CPH:DOX: From offline to online documentary film festival

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As the COVID19 lockdown hit Denmark, the Danish documentary film festival CPH:DOX changed from being a physical event to become fully digital. A shift that not only made the 2020 version possible but also took the documentary festival in a new direction. We talked to Head of Programme Niklas Engstrøm about turning a physical film festival into a digital event and the consequences of the digital turnaround.

In February 2020, the film industry gathered at the Berlin International Film Festival, also known as the Berlinale – a festival that brings together thousands of people from all over the world – to network and celebrate the world of film. A team from the Danish documentary film festival CPH:DOX were also attending. 

“It all seemed pretty normal,” Niklas Engstrøm, Head of Programme at CPH DOX tells us. “But then it suddenly went in the wrong direction – a lot faster than any of us had expected”.  

On March 11th, 2020, the Prime Minister of Denmark turned up on the screens of many Danish homes. The message was clear: Due to the current situation and the increase in the number of people infected with COVID19, Denmark had to lockdown, and CPH:DOX was suddenly hanging by a thread. 

Head of Programme Niklas Engstrøm / Photo: Emil Hartvig

“On one hand it was depressing to see one year of work slip through our hands. On the other hand, it felt like a relief. We knew that the announcement would come sooner or later, so we were happy to get some clarification before the actual start of the festival”. 

Niklas and the CPH:DOX team had been working on a plan B, in case of a lockdown.  Seconds after the press meeting, they started making the important calls that would determine the destiny of the 2020-version of CPH:DOX. 

“We agreed not to cancel the festival. We wanted to go through with it. At this point, no film festival had ever done a fully digital program before, but at that moment it seemed like the right thing to do” Niklas Engstrøm

“At this point, no film festival had ever done a fully digital program before, but at that moment it seemed like the right thing to do” Niklas Engstrøm

“The whole film industry turned to us” 

With a couple of start-up challenges, a crucial call to a small and at the time unknown New Zealandic streaming agency on the other side of the world, and many film rights that needed to be renegotiated, CPH:DOX ended up with a fully digital program. The new program ended up consisting of a total of 160 films out of the 200 that were part of the original lineup. 

“In the months after the digital festival, the whole film industry turned to us. It became a model for several film festivals and many reached out to us for advice. In the wake of the festival, we spent a lot of time participating in webinars sharing our experiences. Everybody wanted to get through the difficult times and help each other. It was great to experience such solidarity within the film and culture industry.” 

From Copenhagen festival to national event

The new version of the festival didn’t only result in attention and recognition from the industry but also made the festival grow out of Copenhagen. 

Turning CPH:DOX into a national film festival had been part of a future plan for a long time. The current situation speeded up the process and it suddenly became reality overnight. Now people could view as many documentaries as they wanted all over the country, simply by turning on their computer. On top of that, many people now had more time on their hands to dive into the many documentaries.  

“When we digitized the festival, it went from primarily being a Copenhagen film festival to becoming a national film event. We went from 20% of our audience being from outside of Copenhagen to 40 %. Our support team heard dialects from all over Denmark. It showed us how decisions in times of crisis can be made very fast and just how much you can build up in a short time if you make the right decisions and run with them”

"It showed us how decisions in times of crisis can be made very fast and just how much you can build up in a short time if you make the right decisions and run with them” Niklas Engstrøm

Combining the best of both worlds 

When the second wave hit Denmark, the cinemas had to close down again and since then, it has not been possible to go catch a movie. Niklas and his team postponed the 2021 festival from March to April. Because of the current restrictions, this year’s festival will combine the best of both worlds, online and offline. 

The 2021 version of the festival will be a so-called hybrid festival with both digital and physical events, combining documentaries (in cinemas or at home), online talks, and debates. The first part of the festival is digital and will take place from April 21- May 5, and from May 6-12, the festival will proceed to the real world, where a selection of this year’s documentaries will be shown in Copenhagen cinemas.

CPH:DOX 2019 / Photo: Karoline Hill

“To solve the many challenges we have faced this past year has been quite a feeling of success. But none of us have ever wished for a fully digital festival vol. 2. To meet physically and be present together in the cinema is such a big part of a film event like CPH:DOX. You don’t get the same tactile feel at home. It’s also a very important event for the directors because they get to meet the audience. Such feelings are hard to create online. That’s why we decided to make it a hybrid festival and combine the best of both worlds”.

CPH:DOX in the future

When it comes to the future of CPH:DOX, there are many thoughts going through Niklas’ mind, one of them being to evolve on the digital part.

“I’m considering whether we should make a model where the digital screenings will be on certain time slots, just like it would if you were going to catch a film. Many cinemas are worried about the whole streaming industry and the big revenue-generating films doing their premiere online. My inner feeling tells me that by going with a new digital model, we will keep our good relationship with the cinemas because then there’s no alternative to them.

But the digital part is here to stay – that’s for sure. It’s just a matter of which form,” he concludes.

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