Buffalo International Film Festival
How does one plan, program, and execute a film festival amid COVID-19? In 2020, organizers of major fests in Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York, and beyond faced just those questions. For Venice, the answer was to scale down, while Toronto and New York opted for a hybrid (and, in Toronto’s case, drastically cut down) schedule. Telluride, like the Cannes Film Festival in May, canceled.
The organizers of the Buffalo International Film Festival (BIFF) watched these plans closely. The resulting festival, scheduled for October 8 through 12, offers local cinephiles a chance to enjoy most festival offerings from home. While it’s certainly a change from past years, Interim Executive Director Anna Scime and Artistic Director John Fink believe they have crafted an experience that is both filmmaker- and audience-friendly.
Here, Scime and Fink break down the 2020 festival and how it came together. Check buffalofilm.org for additional details, updates, and title information as the Fest draws closer.
How did you decide the format of this year’s festival? Were you influenced by the direction of some other fests?
AS: This year, the festival is transitioning to a socially-distant, cinematically-connected format that allows audience members and filmmakers to participate in the way that they feel most comfortable, with the lion’s share of our programming occurring virtually. Given all of the uncertainty this year, it is the only assurance that we could provide filmmakers, audiences, and sponsors that the show will go on. As a fall festival, we have also had the advantage of being able to learn from the successes, trials, and errors of our colleagues in this unprecedented space, and we’ve settled on a solution that we believe is right for Buffalo. We’re grateful for the generous support of our filmmakers and distributors, as well as our festival colleagues, for so candidly sharing their experiences with us.
Did you give any thought to not having a festival this year?
JF: We considered a range of options as the year unfolded but, ultimately, as we screened our submissions, we decided that we had to move forward and celebrate this year’s incredible official selections. We also believe that, perhaps now more than ever, audiences are interested in watching new, first-run films and engaging with filmmakers, actors, and documentary subjects.
Describe what the viewing experience will be.
AS: We will offer three options for virtual viewing: individual screenings for $8, three screenings for $16, and the unlimited Bison Pass–all festival screenings and events for $40. We are also partnering with the Arts Services Initiative of Western New York and participating in its Arts Access Program to offer free tickets to community members enrolled in the program.
Viewers can visit our website and order virtual tickets, which will unlock during the festival. Once a viewer begins a film, they have forty-eight hours to finish watching. Select films will also offer a watch party, with a recommended time to start a film and to participate in an interactive Q&A with the filmmakers. We’re also working to expand our panel offerings this year, as many festival participants, Buffalo expats, and friends of the festival who support us from afar can now also visit our community relatively effortlessly from [wherever they are]. We’re looking forward to their virtual visits.
The online experience is run on the Eventive platform, which enables viewers to access the festival from their computers, mobile devices, or living rooms by logging into their BIFF account in the EventiveTV app available on Roku and AppleTV.
Certain films may sell out, but our panels, offscreen events, Q&As, youth program, and the new Racial Justice in View program will all be free to view and participate in.
Have the filmmakers you’ve spoken to been receptive?
JF: All of our filmmakers have been overwhelmingly supportive of the 2020 plan. The silver lining to all of the travel restrictions and safety concerns is that by presenting much of the programming on an online platform, many who are not in the area have an opportunity to participate and connect with audiences from wherever they are. We have over twenty countries represented in this year’s selections.
Even though things are different this year, what are you most excited about?
AS: Reimagining BIFF as a place of collection, dialogue, critique, and connection online is pretty exciting in and of itself. The virtual experience also addresses a common complaint audience members have had: they often wanted to see two films that are screening at the same time. The online experience also allows us to present our programming to a wider audience within our Western New York community and beyond. Films with accessibility features such as filmmaker-provided captioning or subtitles will be noted in the program.
Will the lessons learned from planning this festival lead to changes in future years?
JF: We are always adapting, growing, and looking for new and exciting ways to serve our community—this year at quite the accelerated rate! We are hopeful that the introduction of the Eventive virtual platform will enable us to offer more year-round events and to bring the festival to more audiences.