Like many major film festivals, the International Film Festival Rotterdam has a "video lab" that lets members of the press, and I believe members of the market there, Cinemart, to catch films they missed the theatrical screenings of at the festival on iMac video monitors. It is a very useful enterprise, since IFFR had over a hundred features and countless short films, and it is inevitable that films don't fit into your schedule, something slips through the cracks, or you hear about a work well after its lone screening has occurred. Rotterdam's digital lab was the most extensive I have yet seen; I would say the vast majority of all non-retrospective titles in the 2010 lineup had been digitized and put on their local online server. This last point, that the videos are hosted online, seems small and logistical but is in fact crucial: not only could you watch the film from the video lab, which had 30 or so Apple computers set up for industry viewing, but if you were in the building and could connect to the industry wifi network, you could stream these films to your computer (or, presumably, other portable video devices like an iPhone). If the lab was booked full (as it sometimes was), or I felt like having a coffee or beer while catching up, I could whip out my laptop in the press and industry area lounge and watch Ben Russell's FIRPESCI award winning Let Each One Go Where He May, or Pedro Costa's Ne change rien, or some of the experimental shorts that I had missed. Neat.
Except for one issue. That issue is the high percentage of films I saw at Rotterdam theatrically that were being shown digitally. Movies that were shot on film. And video that was being projected on video, often poorly. As celluloid advocate David Phelps commented, "so people pay money to fly to Rotterdam and sleep in nice hotels and condos so that they can watch stuff they might as well watch on their projector? Why doesn’t Rotterdam just add a separate, online sidebar, save the journalists the trouble, and give everyone else better access?"
Indeed, two things were clear: one, that the decision to screen so many films digitally in their theaters paradoxically negates the need to be in a physical theater in Rotterdam for the festival; and two, that the technology on display in the video lab implies that Rotterdam could have put essentially their entire core festival online. Each one of these trends by themselves does not indicate a crisis, but the two together does, as the combined implication is that the International Film Festival Rotterdam as a physical event is superfluous.
So why go? Well, in theory the geographical requirements of the festival (or any other) intrinsically gathers together a community of people. Even if all attendees watch films in a darkened video lab all by their lonesomes, they still exit that room into a hall filled with people who have likely seen the same films. (Although considering the breadth of the lineup at giant festivals like Toronto or Rotterdam, this may not be as common as one would think or hope. Not a day went by when someone hadn't recommended a movie I hadn't heard of in the festival; and two days before IFFR ended a friend came back praising an entire sidebar I hadn't been aware of.) Festival communities even in a generalized and abstract sense, that of people from disparate places and backgrounds coming together to discover cinema, is a critical and defining atmospheric attribute to most film festivals. This is one reason why so many small, local film festivals continue to survive despite poor programming. But is that atmosphere enough to bring people together when they have no need to be all in the same place at the same time?
Perhaps the question is less when will these trends aggregate to either enrage festival goers (who pay quite a bit of money to see these films) or members of the industry (who either pay to travel to see these films, or are financially responsible for these films, which are detrimentally not being shown in an ideal way), but when will a major festival be the first to embrace the creative possibilities of digital exhibition. Imagine if the Berlinale put all their films online but made them accessible from a couple dozen micro-cinema venues spread around the city—small theaters, cafes, rented spaces—and they then gave individuals or groups the ability to curate or sub-program the festival's entire linup by digitally scheduling and queuing a series of films. Would this semi-empowering kind of audience engagement be worth the trade-off of seeing, say, the new Alain Resnais premiere projected on video (as it was in Cannes) if some madman could show that film in a digital double-feature alongside the new Michael Bay film? Despite the vital material questions this would entail, in a sad way the real question probably comes back to community and geography—would you rather see that pairing with people than by yourself?—rather than would you rather see a movie on film or on video. That latter question may soon be revised to "would you rather see a movie on video or not at all?"