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Canadian filmmakers look to virtual screening options amid COVID-19

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TORONTO—Canadian filmmakers affected by this week's South By Southwest festival cancellation say the industry is hurting from the fallout of the COVID-19 but they're hoping to find other creative ways to screen their movies, perhaps virtually.

About a dozen Canadian projects were scheduled to be part of the March 13-22 arts and technology festival in Austin, Texas, which was scrapped by city officials last Friday as a precaution because of the threat of the virus.

It's among a rising tide of screen events and theatrical releases that have been either postponed or cancelled amid the pandemic.

China, for instance, has halted film production and closed its cinemas weeks ago, and Italy has shuttered all of its theatres and production on the next “Mission: Impossible” there has been halted.

Meanwhile, the releases of “Peter Rabbit 2" and the James Bond film "No Time to Die” have been postponed, and the MipTV television market and festival in Cannes has been cancelled.

The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television has also cancelled this year's Family Fan Day, which is part of a week of festivities leading into the Canadian Screen Awards on March 29.

Toronto actor and producer Max Topplin, whose horror film “The Toll” was to make its world premiere at SXSW, said he and fellow producer/star Jordan Hayes lost out on a chance to find a U.S. distributor at the festival and spark early fandom.

But they're determined to get their project out there and are now in talks with several other festivals from around the world that have reached out to them since the cancellation.

He said some of those are “genre, high-end boutique festivals” that don't attract the huge crowds SXSW does and therefore may not get cancelled.

Topplin said they're also looking at “virtual options" for an exclusive online screening of "The Toll,” about a creepy rideshare experience that takes an even worse turn when supernatural forces affect the journey.

Topplin noted “it's a new time for everybody” and it isn't clear what the model for a virtual festival would look like.

But the New York-based non-profit organization Women Make Movies is currently hosting a Women's History Month Virtual Film Festival throughout the month. Festival attendees sign up to receive access to select films, with new titles added each week.

U.S. social network Stage 32 is also offering SXSW filmmakers a chance to register to have their film be screened on that platform.

“We're just finding creative ways to make sure the right people still see this film,” said Topplin, who runs the Toronto-based production company 4am Films with Hayes.

“In the end, this very well may not affect our financials whatsoever. There were some short-term things like I didn't get my service fee back from my Airbnb in Austin.... But we've got bigger things to think about than that.”

Toronto director Nicole Bazuin, whose hybrid documentary short “Modern Whore” was to make its world premiere at SXSW, said there's a feeling of uncertainty about the industry as the situation evolves.

“It's kind of a grieving process for everybody right now,” Bazuin said.

While it's hard to say what financial gain would have come out of SXSW, filmmakers did lose out on the invaluable experience, exposure and connections that come from launching a film at such a massive event, Bazuin said.

She also noted the film's production company, iThentic, had some costs involved with the festival but their hotel booking was reimbursed and any monetary loss was “not a huge concern” for them.

“I think there's definitely potential loss that all of us artists suffer, whether it's an actual tangible monetary loss or just losing opportunities that we rely on in our industry in order to build our careers,” Bezuin said.

But she's hopeful other opportunities will arise for her film, which sees author and activist Andrea Werhun recounting her experiences as an escort. The story is based on the duo's book, for which they're now writing an expanded second edition.

She's also open to “innovation and ingenuity” if the situation continues, so filmmakers can have their projects shared with audiences without people having to sit in a theatre or meet in person.

“We've got the internet, we've got ways that we can ourselves be broadcasting to our audiences and connecting,” Bazuin said.

Werhun suggests the film festival industry could possibly weather the outbreak through some sort of “digitalization.”

“I think the internet provides a pretty good opportunity to be able to showcase, and show off, incredible work without putting people at risk,” Werhun said.

The industry is now on tenterhooks wondering whether the Cannes Film Festival will go ahead as scheduled in May.

So far no major film festivals in Canada have been cancelled due to COVID-19.

The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival is still set to run April 30-May 10. Organizers say they're in close touch with health and government officials about the COVID-19 situation and are monitoring developments, but at this time there is no recommendation to postpone or cancel.

Canadian theatre giant Cineplex said it's also monitoring for developments closely.

And the Toronto International Film Festival said it, too, is monitoring developments as reported by leading health agencies and governments as it continues to plan September's event.

A statement from TIFF co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey said they're focused on how to work together to support other major film festivals.

“While our festival is six months away, we are following COVID-19's impact on a daily basis,” said the statement.

“TIFF believes this is a moment where major film festivals and events need to support each other and collaborate to deal with a global situation that is bigger than any one festival.”

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