Dan Brawley has never been one to sit around. Normally, during this time of year, Cucalorus’ “chief instigating officer” would be meeting with people left and right in preparation for the November festival. This year, with face-to-face meetings made impossible due to COVID-19 precautions, Brawley has opted for the next best thing: He’s taken those discussions online.
A collaboration between Cucalorus Film Foundation and UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, NC Film Forum is a nine-part series of discussions intended to support “people who make movies for a living.” Each month a different guest speaker joins participants on Zoom to discuss an issue pertinent to North Carolina’s film industry. On May 13 Lela Meadow-Conner, executive director of the Film Festival Alliance (FFA), joined Brawley and his peers to talk about myriad ways film festivals across the country are adapting to life under COVID-19. Roughly 60 people participated in the meeting, including representatives from Cucalorus, RiverRun International Film Festival, Ann Arbor Film Festival, Footcandle Film Festival, Longleaf Film Festival and the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival.
Barbara Twist, the New York City-based director of membership for FFA, described her own tribulations as a board member for the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Scheduled for March 24-29, the festival was among the first to be impacted by COVID-19. Its organizers were spared a difficult decision when Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the state’s stay-at-home order on March 23, just one day before the festival was scheduled to begin. Programming was instead moved online, with all films screening for free during the festival’s original dates.
RiverRun International Film Festival chose a slightly more modified approach. Program manager Mary Dossinger said organizers already had filmmakers’ bags laid out when they were forced to postpone the Winston-Salem festival, scheduled for March 26-April 5. Instead of screening everything at once, they have opted for a gradual roll-out, beginning with the North Carolina shorts program, which went online for free. They also ran a pitch fest where student filmmakers could pitch their documentary short-subject films, and plan to link to festival films that already have found a platform.
“We’re trying to do a little bit here and there, so, instead of 11 days, it’s going to spread out over a few months,” Dossinger said.
Both Ann Arbor and RiverRun were able to pull off such quick transitions because they are non-market festivals with unique curatorial approaches. Twist also cited the success of the International Wildlife Film Festival, held annually in Missoula, Montana. Since the festival has such a narrow focus, and because most of its participants are not looking for distribution, it was able to transition online with relative ease. In fact, the festival sold more tickets than ever before, in part because it was able to open to a much wider audience by going virtual.
Twist admitted this approach doesn’t work for everyone. “I think it’s really important for festivals to go through the steps of deciding what makes sense for them,” she said. “For a lot of festivals, it might make sense to just take a pass on this year and, essentially, wait until next year. But [others may find] it makes sense to go online . . . I’ve had a lot of fun attending festivals around the country virtually that I wouldn’t have been able to go to otherwise.”
Meadow-Conner pointed to streaming fatigue as one hurdle that festivals must contend with. “Every day there’s some new Netflix show you have to watch,” she said. There’s also the issue of how to handle premieres. For many filmmakers, the prestige of being able to premiere a film at one festival is enough incentive to say “no” to others. Likewise, festivals often stake their reputations on the quality of films that premiere under their banners. So, how does this work when films go online?
Wilmington filmmakers Hannah Black and Megan Peterson have experienced the situation firsthand. They were about to premiere their film “Drought” at RiverRun when COVID-19 hit. In an instant, their sold-out screening was canceled. Forced to pivot, they chose to premiere “Drought” at last weekend’s Vail Film Festival instead.
“They’ve been really open and honest about [what happens to the] data afterwards,” Black said. “They allowed us to choose a time block instead of screening it the whole weekend, which we really liked, and people are purchasing the tickets as they would for a festival.”
Still, Peterson said it hasn’t been easy. “We had to make some hard decisions,” she admits. “There have been festivals that we’ve had to say ‘no’ to their online format. We’re trying to navigate the implications of even premiering at Vail for distribution later on.”
One possible solution to these issues is to geoblock screenings. Twist gave the example of the Cleveland International Film Festival, which wrapped its own online programming last month. “You may be premiering online with Cleveland, but you can actually only access that program if you’re within a certain territory the festival has geoblocked it to,” she explained. “So it’s not quite the same as just putting your film on YouTube for everyone to see.”
Another possible salve is the Film Festival Survival Pledge, spearheaded by crowdfunding and video-on-demand platform Seed&Spark. So far over 100 festivals nationwide (including Wilmington’s own Cucalorus) have signed the multi-pronged pledge. It promises to temporarily waive policies that are harmful to the independent film ecosystem. This includes upholding the intended film premiere status for a festival (even if the festival moves online), and revising policies prohibiting programming films that were once available online.
Cucalorus intends to make announcements in mid-June about its own plans for the fall festival, scheduled for November 11-15. “We’re lucky we have the time to watch what others are doing, figure out what is working well, and maybe do a few ‘small experiments’ of our own to explore new ways of bringing people together,” Brawley said. “We were in the middle of a revolution before the pandemic, [both] in terms of how people watch and make movies. Coronavirus has really accelerated the speed and intensity of that revolution. [It’s] exciting in some ways but also a bit scary.”
In the meantime the festival will join others across North America for the second Film Festival Day on May 23. Audiences will participate in a virtual screening of the synchronized ice-skating documentary “Life in Synchro” and a filmmaker Q&A afterward. Viewers can select their festival of choice when purchasing tickets, and revenue will be split evenly between the filmmaker and the selected organization. The first Film Festival Day on April 11 netted the filmmakers about $5,000, and the highest-generating festival earned around $500.
For a schedule of upcoming NC Film Forum meetings, visit cucalorus.org/nc-film-forum.
NC Film Forum
Film discussions on Zoom
2nd Wednesday of every month, 5:30 p.m.
May 23: Film Festival Day, featuring the screening “Life in Synchro”
Tickets: $10 • https://shop.jomafilms.com/products/film-festival-day-life-in-synchro