How Korean Film Festivals Were Held During the Pandemic Era
- Writerby Kim Hyeongseok
Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, film festivals around the world are in crisis. Just like any other festivals, film festivals where people gather at a certain place at a certain time have either been canceled, postponed, or conducted online due to the risk of spreading the virus. Even in the case where a festival carefully stuck to having a physical festival, they couldn’t see any full houses or large crowds due to the theaters’ restricted occupancy and social distancing. Because of the unexpected disaster, what’s essential to film festivals went through a phase of change.
The Measures Korean Film Festivals Took in the Face of the Pandemic
The same applied to Korean film festivals. Whether they are local or international, Korean film festivals struggled to survive the pandemic over the past two years. Let's go back to the beginning of 2020. At that time, Korea was in deep panic due to the pandemic that broke out surrounding a religious group called Shincheonji, and the organizers of film festivals who had their festival events scheduled in the first half of the year had to spend their days in agony. Ultimately, Ulju Mountain Film Festival, which was scheduled to take place in early April, was moved to October which is six months later. Also, the opening of the JEONJU International Film Festival was postponed from April to May. At this time, JEONJU International Film Festival chose to dramatically reduce their offline events and replaced them with online screenings, and many Korean film festivals followed suit since then. Downsizing was unavoidable. The social distancing law meant reduced number of audiences, and most of the side events were canceled.
PyeongChang International Peace Film Festival (PIPFF) which I work for was no exception. PIPFF, which started in 2019 as a legacy event to inherit the spirit of peace after the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, faced an unprecedented phenomenon called a pandemic for its second festival in 2020. It was unclear until April whether the opening ceremony could be held on the scheduled date of June 17. Nonetheless, the festival started as planned and met the audience physically as before. We did our best to prevent the spread of the virus in all possible ways, and fortunately, not a single infection was made through the film festival. The third festival in 2021 wasn’t much different. It started on June 18 and was carried out as planned per schedule for six days and offline. Two weeks after the closing ceremony, local health authorities informed us that there were no cases of infection through the festival.
How PIPFF Operated
I have no intention to brag about how we were able to hold a physical film festival during the pandemic era. Instead, I just want to share some thoughts I had while preparing and holding the festival for two years. First of all, PIPFF was able to hold the film festival offline and safely without any damages due to its regional characteristics. Hoenggye-ri in Daegwallyeong-myeon, Pyeongchang-gun, Gangwon-do is where the film festival is held, and it’s also where the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics took place. It is the least densely populated area among the local governments holding international film festivals in Korea. There are no multiplexes, not to mention movie theaters, and the screenings take place at alternative theaters which are remodeled gyms or warehouses.
Given that most Korean film festivals are held in cities and at multiplexes, PIPFF is highly advantageous when it comes to taking preventive measures. Cities are vulnerable to the dangers of the pandemic, and multiplexes are often linked to shopping malls. In fact, a theater is not a dangerous place. In the pandemic era, we are not allowed to contact each other, talk to each other, or eat in the theaters. But the reason why multiplexes in cities are dangerous is because they are exposed to an unspecified number of people, making it difficult to identify and track the routes people take, which is necessary information to know in order to prevent cross-contamination. On the other hand, PIPFF’s venues are all individual spaces with one theater each, making it possible to identify all those entering and leaving the theaters. In other words, spaces and personnel were strictly under control.
What Should Korean Film Festivals Do in The Era of No Contact?
I think this question inversely gives some ideas about the future of the Korean film festival culture. Now, festivals should move from the existing method of “concentration” to “dispersion”. In the case of PIPFF, alternative theaters were made, and outdoor screenings were actively utilized to compensate for the lack of theaters. Although it was a desperate measure on our part, spreading out in the pandemic situation allowed a much safer movie-watching environment than multiplexes where multiple theaters are in a single building. In the future, film festivals need to create a safer movie-watching environment through spatial dispersion of some kind. It is also crucial to secure the most exclusive spaces in multiplexes for the festivals.
We should think about dispersing in terms of time too. A film festival presents many movies in a short period. This presupposes that it needs to attract large audiences during that short amount of time, but we can’t adhere to that method anymore. Then, it would be best to spread out the film festival period with prolonged schedules and focus more on businesses and events that run continuous even outside of the festival dates.
The most important thing one can do to prevent contamination is to develop informative handbooks. Based on our experience in 2020, PIPFF completed a fairly massive handbook in 2021 and was able to receive sponsorship from a decontamination company after making many requests. The handbook contains almost all the details related to preventing contamination, including how situations would change in every stage, what measures of disinfection took place in every space, the number of secured disinfectants and their locations, as well as how to deal with an infection should it ever happen. It would be ideal for film festivals to get together to create these guidelines and to share useful tips, but at this stage, it would be more urgent for each film festival to create their own handbook.
The period we’re in is often referred to as the “No Contact Era”, but film festivals must pursue “safe contact”. To do so, preventing infections and restricting the movement of people would be crucial, but most of all, the culture of film festivals needs to change. It doesn’t make sense to judge a film festival by the number of attendees or its economic effect in the pandemic era. Film festivals should now start a tradition that is based on quality. Especially since many Korean film festivals rely on the local governments for most of their budgets, they should intrinsically and culturally look at the ways to link local and global films, and how they could contribute to the movie culture. That is the lesson and the homework COVID-19 has given to film festivals.