After 2020, Live Events Might Not Look the Same. Good!

By Angela Watercutter

Tabitha Jackson has had a helluva year. Back in January, the filmmaker got married on the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival, where she headed the documentary program for six years. At the festival’s close a week later, she was named director of the whole thing. That was February, and by this point you know where this story is heading. Jackson watched as other festivals in Toronto and New York went (mostly) online and tried to reengineer what Sundance would look like in a pandemic.

When Sundance kicks off on January 28, it will look unlike any other in the festival’s 42-year history. Yes, the coronavirus vaccine has begun rolling out in the US, but the process is expected to take months; it’s unthinkable right now to usher thousands of people into Park City, Utah, for quaint snow-covered events as in years past. And so Jackson’s plan is a festival that takes place at several small independent theaters and drive-ins across the country, while the rest unfolds via virtual screenings, parties, and Q&As. If Covid cancels the in-person gatherings, that’s OK; the online fest continues. The point is flexibility and access.

“What I’m saying to myself is that this festival, the 2021 festival, is a big collaboration, it’s a grand experiment,” Jackson says. “We are trying to double down on our values and meet the moment in the way that we can. It’s not a blueprint yet. It’s an opportunity to gather evidence for what we might wish to see.”

A lot has been lost this year due to Covid-19: lives, jobs, important moments with family and friends. It has also put most forms of large in-person gatherings on hold. Concerts, film festivals, opening weekends at the multiplex—all of these things became potential super-spreader events. Some events, like South by Southwest and E3, got canceled or postponed. As the year went on, more moved online. For many people, it was a huge blow to have shared cultural experiences stripped away. For others, it meant their livelihoods were upended. But the pandemic also opened the door to creating events that, like Jackson’s, are available to a much larger and more diverse audience. And that could lay the groundwork for long-needed updates to traditional formats.

Using the lessons of the pandemic comes up often when talking to event organizers. Like anyone, their lives would be easier if everything was just like it was in 2019. But even back then, events like Comic-Cons were starting to lose their appeal as fandoms splintered and Hollywood studios wavered in their loyalty. Reimagining events, then, becomes not only an opportunity to address the issues created by lockdowns, but also the ones that have been plaguing cultural events for years. Like, say, accessibility. Not everyone can afford to travel to comics conventions or film festivals (or concerts or car shows or whatever). Some people don’t like crowds, or are unable to physically maneuver in them. Having events that stream online or in some form of XR gives some folks—the ones who have broadband, at least—more chances to participate.

New York Comic Con, for example, streamed all of its big panels on YouTube in 2020, allowing people stuck at home to watch from all over the globe. That made online “attendance” significantly larger than it was in past years—typically a big NYCC panel would have 5,600 people watching live and another 10,000 viewing online; in 2020, the average views per panel were around 60,000—and, according to Kristina Rogers, NYCC’s event director, it helped bring more people into the NYCC fold, and into nerdom in general. “That’s a silver lining for us,” she says.

Virtual panels and similar events have their own glitches, of course. “We have established,” Rogers says ruefully, “that everybody has terrible internet everywhere, and getting five people on the same video call and not having one of them drop off is practically impossible.”