Filmmakers must make a choice as coronavirus forces festivals online

March 19, 2020, 6:30 PM UTC

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.

Noah Hutton can’t afford to wait. He worked commercial jobs for years and put thousands of his own dollars into Lapsis, his first narrative feature film, with the additional help of outside investors. From the moment he started writing the script, it’s been a three-year journey leading up to the world premiere at a major film festival, Austin’s South by Southwest, which was set to take place this March.

But then the coronavirus pandemic prompted the cancellation of SXSW, along with numerous other festivals and industry events. So Hutton, like many of the affected filmmakers and artists banking on festivals for distribution and financial opportunities, had to make a choice: opt in to an online viewing platform, or wait months, or even a year, to screen the film in person.

As with jobs, education, social activities, and countless other facets of daily life under quarantines and social distancing, film festivals are going digital, giving directors the option of showcasing their work online to a virtual jury for awards that can be a standout résumé achievement in the eyes of press and film buyers. Some festivals are additionally exploring ways for planned attendees to engage with filmmakers through virtual Q&As or panels.

“It’s not the idea of moving everything, but maybe short films, one or two features that we’d share links with, and opportunities to do some kind of interactive or prerecorded engagement with filmmakers behind the camera,” says Gregg Schwenk, CEO and executive director of the Newport Beach Film Festival, which was rescheduled from its annual April dates to a week in August because of the coronavirus.

Schwenk says he and his staff are in currently in discussion with filmmakers about what an online festival could look like. “It’s something where we want to be respectful to our filmmakers and the audience, but also have an opportunity to maybe preview and engage some of our filmmakers before our rescheduled dates.”

2020 SXSW Conference And Festival Canceled
A glimpse of downtown Austin in the heart of the entertainment district on March 9. As SXSW and other film festivals have been canceled amid the pandemic, filmmakers have been forced to make choices about how to give their films exposure.
Gary Miller—Getty Images

In SXSW and Hutton’s case, there are no rescheduled dates several months from now. This year’s edition is outright canceled, with SXSW cofounder and chief executive Roland Swenson saying he is “not entirely sure” how the popular festival will return in 2021. For now, organizers are taking a two-pronged digital approach for its selected films. The festival’s juries will have access to private screening links and will give out awards on March 24. Additionally, filmmakers can participate in a secure online viewing platform called Shift72, which enables them to make their movies available for “press, buyers, industry, or combinations of these audiences.”

For Hutton, the choice was clear: join SXSW’s online platform and avoid the possibility of a crowded film festival landscape in the fall. New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival was postponed indefinitely owing to the coronavirus, while the Cannes Film Festival in France—one of world’s largest markets for film distribution deals—was drawing up contingency plans for online screenings prior to its official postponement Thursday.

“I worry that by holding on to our film,” says Hutton, “we’re going to be entering a situation in the fall with not only the normal pace of thousands of projects being submitted to elite festivals, but additionally the films that were already programmed now pulling all of their connections, trying to get the spot they feel they deserved and had been awarded by programmers of festivals of equal stature.”

He says he doesn’t have the luxury of delaying until next year with so much time, effort, and money already spent, and with investors expecting a return in dividends. “I’m not in the position where I could just wait around and hope for a year, to find other work and make enough income,” he explains. “The decision made itself for me. I would like to sell the film.”

In a coronavirus-afflicted, virtual world, that requires some nuanced strategies. On SXSW’s Shift72 platform, rather than making Lapsis available for screening via each of the “press, buyers, or industry” options, Hutton is choosing to court the press alone. The plan is to drum up reviews and coverage and approach selected distributors from there.

“If it’s out there and open to any distributor, it feels like we have less control and are a little more exposed,” he says. “We don’t want to open this up to get offers from all these distributors and say, ‘Thanks for the offer, but we have to wait to make a decision.’ We’re approaching the top distributors.”

Subscribe to Fortune’s Outbreak newsletter for a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus and its impact on global business.

He says that in uncertain times full of theater closures and social distancing, a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon would be the preferred landing spot.

For other festivals and filmmakers, however, the in-person, communal experience of a theater audience is either too hard to replicate, or an experience worth waiting for.

The Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, the annual event screening films from and about the Indian diaspora, postponed its April festival indefinitely because of the virus. “We discussed [an online screening system for a virtual film festival] but decided against it due to some real roadblocks and the fact that it is not the type of experience we want to offer our filmmakers, audience, supporters and patrons, staff and volunteers,” Christina Marouda, IFFLA’s chair of the board, said in a statement.

Pi Ware, director of the documentary Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons, was set for a world premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival next week—until the event was canceled because of the pandemic. The film’s screening was specifically targeted at the festival’s location—home of a large medical community and the renowned Cleveland Clinic. Even if an online festival was put in place (festival organizers did not respond to requests for comment), the point was to reach those attendees in person. Now, the film will go straight to video on demand on March 31.

Other filmmakers are simply willing to keep waiting. Eric Bricker, director of the documentary Alumination, will pass on any online opportunities at the Newport Beach Film Festival and screen at the rescheduled August event—should it happen.

“The one thing about filmmaking is it’s really an endurance race,” Bricker says. “Alumination took me six years to make, and in those six years there’s been a lot of waiting—waiting for edit, rough cut, the next phase. So I’m accustomed to waiting. I have so much time and capital in this project. I don’t want to deny myself this experience, and [premiering online] wouldn’t do full justice to the film.”

He concedes, however, that permanent silver linings may emerge from the necessity to host film festivals online.

As does Schwenk. “As technology advances, as broadband and 5G capability permeate throughout society, I think it will become more commonplace and accepted,” he says. “The idea that you could be listening to someone talking via screen versus seeing them in person—what you might be seeing is actually an enhancement.”

But for now? “The show must go on. It’s true for every festival,” Schwenk says. “We’re all sitting here—each festival has this collective experience. We’ve gotten so far. We can’t just stop.”

Update, March 19, 2020: This story now includes the cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—How Harvey Weinstein’s sentencing could change the entertainment industry
—As coronavirus spreads, is this weekend’s historically low box office Hollywood’s new normal?
Don Cheadle on Black Monday, Wall Street in the Trump era, and hope about the climate change fight
—How Netflix’s Lost Girls upends the conventions of serial killer movies
Diao Yinan discusses The Wild Goose Lake, his Chinese motorcycle noir
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.