What were film festivals, those apparitions of apparitions?
American film festivals have set up shop online and lit up drive-ins (both long-lingering ones and pop-ups). In mid-November, as another wave of pandemic crested in the north of Greece, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival pulled the trigger on an all-virtual festival with a haunting prelude: the opening-night feature rolled at its grand Olympion in the center of the city, with mournful optimism, ghost light abloom in an otherwise empty grand auditorium.
Chicago fall film festivals innovated, too, running their own Olympic-scaled hurdles, but the grand gesture was perseverance itself. We asked how long-running events the Black Harvest Film Festival (26 years), Chicago International Children’s Film Festival (37), Chicago International Film Festival (56), Chicago Latino Film Festival (36), Chicago Underground Film Festival (27) and the Music Box of Horrors (16) pulled off their 2020 event. These interviews have been edited and condensed.
What were your biggest stumbling blocks and your biggest breakthroughs in reinventing the institution and its wild range of moving parts?
Bryan Wendorf, CUFF artistic director: “The biggest stumbling block we faced in organizing after the pandemic was psychological. The whole world shut down, and for a while, we did as well. In the same seventy-two hours that COVID-19 became real in Chicago, we were having final meetings with potential sponsors. One meeting stands out. The date was March 12, 2020. We know that because festival producer Taila Howe wrote it down on a gum wrapper. Our emails had been really promising. They seemed excited about partnering with us. We got to their headquarters for our first in-person “big meeting,” while they had just come out of their own “big meeting” about the pandemic. None of us had any idea how long this would last. And since CUFF 27 was meant to happen in June, we thought things would be weird for a little. But nothing too crazy would happen.
Ryan Oestreich, Music Box general manager: My biggest stumbling block was thinking outside of two options: cancelling the horror movie marathon or taking it virtual. Once I realized that there could be other ways, like the eventual drive-in space, and then it dawned on me we could take a different approach to a marathon of horror movies for the rabid Chicago audience. The idea sprung just by going to the drive-in and seeing a movie there.
Vivian Teng, Managing Director, CIFF: The technological side was easier than we anticipated, but this came after a lot of research, conversations with other heads of festivals to share information, ideas and resources, and regular testing of different models and systems. We were fortunate to work with ChiTown Movies in Pilsen and received vital technical support from the Music Box with the installation of a new projector. This ensured the highest quality projection at the drive-in. This also meant that we could provide an amazing in-person experience that was satisfying for our audiences as well as for the filmmakers, distributors and studios.
Taila Howe, CUFF festival producer: A couple days after that meeting, I left the city and hunkered down in Michigan. From the moment in October 2019 when I joined CUFF, I felt responsible for making sure the festival would survive whatever happened. So yeah, I needed some time to refresh the grooves of my own mental habit. That refresher happened to be a heroic dose of psilocybin cubensis mushrooms. I had a really transformational and magical experience. Shout-out to the mushrooms for helping me visualize a world where CUFF would still exist.
Barbara Scharres, outgoing Gene Siskel Film Center director of programming: Black Harvest normally takes place throughout August. We launched the call for entries in February. Entries were coming in at the usual rate, which accelerates dramatically close to the June deadline. When we closed the Film Center theaters and offices, we thought it would be temporary, and our press releases carried a projected reopening date of April 29, although that imminent opening was not to be.
Sergio Mims, Black Harvest co-programmer: My biggest stumbling block was the basic idea of a streaming film festival. I love seeing movies in a theater. It’s a communal experience with people laughing, crying or jumping out of your seat. I hope things will be back to normal next year. People in the country are feeling more optimistic than a month ago. But with this “Andromeda Strain” thing going around…
Barbara Scharres: The uncertainty of public health was the biggest stumbling block. Along with the rest of film exhibition, we mulled over whether circumstances would allow for partial reopening, when, and under what conditions; whether audiences would come back; and whether severely limited theater capacity would generate enough income to cover costs. We were working from week to week, shaping and reshaping hybrid plans and schedules. It became evident that on-site opening would not happen in August or any time this year. We would need to rethink our public presence and the status of our mission, not least of all with Black Harvest. Black Harvest typically has a large number of newly completed films, self-distributed by their makers. By the festival’s June entry deadline, entries had slowed to a trickle.
Pepe Vargas, Latino Cultural Center founder, executive director: We never thought about canceling. We must keep moving forward, searching for the light at the end of the tunnel. We postponed the thirty-sixth festival from April to September. Even though the postponement represented a significant financial loss, we sustained the shock.
Barbara Scharres: Once we accepted that everything was going to be virtual, we planned a completely online festival; changed the dates to November, and moved the entry deadline to September 1. The next hurdle was informing filmmakers who had already entered their films of the new format and dates. I was worried that filmmakers would not accept virtual exhibition-only, but all were supportive. No filmmakers withdrew. As word got out about the new deadline, entries began coming in again, including just-completed films.
Ann Vikstrom, festival director, Chicago International Children’s Film Festival: From the standpoint of turnaround time, we were well-positioned. Unlike our colleagues in New York and Europe, who had spring festival timeframes, ours takes place in November. Anticipating virtual delivery for schools to be teaching remotely was the biggest question, as the general public does appreciate delivery analogous to streaming.
What was the biggest surprise from conception to execution of your festival?
Taila Howe: That it actually happened. Chicago shut down again on Monday after our last drive-in screenings, so they were the final hurrah before the shit got weird. Again.
Ryan Oestreich: The sheer amount of work it took. When you think about programming thirty-one nights of horror movies, it sounds simple, but then when you have a diverse set of films and try to create themes and factor in filmmaker and guest availability…. In the end, I programmed forty-three movies, with my three co-programmers and set a line-up that drew 3,600 cars.
Sergio Mims: That this year was almost the same as last year. I was genuinely surprised by the number of submissions we got. And the planning meetings, which were done on Zoom, which I’ll never get used to. I miss interaction with people present and I can never get the lighting right when I do those Zoom things.
Barbara Scharres: Filmmakers were fully onboard with the idea, even very enthusiastic. Being virtual meant that we had greater latitude for planning Q&As, panels and workshops travel and all the related arrangements. Our offerings of admission-free events that provide for viewer participation increased substantially. One bonus was that we were able to offer nearly all of the Black Harvest programs for a two-week streaming period, with the potential to capture more audiences over a period of time. We also benefit from one of the key benefits of streaming: our audience can watch at their convenience on the device of their choice.
Mimi Plauché, Artistic Director, CIFF: We introduced online experiences and adapted old ones to create a virtual “stage” and “lounge” that enabled extended Q&As, filmmaker-to-filmmaker talks and virtual audience meet-ups. The level of engagement with audiences surprised us, logging in from forty-seven states as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. We engaged audiences from around the world, with viewers tuning into livestream events on YouTube and Facebook from more than a hundred different countries during the festival.
Ann Vikstrom: The biggest surprise was how willing the participants were in shifting to online. We anticipated more pushback in terms of rights, but they are eager to get their films out there. The conventional business model for theaters and content rollout is different from what we do, so finding the filmmakers up for it was a wonderful surprise. Understandably, animation does have a larger concern for piracy issues. And there is also a swifter turnaround of films going to streaming services. Some of productions had to work remotely for finishing, or not have time for promotion. This is where the Festival plays a key role while regular press circuits and theatrical outlets were completely disrupted. We are AMPAS-qualifying [for Academy Award consideration] and have a great track record, as well as for live-action shorts. And at 263 films, we had more to see than ever.
What lessons did you learn about showing movies now, about filmmakers, the audience and even the essence of the festival itself?
Pepe Vargas: One adventure ends and another begins. The thirty-seventh Chicago Latino Film Festival will be just as unpredictable. Will conditions be right for a festival to have a virtual and a live component next year? I don’t know. I look forward to the answer.
Bryan Wendorf: Once we saw the online festival platform that our ticketing partner had developed, we saw a way forward. We tested the waters with an online Best of the Festival in June, and reaching out to past festival award winners reminded us why this is worth doing.
Ryan Oestreich: No matter what is happening in the world, horror fans will find one another and celebrate this genre of filmmaking. And horror movie filmmakers will show up—in safe ways!—to support their fans.
Taila Howe: That film is a really powerful medium of sharing different perspectives. There’s a lot going on in the world that requires humans to show up if they want our species to continue, and in harmony with one another. So I get where people are coming from when they say, “I don’t have time to watch movies.” But here’s the deal: in order to show up, we have to take care of ourselves and rest. So why not leverage the downtime by exploring the dopest underground films to hit planet earth?
Ann Vikstrom: We are so grateful for the patience of our audience. We pivoted quickly to enhanced engagement, since we will have extensive Q&As available for free online, which we never had before. Filmmakers and talent from around the world are eager to share their views, their stories. We are living in a moment where making these connections on the global scale is really exciting. That is the mission of the festival, as well as the mission of Facets.
Barbara Scharres: The essence of Black Harvest will not change, and one thing that has gratified us throughout this rocky process of adjustment is learning how much Black Harvest means to participating filmmakers, as a showcase for film that illuminates the Black experience in so many ways. And that so many filmmakers—sixty this year—established and emerging, have an event where they can showcase their work and build their careers through exposure and interaction with their public, whether in-person or virtual, continues to be meaningful. We’re prepared to continue hybrid presentation, theatrical and virtual, even when it is possible to fully resume in-theater shows. The way our filmgoing audience accesses entertainment has shifted permanently, and will not likely go back to pre-COVID patterns. Virtual is the wave of the future, and we anticipate that a 2021 Black Harvest will be substantially online, even when it is possible to present screenings on-site.
Mimi Plauché: The biggest lesson, which is something that we knew, but that the festival confirmed in this hybrid version, is the enduring power of cinema. The overall attendance and feedback from audiences was overwhelmingly positive, showing their craving and appreciation for the type of cinema we present.
Sergio Mims: I honestly don’t know. Films have always gone through titanic changes yet have always survived. Back in the 1950s, when televisions became accessible and affordable, the film business suffered when more people stayed home. I truly believe that once this whole “Satan Bug” thing is behind us, people will come back to theaters. I am certain that films will survive—as well as film festivals! They are too much a part of our lives.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.