The Fate of Festivals Amidst Coronavirus

The live entertainment industry has taken a hit amidst the global pandemic leaving the economy in shambles and its future in question.

Owing to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, all major outdoor events including film, music, arts, and cultural festivals have either been canceled or postponed, the economic loss of which is estimated to be hundreds of millions. Due to its rescheduling, the Fringe Festival held in Edinburgh, Scotland- the largest art festival in the world- stands at a deficit of £1,500,867 ($1.9 million) after refunding all of the artists and companies that had registered with them, informed Shona McCarthy, the festival’s chief executive.

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A biennial transformational festival, The Boom Festival, in the interior town of Idanha-a-Nova, Portugal was also impacted. Euronews reported that 40,000 participants from 170 countries had already bought tickets for this year’s edition until border closures postponed it to 2021, hence robbing the region of an important source of income. Artur Mendes, on behalf of the Boom Festival, explained how the economic impact of the event will be much larger because they have no sponsors and depend entirely on ticket sales and the rental of spaces.


Image Credits – Boom Festival YouTube Channel

In Texas, USA, the massive multimedia festival South by Southwest was canceled by city officials a week before it was supposed to begin. The impact was almost immediate; the state lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars brought in by the attendees, but this cancellation also brought about an uncertainty in the future of South by Southwest. “We are planning to carry on and do another event in 2021, but how we’re going to do that I’m not entirely sure”, co-founder and CEO, Ronald Swenson told the Wall Street Journal. Having to have reduced the full-time staff by a third, Swenson also mentioned his company struggling to “keep from running out of money by summer”.

Crowd shots of the SXSW Outdoor Stage presented by MGM Resorts in 2018 at Ladybird Lake – (C) by Merrick Ales Photography

The company also announced their online film festival on Amazon Prime Video in April to showcase the feature films which were supposed to be shown in this year’s conference. Thirty-nine films of all categories were available for anyone with a basic Amazon account to watch. While being convenient and efficient for the viewers, it was a rather last resort for filmmakers who chose to participate and got an undisclosed screening fee. However, from a business standpoint, it was understandable why filmmakers were hesitant to accept Amazon’s offer. The Hollywood Reporter hence asked a pertinent question, “Why would any distributor want to pay money to screen a movie many people outside of a festival audience have already seen for free?”

While the pandemic resulted in multiple casualties, the festival circuit is rather ill-suited to fight back from this forced hiatus. Unlike NBA, MLB, and other sports leagues or conglomerates like Disney, once-a-year events and festivals which pool in enthusiasts, artists, local businesses, and industries to collectively promote creativity and business can crumble with just one cancellation or postponement.

In conversation with Aisha Harris of The New York Times, executive director Lela Meadow-Conner of the non-profit film festival Alliance, explained how film festivals are “kind of like start-ups year over year” wherein the money to be put into a festival is raised, the festival then runs and brings in the money only to be put into the next one. In addition to that, festivals exist in a kind of ‘symbiotic relationship’’ with their host towns. The hospitality industry and gig workers count on big and small events alike to bump up their businesses year after year. In return, funding for these events is partly provided by local sponsors such as small businesses and through donations.

The Indie Memphis film festival is held annually every fall and for now, it is running on schedule for October although executive director, Ryan Watt, anticipates that this year will see a reduced number of sponsorships. With an uncertain future, similar to many artistic organizations, they are also working on producing online events in the coming weeks— movie live streams followed by virtual Q&A’s with the filmmakers and a weekly movie club.

One of the bigger battles festivals will face on the other side of the pandemic is bringing back audiences. “When will the audience be ready to venture out again?” asks Meadow-Conner. How many people will be able to afford to partake in these events amidst the oncoming massive recession also remains in question.




Feature Image Via Unsplash

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