Arts & Entertainment

Sydney Film Festival Cancelled – Interview With CEO Leigh Small

The leaders of the Sydney Film Festival had been contemplating drastic measures for weeks in the face of the worsening COVID-19 pandemic. But that didn’t make the final decision any easier. 

On Wednesday afternoon the group made the call: They would cancel their 2020 program.

In the announcement SFF stated, “It is with deep regret that, for the first time in its history, the Sydney Film Festival board and management must announce the cancellation of this year’s Festival.”

Speaking to City Hub on Friday festival CEO Leigh Small explained that the decision to cancel was one they had been considering for some time.

“We’ve been looking closely at this predicament for the past three weeks. We’ve been modelling how we would respond and had anticipated that this closure could possibly occur.”

During their modelling process the fest also considered a raft of other measures to cope with COVID-19.

“When we modelled this situation there was a version where we perhaps would cancel our larger venues. However that would have been financially very difficult for us because the business model that we have is based on large attendances in large venues, meaning anywhere from 700 to 2000,” explained Small. “Pushing the festival back would mean we would have to be able to maintain those venues. The State Theatre wasn’t available later and once we go beyond August it becomes too difficult to put in place the next festival for 2021.”

Whilst the decision to cancel the festival entirely is obviously devastating for SFF and Sydney film-buffs, the biggest impact will be felt by local filmmakers and producers.

Film festivals are an integral part of the release plan for many films, particularly smaller independent films. COVID-19 has also forced the shutdown of many local films and television shows currently in production.

“The distributors, local producers and filmmakers are in a state of upheaval, flux and devastation. It’s not just exhibition and distribution, it’s also production,” said Small, “We’re just a part of their cycle, so we really feel for our filmmaking community.”

There is a small window of hope for some of the films which were scheduled to screen at SFF this year, said Small, “As of today Cannes [Film Festival] has announced a postponement, but that could turn into a cancellation. So you could see 2020 turning into 2021. All of the films that were about to go into their release cycle could shift into next year.”

Now that the decision to cancel physical screenings has been made, the fest leadership have shifted their focus onto alternative delivery methods, such as online streaming.

“On Wednesday when we were speaking to our partners about the cancellation, we had offers from Screen Australia and various streaming services. So we will be somewhere in some form before the end of the year, but we don’t know what that looks like at this stage. We are in a good position to do something though, so stay tuned.”

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