The Berlinale has decided to hold its upcoming film festival online, organizers officially announced on Friday — a few days after Germany entered its harder lockdown.

Originally set for February 11-21, 2021, the festival is pushing back the dates for its program, including the competition section, which will be presented in a digital format reserved to film industry insiders, at the virtual European Film Market (EFM) from March 1-5.

The winners and a selection of the films from the March festival will then be presented in Berlin theaters in the summer. 

“As an answer to the times in which we are living, we have decided to split our offer into two distinct, yet related events and in this way fulfill the mission of the Berlinale,” said artistic director Carlo Chatrian in a press release. He went on to describe the planned summer event “like a new start, 70 years after the first edition.”

“With the change in the festival format in 2021, we will have the chance to protect the health of all guests and to support the restart of the cinema industry,” stated Berlinale executive director Mariette Rissenbeek.

Optimist plans ahead of the second wave of infections

Back in August, when the number of COVID-19 infections was still relatively under control, the organizers of the Berlin International Film Festival had said that they were planning the Berlinale 2021 as a physical festival, but already turned to developing a hybrid format for its parallel event, the European Film Market, one of the world’s most important film fairs.

“In times of the coronavirus pandemic, it has become even clearer that we still require analog experience spaces in the cultural realm,” had said the director duo of the Berlinale, Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian, in a statement at the time.

Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian posing at a news conference ahead of the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin

Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian became the new directors of the Berlinale in 2020

But as Germany now faces a record number of new infections and daily deaths, and enters a harder lockdown, the festival’s organizers obviously had to readjust their optimistic expectations. 

At the beginning of December, Berlin’s Senator for Culture Klaus Lederer had expressed skepticism as to whether the Berlinale could “be having full cinemas all over the city here in February. I really don’t think that will be the case with the current numbers [of infections].”

Along with various businesses and schools, is already confirmed that Berlin’s cultural institutions are to remain closed until the middle of January, and Lederer said in a Twitter video message that he expected the lockdown for cinemas to “go on a little longer.”

An empty cinema, the Zoo Palast in Berlin

How long will Berlin cinemas remain empty?

Berlinale 2020: The last days of innocence

Last year’s festival ended just a day before Berlin’s first official case of COVID-19 was detected on March 2.

Throughout the 2020 Berlinale, the novel coronavirus was a topic of discussion, and people were already starting to wash hands more thoroughly, but everything still felt relatively normal.

More than 330,000 tickets were sold for tightly packed screenings; over 18,500 film industry professionals from 132 countries and nearly 3,500 journalists from all around the world came to the festival. Parties and red-carpet events added glitter to the city’s depressing month of February, as social distancing was not a term anyone used yet. 

The awarded pose for a family picture after the awards ceremony at the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin

The award winners at the Berlinale 2020

It was the last major festival to take place unaffected by the coronavirus. A week later, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Cancellations and restricted events

The major film festivals that followed either took on a digital or hybrid form, or were cancelled.

That was the case for Cannes, which after its cancellation nevertheless put on a symbolic “mini” version of its film festival and revealed a selection of films that would have otherwise been part of its program.

In September, the Venice festival also managed to buck the digital trend with a physical event, albeit in a “more restrained format” that restricted its access to the public and enforced temperature checks and masks in half-full theaters.

Tilda Swinton and director Pedro Almodovar wearing face masks at the Venice Film Festival in September 2020

Tilda Swinton and director Pedro Almodovar at the Venice Film Festival in September 2020

After pushing back its original November date due to the pandemic, the Cairo International Film Festival — one of the world’s 15 “category A” film festivals — has also managed to hold a physical event for the industry elite, from December 2-10.  No masks were to be seen on photos of celebrities on the red carpet. Egypt is only beginning its second wave of new infections.

That’s not the case in the United States, where the mark of over 3,000 daily deaths has now been reached. Sundance, the country’s largest independent film festival, announced that it would be holding its main program from January 28 to February 3 on an online platform, premiering over 70 films, along with a selection of physically-distanced screening opportunities around the US.