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CPH:DOX's Directors on Reinventing the Film Festival During the COVID-19 Chaos

By Lauren Wissot

Photo: Signe Elisabeth Sloth

Since its founding in 2003, the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival, better known as CPH:DOX, has avidly embraced expanding definitions of the nonfiction form—and in the process has redefined the doc film festival itself. So it makes strange cosmic sense that, faced with global pandemic shutdowns as opening night on March 18 approached, the groundbreaking CPH:DOX chose not to cancel or postpone, but to instead lead the way to a brand new future festival world, one in which calls to social-distance and self-isolate are re-envisioned as opportunities to reach out and touch an even wider audience. 

And to learn more about the decision-making behind the pivot, Documentary reached out to CPH:DOX Director Tine Fischer and Deputy Director and Head of Industry Katrine Kiilgaard, a few days after the successful conclusion of the first-ever virtual edition. 

Going Online: The Decision

"In Denmark the restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus went into effect on March 11," Fischer explains. "The country was simply closed down. During the week leading up to the lockdown, we had daily meetings with our board and the health authorities. We're not virology experts, so we had to listen carefully to the authorities—and they were not ready to close down. It was the worst seven-day limbo of our lives. We knew that gathering thousands of people from all over the world was totally irresponsible—it was only a matter of time [before all events were halted]—but we needed the authorities to back our decision. In the end, we couldn’t wait for them. Forty-eight hours before the official lockdown, we started preparing for a new version—a digital version.

"Things are blurry from those 48 hours, but I know that what could have been a very difficult decision was in fact not," Fischer continues. "Strategically it was the hardest because, to be honest, we had no idea whether it would actually work to go digital. But it was also a decision that somehow made itself. There never was a real alternative. You are thrown into cold water, and you swim. You feel such a strong survival instinct in that situation. It’s not only the fear of bankruptcy. It's much more emotional. We have built this festival for the last 16 years of our lives, and we have spent an entire year on this particular edition, making sure producers and filmmakers could premiere their work. We were so ready to bring all of it into the world. So ready for all the films to make a difference. And suddenly you have to face the option of letting it all go."

Which was never really a serious option for Fischer and her dogged crew. "It's not that we are heroes, but in that moment we felt such a big responsibility towards our community—the filmmakers and the local communities," she shares. "I remember the moment when I thought that if we didn’t go for it, my team and I would suffer in an almost unrepairable way, but the film communities in a much deeper sense. We knew that all spring and summer festivals most probably would have to cancel. We needed to make it happen. We needed to bring people together in a new way. It would have been a disaster not to do it. It was a crazy decision, but it was also a decision that somehow made itself."


And the time frame to deploy the risky move was, well, even crazier. "From when the decision was taken, we had a little under a week to implement it all," Fischer recounts. "We made it—but only because everyone around us helped in a way that went far beyond our wildest dreams. We're a relatively small foundation. We had to do it ourselves by asking friends and colleagues for help. And they were there. The tech entrepreneur Sten-Kristian Saluveer—who is also the Head of NEXT at the Cannes Marché, and is curating our Tech and Innovation Day—and our own Head of Interactive Mark Atkin were amazing, and so was our own team. It was crucial to have them on board. They have know-how in terms of establishing contact with 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 no. Everybody on board was ready to make it happen under these crazy circumstances. It was an unusual collective experience, and we are forever grateful for all the support." 

Challenges and Drawbacks

"As Tine mentioned, overall the transition to digital has surpassed our wildest expectations, and reactions have been overwhelmingly positive and supportive," Kiilgaard notes. "But speaking particularly about the INDUSTRY events, it goes without saying that you cannot replicate all the in-person dynamics of a physical event and a one-to-one relationship. With the move, you win some and you lose some. And in this process, you get to thoroughly consider the core values of the structures we have all come to think of as necessary." 

"Our flagship financing and co-production event, CPH:FORUM, especially caused us some thinking," Kiilgaard notes. "Normally, 40 projects in development are pitched to a carefully invited audience of potential co-producers, financiers, sales agents and distributors—receiving feedback in public before being matched with relevant collaborators in individual meetings. Besides being a practical arrangement that prevents each team from pitching their project again and again, the public pitch is also a valuable shared experience. The industry gets an overview of projects in the pipeline and their viability; it enables producers to talk informally about possible co-productions; and it serves as a learning experience for junior producers and newcomers to the industry, who get to learn about market dynamics and establish new professional contacts.

"With all the technical solutions we examined in the process, we didn’t find any that would allow for the sensitive, exclusive and technically demanding live pitches of CPH:FORUM to be carried out in a satisfactory way," Kiilgaard laments. "The level of security of various platforms couldn't meet the confidentiality requirements of documentary projects in the making, nor was the streaming quality sufficient for trailers and pitches to be presented in the way they should. We ended up offering teams the chance to prerecord a pitch that would be available to decision-makers, in addition to essential project information and a trailer before the individual meeting. This arrangement partly met the practical needs of the live pitch, but it did not of course recreate the community dynamics, which I still find an essential asset of meeting in person.

The Rewards and The Future

"Over 400 individual meetings were scheduled for quarantined people in distant time zones across the whole world," Kiilgaard adds. "While the puzzle was accordingly more complex than when people are located in the same place, the feedback on the move to digital was both positive and interesting in a world where we all need to think about more environmentally sustainable solutions to how we do business. Industry professionals reported that meetings were more focused, and that people in many cases came more prepared. From this experience, I cannot imagine that an online element will not be part of our future ways of organizing an industry platform—as the potential to include a whole different range of professionals in an efficient and valuable way opens up new horizons."

As Kiilgaard points out, “This was, for instance, already the case this year for our CPH:LAB participants, who pitched their interactive and immersive projects to potential collaborators at the already existing online platform Kaleidoscope fund. Founded by René Pinnel, Kaleidoscope brings together creators and industry leaders to develop, fund and distribute new XR projects, and this specialized online community counts close to 3,000 members. With their pitch, our lab participants were exposed to a large crowd of over 800 potential stakeholders, more than we would ever have been able to offer onsite in Copenhagen. Naturally, we were very grateful for the quick response from and collaboration with René and Kaleidoscope to the situation we had encountered, and the results made us think that this collaboration should have happened regardless.

"Our conferences were rethought for the digital space, shortening sessions and formatting them differently," Kiilgaard continues. "But the reach was quadruple to quintuple of our usual audience numbers, so also here there’s a whole new potential for the future."

As for how to make the most of that future, Fischer stresses, "On a very practical level I believe we should all share information and experience. We are all festival colleagues, but we could be united in a very different way than we are today. We are happy to share all our gains and losses. As we speak we have already consulted with many festivals and institutions, and we are launching open online meetings during April.

"From a larger perspective I believe that nothing will be the same in the world of film festivals," she theorizes. "There is a before and after, and I believe we will all be working together to rethink our responsibility as cultural institutions in the coming years. The digital meeting and the shared sense of responsibility have taught us something important. The overall feeling of being collectively united has a huge potential for structural change. Festivals are very competitive, but that should change in favor of a more collaborative spirit with a focus on collective impact. Take climate change. The entire cultural sector—all the thousands of markets, festivals and fairs— should be redesigned with regard to CO2 emissions. No festival can handle that change in business model alone, but it’s time to get together and rethink how we work."

Fischer concludes, "What the digital festival has taught us is the huge potential for global interaction, for reaching out far beyond the usual suspects and creating new and lasting communities. I believe we will see new strong festival alliances with a deep interconnection between the digital and physical dimension."

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.