been running from theatre to theatre, and enjoying the associated social events. This year however, he’s locked up in his Footscray apartment, watching films and chatting with friends online.
“I went from expecting to watch two or three films to watching about 12,” Morgan said. “My continued thinking was ‘how is this going to compete with everything else I could do?’ But this is what MIFF does really well. It allows you to expose yourself to film that you wouldn’t see normally, and so you start taking chances.”
The 128 films featured at MIFF 2020 is about a quarter of last year’s almost 400.
But going online has brought an interstate boom. About a fifth of the 300,000 viewers were interstate – a big jump over last year’s 190,000 attendees.
MIFF is just one of the many Melbourne festivals that have had to be creative in finding new ways to captivate audiences, and some have done it more successfully than others.
Morgan was a producer for Crack Theatre Festival in 2019, but this year the event won’t be running. The focus of Crack was always experimental live performance. Over the last few years, it’s had more and more trouble securing funding for a varied, but unproven program.
“With things happening with corona, we thought it was as good a sign as any that we should stop for a year,” Morgan said.
“A lot of theatre organisations pivot to do digital work in a way that feels that it hasn’t hit the mark, so I can’t imagine how it’d be to run an experimental festival like Crack.”
Other festivals have fared better, like Next Wave which was broadcast online through late May. Running every second year, it focuses on promoting emerging artists across a range of art forms like dance, theatre, visual arts, and more. The event organisers pivoted quickly after the first lockdown and rebranded in April as Assemble!
“That was a mix of lounge room dance parties to live music, and some performance translating well to film. Others just postponed as enough is lost when it’s not in person.”
Melbourne International Film Festival 2020 succeeded thanks in part to brand recognition, but it was fortunate enough to translate online easily. Other art festivals will have to be experimental and take risks, but Morgan’s confident that the arts sector will come out stronger on the other side.
“It’s highlighted to me that what makes an arts festival work is that being in person. It’s sad to see it on hold for the time being,” he said.
“But I’m really curious to see what people do when we can go out into the world and see it come together again.