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Pausing the Reel – How the COVID-19 Outbreak Has Affected Local Film Festivals

19 February 2020

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Pausing the Reel – How the COVID-19 Outbreak Has Affected Local Film Festivals

With public safety in mind, a handful of local film festivals have been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

In a press release dated 8 February 2020, the Ministry of Health advised event organisers to cancel or defer non-essential large-scale events – with the Ministry of Trade and Industry defining large scale events as events with more than 1000 attendees. This statement follows the Ministry stepping up its risk assessment of the outbreak from DORSCON Yellow to DORSCON Orange on 7 February 2020.

The outbreak has postponed events such as the Singapore Yacht Show, NATAS Travel Fair, and several concerts. Closer to the film world are affected film festivals such as the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival, the Middle East Film Festival, the Japanese Film Festival, and the Happiness Film Festival and its concurrent Happiness Conference. These festivals were slated to be carried on in the coming days and weeks.

(Photo Credit: Singapore Chinese Film Festival Facebook Page)

Looking towards the near future, the eighth edition of the Singapore Chinese Film Festival is scheduled for the second quarter of the year. Sinema.SG has reached out to the festival to enquire about the status of the festival. The organisers have confirmed that they have decided to go ahead with the festival as planned for now, and they will notify attendees if there are any changes.

The common thread amongst the postponed festivals are their responses to the information provided by the government by following their advisories regarding the outbreak. For these festivals, there was a common consensus amongst co-organisers to delay the festival for the sake of public health.

The Middle East Film Festival, co-organised by the Singapore Film Society and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute (MEI) was scheduled for 14 to 19 February. The festival announced their call to postpone their screenings to later in the year on 8 February, with ticket holders receiving a full refund.

(Photo Credit: Middle East Institute-NUS Facebook Page)

“The Health Ministry’s advisory to defer or cancel all non-essential large-scale events following the Government’s decision to raise the DORSCON risk assessment from Yellow to Orange guided our decision. NUS’s guidance was similar,” said Lim Wei Chean, MEI spokesperson.

Adding on, she shared that it is still too early to tell when the new dates for the festival will be set, with their decision on the dates largely hinging on when the MEI and the festival’s partners think audience interest will be the highest. 

The Singapore Mental Health Film Festival, originally slated for 27 February to 1 March, made its announcement to postpone on 10 February. Similarly, ticket holders will get a full refund via Sistic. 

“We were hoping to welcome over 1000+ individuals over the four days,” said Cheryl Tan, Festival Director of the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival. 

(Photo Credit: Singapore Mental Health Film Festival)

“Even though we had plans to place hand sanitisers at key areas around the space, we couldn’t risk everyone being in a small space for an extended period of time – our staff, volunteers and festival partners. We always emphasise about providing safe spaces for all, and this includes physical and health safety as well.”

Sherman Ho, Project Manager for the Japanese Film Festival, Happiness Film Festival and the Happiness Conference, was involved in the call to postpone these festivals. The Japanese Film Festival was planned for 20 February to 15 March while both the Happiness Film Festival and Happiness Conference were slated to run concurrently from 18 March to 22 March. All three of these events have been pushed back to later this year.

(Photo Credit: Japanese Film Festival Facebook Page)

“The key consideration behind the decision is definitely public safety. We don’t want to have any cases where people fall ill because of these festivals,” said Sherman. “I think another consideration was that this virus is quite a serious case now and we didn’t want a situation where we run these festivals but they are overshadowed by this situation.”

When asked about the financial loss, the organisers of the Middle East Film Festival responded that the postponement was based on public health concerns, not financial considerations. Cheryl and Sherman, however, keyed us in on the effects of the outbreak on their festivals.

As ticketing and marketing pushes haven’t begun for the Happiness Film Festival and the Japanese Film Festival, the cost incurred by the postponement has been limited. The inverse is true of the Happiness Conference. Here, there are lost cost advertising wise since marketing started in December with brochures already printed.

“‘Significant’ is quite subjective but to us the cost has been quite significant – manageable but significant,” said Sherman.

For the Singapore Mental Film Festival, Cheryl shared with us her hopes that the buffer amount set aside by the festival will cover any additional costs. “We are working closely with our partners to ensure that prices don’t get elevated much, or at all. We are grateful to everyone for understanding the position that we are in – that we are a small social enterprise start-up and that the virus was not something that could have been predicted.”

Regarding the effects on attendance due to the postponement, Sherman believes that it is unlikely that there will be a drop for all three of his events once the outbreak situation has improved. 

“The only reason why I think attendance would be affected is because all the major events that happen in the first half of the year have been pushed to the second. So there is now double the number of events happening in the second half,” said Sherman.

(Photo Credit: Happiness Initiative Facebook Page)


Sharing this insight with Cheryl, she said, “We are also waiting to see the calendar of events for the second half of the year. It’s too early to say whether it’s definite that we will have a drop in numbers. I feel that right now, we might have the advantage of time to gather more interest about the festival, and this postponement could work in our favour.”

As they have announced their lineup of films for the festival, Cheryl adds that the excitement and anticipation could be less than before due to the postponement. There is a slight worry amongst the team that people might get their hands on the film before their screenings and won’t attend the festival. However, they are still hopeful as the panel conversation that they will host after their screenings is unique to the festival, with each topic and panelist curated. 

(Film Still of ‘Shuttle Life’, one of the films scheduled for The Singapore Mental Health Film Festival 2020 / Photo Credit: More Entertainment)

The biggest worry for the organising team of the Middle East Film Festival is the overall impact of the virus on Singapore, particularly on frontline staff, agencies and others who have been mobilised to battle the outbreak. They hope that it will not be a prolonged episode and that the situation will stabilise soon.

Sherman shares this sentiment, hoping that the situation will improve by the second half of the year. “That’s the main thing. Now we are just waiting to see how things go.”

With the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival pushed back to the second half of the year, Cheryl hopes to keep back on track in 2021 by having it in the first half. As each festival takes roughly a year to organise, they would have to plan for both this year’s edition as well as the next in 2021. While there are worries that mashing up the timelines could lead to confusion, she sees this as being potentially mitigated with clear structures set in place.

“Having said that, there’s a lot to look forward to as well. With the onset of this virus situation, the majority of Singaporeans have experienced first-hand how anxiety and uncertainty can cloud our judgement of situations and our own actions. The work of the festival is to bring awareness to our individual mental health, and how we are affected by it. I think moving forward, we can definitely curate programmes and activities that can speak to Singaporeans in a way that’s closer to home, and not something that might be still seen as separate from them.”

As the outbreak continues, each of these festivals will be updating their audiences through their social media pages. 

Follow these pages below:
Middle East Film Festival via Middle East Institute-NUS
Happiness Film Festival via the Happiness Initiative
Japanese Film Festival
Singapore Mental Health Film Festival

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.