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How will BIFF weather COVID-19?

The 24th Busan International Film Festival takes place at Busan Cinema Center in 2019 (BIFF)
The 24th Busan International Film Festival takes place at Busan Cinema Center in 2019 (BIFF)

Back in January, how long the COVID-19 pandemic would last was anyone’s guess. The organizers of the annual Busan International Film Festival slated for next month probably had no idea that it would continue to wreak havoc.

The official preview press conference scheduled for Sept. 7 was canceled as the novel coronavirus spreads wider and faster than before in what is seen as a second surge.

“We were supposed to announce whether the event would be held offline during the press conference, but that will now be decided during an extraordinary general meeting next Friday,” Kim Jung-yun, senior manager of BIFF’s public relations and marketing department, told The Korea Herald on Monday.

At the upcoming meeting, the festival’s organizing committee members are expected to decide whether it will be possible to hold a festival this year, and if so, what form it would take, according to Kim.

“The festival will certainly be scaled down, but whether we will hold an online-only or an onsite-online hybrid festival will be decided during the meeting,” Kim said, adding, “Whatever the decision may be, we will put the utmost importance on the safety of citizens and the audiences and the sanitization measures during the festival.”

BIFF, one of the biggest international film gatherings in Asia, aims to discover and support new film talents in the region. Around 200,000 people have attended the festival annually until now, but the organizers are unsure how many people will be able to join this year’s event, with foreign guests unable to enter the country and strict social distancing in effect nationwide. If all goes as planned, the festival will take place Oct. 7-16.

Meanwhile, some local media have criticized the BIFF organizers for pushing ahead with an offline festival amid the continuing virus. Kim denied reports that organizers were putting the public at risk because of the need to pay the staff.

“I can say for sure that we’re not holding the festival for such a reason. We were guaranteed staff salaries for this year by the (Busan) city government earlier this year,” Kim said.

According to BIFF, the festival received an extra 1 billion won ($842,000) from the Busan Metropolitan City through a supplementary budget in August. According to the organizers, the festival is running a debt of “slightly more than 1 billion won.”

The festival receives 6 billion won in subsidy from the Busan Metropolitan City Government and some 1.6 billion won from the central government annually.

Local film festivals have taken different routes to keep the events going amid the unprecedented virus situation. The 24th edition of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in July teamed up with a local streaming platform Watcha to conduct an online-offline hybrid festival.

The 21st edition of Jeonju International Film Festival -- delayed twice due to the virus outbreak -- held the main event behind closed doors and held online screenings during the festival period from May 28 to June 10, before kicking off a three-month extended cinema screening of select films in Seoul and Jeonju in July.

No major film festivals held in the first half of this year have been cancelled but some, including the 37th Busan International Short Film Festival which took place last week, canceled onsite programs and moved all events online.

By Choi Ji-won (