The loss of traditional film festivals because of the pandemic means more than missing out on cocktail parties and the red carpet.
For small indie films, not having a chance to build word-of-mouth momentum at the festivals could be the difference between becoming an unlikely Oscar darling or another also-ran in the video-on-demand market.
Ricky Staub, a 37-year-old filmmaker, had ambitious plans when his directorial debut, “Concrete Cowboy,” landed coveted spots in the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. That all changed when Telluride was canceled and Toronto opted for a hybrid model with in-person screenings for Canadian audiences and a virtual version for everyone else.
“Everyone told me the best part of finishing your movie was when you started going to the festivals,” Mr. Staub said. “I don’t get to experience that at all. I have huge amounts of gratitude, but I’m sad I don’t get to go.”
At the Venice Film Festival, held in person with certain safety restrictions and concluding this week, “One Night in Miami” — the directorial debut of the Oscar-winning actress Regina King — has already generated early awards chatter. Amazon recently bought it in a bidding war.
Toronto is trying to create that enthusiasm in the virtual world. With a select number of online question-and-answer sessions with filmmakers, and both drive-in showings and 50-person theater screenings in Toronto, the event will showcase 50 films instead of the 333 it programmed in 2019.
Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of the festival, acknowledges that it’s “strange,” especially without the usual throngs crowding the streets during the 10-day international event. But he said the festival was still able to propel new filmmakers and films, even in a virtual world.
“A festival’s primary currency is intangible — it’s buzz,” Mr. Bailey said.