20 on 20: Essays in Celebration of FLEFF


Film Festivals in the Digital Age by Karin Chien

Karin Chien



The advent of YouTube in 2005 has come to dramatically transform questions of access, inclusion, and consumption of media in the US. Digital platforms and political changes are directly impacting roles played by film festivals around the world.

       Festivals once served as sites of access. Access for audiences to premieres of “serious” cinema. Access for filmmakers to critics, film buyers, and the public. The festivals were gatekeepers.

       In the past decade, digital platforms have altered those dynamics of access.

       YouTube in particular changed media creation and consumption. Historically, films reached audiences by surviving a gauntlet of gatekeepers – financiers, executives, distributors, critics, bookers, and festival programmers. This system created an exclusive class of makers and content.

       But on YouTube, the audience is the gatekeeper.

       Looking at Asian American content, the numbers help tell the story. In 1997, a watershed year, Yellow, Shopping for Fangs, Strawberry Fields, and other seminal Asian American independent films premiered on the festival circuit.[1] A decade later, roughly 40 Asian American independent features were submitted to festivals. A notable increase, but still comprising only 1% of independent films submitted to Sundance.[2] Asian American stories remain on the margins of cinema.

       Conversely, by 2010, the #1 subscribed channel on YouTube was an Asian American comedian named Ryan Higa. That year, four of YouTube’s top 25 creators were Asian American.[3]

       How did it happen? In late 2006, YouTube phenom Wong Fu wanted to make films. They were denied access by gatekeepers in Hollywood. So they made films with digital cameras and editing software, and uploaded them to YouTube. They found huge audiences online, fueled by Asian Americans hungry for content. Wong Fu’s videos have been seen over 450 million times.

       Wong Fu is part of a class of Asian American YouTube stars, including Kevin Wu (KevJumba), Ryan Higa (NigaHiga), and Michelle Phan. Film and TV execs recruited them eagerly. But Hollywood wanted their audience numbers, not their stories, and would not fund their projects.

       In 2008, Comcast closed AZN television—“the Network for Asian America”--due to decreasing audience.[4] In conciliation, they gave over a million dollars to Asian American film festivals, including Visual Communications (VC), of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. VC in turn created a Film Development Fund for Asian Americans. Part of the fund went towards Wong Fu’s first feature.

       This was the very access Wong Fu had sought. VC was making a significant contribution to originating more Asian American stories. Wong Fu, with its huge audience base, crowdfunded another $350,000 on Indiegogo.

       While financing features is not sustainable for most festivals, this was an example of a festival creating sorely needed access. VC’s Film Development Fund helped finance three Asian American features. The films are now playing festivals and will soon find audiences online.

       Around the same time, in 2012, Xi Jinping became China’s new president. Xi proved to be more conservative than the prior administration. Among other crackdowns, authorities shut down independent film festivals, citing illegal assembly of audiences. By 2016, no independent film festival in China could continue publicly.[5]

       Festival programmers tried to outwit the authorities. The Beijing Independent Film Festival built their own screening room, but they found the gates to their headquarters barricaded. Audience members were prevented from entering, then beaten and harassed until they left.

       The Beijing Queer Film Festival held a screening on a local train. Audience members brought laptops and were given business cards embedded with USB sticks. People watched the film on their devices, then disembarked to a bar for the Q&A. The China Independent Film Festival held invitation-only screenings in unpublicized locations in 2015 and 2016.

       Independently curated film festivals are under direct attack in China. This has forced festivals to re-imagine their identities, purpose and function. Young organizers have formed networks of spaces – bookstores, bars, cafes, art galleries. Digital files are couriered between organizers and screened for local audiences in smaller cities with less detection.  By connecting 20 or even 60 of these spaces and promoting screenings via social media, organizers have created, in essence, de-centralized film festivals.

       While the forces affecting festivals in the US and China are different, the need to re-imagine their form and function are similarly pressing. In the States, it is imperative for festivals to ask how traditional practices and commercial pressures might serve to exclude certain stories.

       For example, most U.S. film festivals do not allow prior or concurrent online distribution.  Filmmakers must choose between festival screenings, with their potential for awards and recognition, or online distribution with its access to audiences everywhere. Independent filmmakers have responded by arranging online distribution to immediately follow the film’s festival premiere. This combines a festival’s ability to generate publicity and prestige with the Internet’s capacity to offer widespread access. But it is an imperfect solution, forcing filmmakers to choose between a full festival run or access to diverse audiences.

       So the questions remain. Do film festivals today inhibit or widen access? How can festivals increase access for audiences and for storytellers? And how can film festivals continue to best serve their local communities and independent filmmakers?


[1] Jun Okuda, Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movements (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 97-123.

[2] “Behind the Curtains of the Asian American Film Scene: The Class of 2006.” UCLA International Institute Asia Pacific Center, January 12, 2007, accessed November 7, 2016, http://www.international.ucla.edu/asia/article/60666; “33 Years of Sundance Film Festival,” Sundance Institute, accessed November 7, 2016, http://www.sundance.org/festivalhistory/.

[3] DJChuang, “Top Asian Americans on YouTube,” Next Gener.Asian Church, March 27, 2010, accessed November 4, 2016, http://nextgenerasianchurch.com/2010/03/27/top-asian-americans-on-youtube/; Jeff, “Ryan Higa’s Channel is #1 for YouTube Subscribers,” 8 asians, August 23, 2009, accessed November 4, 2016, http://www.8asians.com/2009/08/23/ryan-higas-channel-is-1-for-youtube-subscribers/

[4] George Szalai, “Comcast to Shutter AZN,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 27, 2008, accessed November 4, 2016, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/comcast-shutter-azn-103495.

[5] Jonathan Kaiman, “Beijing Independent Film Festival Shut Down by Chinese Authorities,” The Guardian, August 24, 2014, accessed November 6, 2016,  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/24/beijing-independent-film-festival-shut-down-china-freedom.