The Film Festival Doctor (Yes, she’s a real doctor!) Dr. Rebekah Louisa Smith, explores in further detail how film festivals are adjusting to the CV-19 pandemic. She was lucky to interview the awesome John Fink; Artistic Director of one of her favourite film festivals the Buffalo International Film Festival. Below John explains how they are transforming the festival and why you should still submit your film to him…
- John Hi, welcome to The Film Festival Doctor’s blog 🙂 could you kindly tell my reader a little bit about yourself and your awesome film festival the Buffalo International Film Festival?
Hey – it’s great to be here, thanks for the opportunity. I’m a filmmaker, curator, film critic and a college professor. I currently serve as the Buffalo International Film Festival’s artistic director. I had joined the BIFF in 2015 which had been a relaunch year with new leadership and a new flagship venue, the historic North Park Theater.
Since then the festival has collaborated with several non-profit venues and organizations in Western New York to create a festival that reflects the diversity of the region while also celebrating the region’s growing film industry. Each Fall, film fans in Western New York and Southern Ontario join us for about 120 shorts and features, BIFF Off-Screen art events (including instillations and performances), industry panels, and parties. We offer programming throughout the city of Buffalo and encourage visitors to interact with a unique city we love.
- At this moment in time as I type, the world is currently experiencing the peak of the CV19 virus pandemic – how will you be adapting this year’s edition of the Festival which will be taking place in October?
Our hearts are with those that have lost a loved one to COVID-19 and we’re sincerely appreciative of all of those on frontlines. The health impact far and away outweighs the cultural impact, however it will be interesting to see how this crisis will shape content in the coming years.
With regard to this year, as we speak New York Governor Andrew Cuomo believes the state may have hit an apex in which cases state wide have started to level-off thanks to social distancing and other protocols. Western New York is a 6 hour drive, northwest of New York City so the challenges are bit different here than they are in New York State’s largest city and Western New York is on potentially a different “curve” than the downstate area. At this point we’re hoping for the best and monitoring developments.
Our board and executive staff are meeting regularly and have planned for a variety of scenarios with our filmmakers, audiences and partners in mind. They include using our largest venues to accommodate social distancing if that is recommended guidance to the possibility of rolling over film submissions for 2021 consideration if we’re unable to host a physical festival. We will take our lead from health experts, the CDC’s best practices for public gatherings, what movie theaters are doing to keep patrons safe and the appetite for Western New Yorkers to return to socializing in public spaces.
- I’ve been emphasising to filmmakers that if they want to get their film seen on the circuit this year they should still submit to film festivals which run from September 2020 onwards due to the fact that they all intend to run in some shape or form and their deadlines close around May/June time – do you agree and what would you add to this?
Yes. I’m hopeful the fall festivals will run with some modifications to the experience they offer. We’re all closely monitoring what the film industry and other festivals are doing as they look for ways to continue their mission in a new form. This may include limiting attendance to encourage social distancing and moving certain aspects of the festival experience online.
We have taken Seed and Spark’s pledge to waive certain rules around online premieres (provided they happen in a limited capacity such as a festival screening or a geo-restricted screening) as our colleagues in the spring and summer have pivoted online. Some films, I should note, have chosen to hold off on making their films available online, and I’m hopeful those films will find a good home in the fall or on next year’s festival circuit.
- Have you received an increase in submissions for your film festival since the pandemic hit?
Our submissions are in line with last year’s open call and we expect to see some modest growth. We have moved our 2020 deadlines including our Early Deadline back to May 1st to allow filmmakers more time to submit films. At the current moment the industry has largely stopped and this includes post-houses. We expect that when they re-open they will have a backlog of work and we’ve pushed all of our deadlines back with that in mind while allowing us the time to prepare for the festival. Right now, filmmakers can submit at our lowest prices till May 1st, our final deadline is July 10th. We also offer a Film Freeway gold discount.
- What are you finding the most challenging things to figure out since the CV19 pandemic hit?
We are navigating uncertainty while planning for the 2020 festival. No film festival at this moment can guarantee when indoor cinemas and entertainment venues will re-open. Buffalo is a very social city and so I’m hopeful its dinning and hospitality sectors will bounce back quickly when it’s safe to come together again.
- And what are the most positive things have occurred for the festival since the CV19 pandemic hit?
I think moving some aspects into an online setting may enable us to bring some interesting guests to the festival including a few of our industry friends that support us from afar but have not been unable to travel to Buffalo during the festival. We’re interested in how technology can make the festival experience more inclusive while retaining the halo of exclusivity for selected filmmakers.
- Are you finding the challenges which you are currently facing to have brought out more creative ideas with regards to how you will produce the festival?
It has brought together and unified the film festival community as we look for ways to support each other and our filmmakers through this difficult time. Recently BIFF participated in ‘Film Festival Day’, a collaborative initiative with 30 film festivals around the country organized by the Film Festival Alliance. I hope we’ll have more opportunities to serve patrons outside of the dates of our festival. Many arts non-profits we partner with in Buffalo including Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, Burchfield Penney, Squeaky Wheel Film and Media Arts Center, and the North Park Theater have found ways of extending their mission into a digital space to engage their patrons while their buildings are closed.
- What are your views with regards to online film festivals?
I think it’s an apt interim solution for now provided festivals are adding more value than others in the streaming space. Just because folks are home doesn’t mean they’re a captive audience by any means. Streaming platforms offer a wide array of excellent content as we know, however festivals can offer a curated line-up of unique first run content along with bonus materials like filmmaker intros, Q&A’s and webinars.
In discussing the matter with filmmakers and festival agents it seems as if there is an interest in geo-restricting screenings and splitting revenues with filmmakers. There is a lot to workout with distributors regarding this new frontier and we continue to monitor what our colleagues around the country are doing. One interesting aspect is that certain online platforms may enable festivals that don’t run their own cinemas to expand into year-round programming and also provide a platform for films they loved but did not have room in their festival schedule to show.
- Do you think that industry professionals are still paying attention to film festivals and their content as they move online?
Festivals for many films offer the only chance to see films on a big screen, we often offer the only chance to see certain films on the big screen in a communal setting in Western New York before they open in larger markets. A few have returned for limited theatrical runs but many will go on to play other festivals and run on video on demand. It would be unfortunate for the social experience to go away. There is of course, multiple stakeholders within the festival landscape and we’ve seen some festivals continue to offer titles that have opted-in to press and industry for consideration.
For buyers, I think of it this way: for certain films you don’t know how they’re going to play until you’ve seen them in a room. I’ll take a packed Ryerson Theater during TIFF’s Midnight Madness over watching a movie in my bed any day of the week. A successful screening and good reviews can make the difference between having a major distributor pick-up and support your film with a nationwide wide release and a modest VOD deal. Each film is different and in fact that modest VOD deal with the right partner could in fact garner more cultural buzz than a theatrical deal.
For audiences, a happy hour on Zoom just isn’t the same as getting together with your friends, right?
- How will you implement social distancing during this year’s Festival?
We have two larger venues which we use that will enable social distancing. We will continue to review best practices and state, federal and local guidance to ensure we can offer an environment that our patrons feel safe attending. If that’s not possible we will adapt and have the benefit of following the lead of others around the country and what is happening locally in Buffalo.
Thank you very much John for sharing such valuable insight with my reader! Submissions are currently open via filmfreeway.com/buffalofilm and you can find out more about this great festival here – buffalofilm.org
Coming this Thursday – I’ll be interviewing Sandra Lipski the Director of the Evolution! Mallorca International Film Festival regarding CV19 and how she is adapting her film festival around the pandemic.