How has the pandemic affected local film festivals?

Normally, this time of year would have Bellingham’s Pickford Film Center busy with people lining up, ordering popcorn, and enjoying films entered in the CASCADIA International Women’s Film Festival. But the COVID-19 lockdown changed all that.

This year, the festival was forced to screen its official selections online. What makes CASCADIA unique, is that it’s one of only five film festivals in the U.S. to showcase films directed and co-directed by women.

“As soon as we began to see other festivals around the country having to switch to an online version or cancel their 2020 event, we knew that this could become a possibility for CASCADIA,” said Cheryl Crooks, executive director of the festival. “While it usually takes place in April it was canceled due to COVID and quickly pivoted to an online version that went from May 14 to 17.”

Founded in 2015 by a small group of passionate people, the festival includes educational workshops, panel discussions, interviews and Q&As with the filmmakers, members from their production teams, industry professionals and experts during the multi-day event, which primarily take place throughout downtown Bellingham.

The switch to digital did not affect submissions as the judging and selections were completed in November.

“We were fully programmed, although hadn’t yet confirmed the opening night film, by the time this all came up,” Crooks said. “We were in the final process of editing what was to have been the printed program when it all came to a screeching halt.”

To help with the new way of working, organizers contacted the Film Festival Alliance, a collaborative global community for suggestions.

“I began to attend online meetings and discussions with festivals across the country to listen and learn how they had or were moving to an online format,” Crooks said. “Once we made the decision to do this ourselves, we then had to contact everyone involved once again to notify them and ask their permission to take their film to an online format.”

It took a while to get everything organized, but Crooks said everyone was gracious and cooperative.

“We had to first undo the ‘live’ festival, contact filmmakers, sponsors, volunteers—everyone involved to let them know that we were canceling or, at that point postponing, because we didn’t know exactly whether or not we could reschedule,” Crooks said.

KCTS and Crosscut magazine had come on this year as a major media sponsor and had decided to move from a promotional campaign on KCTS, to a digital one to promote the festival.

Crooks said that for all their sponsors this year, the exposure may have been greater than it would have been at the live festival because they were marketing and promoting nationwide.

“It was very successful on many levels, especially in regards to expanding our audience reach and making the festival known to people who may not have heard of us before,” Crooks said.

She said that an early review of the numbers indicated that they had as many people, and maybe more, see the films, because one pass worked for everyone in a household and there were viewers from across the country who would not have been able to travel to Bellingham to attend.

“There could have been between two to four people or more watching the films,” she said, adding that they are surveying their viewers to get a better sense of the outcome.

Another popular Bellingham festival already making preparations for an online festival is the Bleedingham Horror Film Festival, which showcases selected films the Saturday before Halloween at the Pickford.

Cofounders Langley West, Michelle Barklind, and Gary Washington say Bleedingham primarily focuses on providing area filmmakers an opportunity to develop their storytelling and filmmaking skills in a fun and exciting atmosphere.

“As soon as the stay-at-home guidelines went into place, we began talking about the possibility of having to change the festival this year,” West said. “While the festival isn’t until October, it’s becoming more apparent that this might not be the year for a large gathering of people under one roof. It is far more important that people are safe, and what we didn’t want is to cancel the festival.”

This also means that “The Night Gallery,” a dark art-themed event that is held the day before Bleedingham would also have to be changed, as well as the awards ceremony for the winners from the festival.

“More than likely, we’ll have a virtual screening and a live award ceremony broadcast online,” West said. “We are also thinking about how to do an online version of The Night Gallery.”

Submissions for the 2020 festival are open now on Bleedingham.com. Instead of the usual two-year maximum, films that were made up to four years ago, will be accepted this year.

The website states that if filmmakers are shooting a short this year, it is imperative that they observe all local safety and social distancing protocols.

“If it is not legal to gather a crew in your area, don’t do it!” Washington said. “Storytelling is a marathon, not a sprint and we’d much rather see you healthy and happy than have you risk your health for a film festival.”

He also confirmed that the festival will have an award ceremony for winners, with recorded acceptance speeches, online meet-and-greet networking events, and Q&A sessions for select films. He says that winners’ trophies will be mailed this year, instead of handed out.

While it’s still too early to tell if submissions will take a hit, the organizers of Bleedingham have lowered the entry fees, which ranged from $25 to $60 last year.

“We normally don’t get the biggest submission numbers until further into the summer, and expect to see a drop just because it’s more difficult for filmmakers to get out,” West said.

Bleedingham has decided not to reduce its grand prize for best short film under 15 minutes.

“There is still a $1,000 grand prize and we are picking some of the best and brightest judges from the northwest creative community,” said Washington.

Festivals such as CASCADIA and Bleedingham are heavily dependent on sponsorships.

CASCADIA Bd President Amy McIlvaine, Vice President Audrey Sager, Honored Guest director Freida Lee Mock and Executive Director Cheryl Crooks at Honored Guest reception 2019.

West says that they will be looking for ways to continue those partnerships that reflect whatever changes they are having to implement themselves because of COVID-19.

“Festivals are talking to one another, CASCADIA included, about possibly teaming up to present cooperative online ‘best of the fests’ programs to bring even greater exposure to both the films and the festivals,” Crooks said.

“It’s too early to tell, but I believe everyone is working on alternatives. I just hope that they don’t go away,” West said. “This is a challenge, but it’s challenges that make us do our best work.”

Creativity is what these local film festival organizers specialize in.

“We understand many people, especially those in the creative industries, are being hit hard financially due to the pandemic,” Washington said.

“The pandemic is forcing all of us to re-think how things are done in general and this is just an example of trying to be adaptable and innovative,” said West.

Crooks said that adapting is key, but there are still some things that will be missed.

“The main thing you lose is the ability to see the films on the big screen, the format that the films were intended for, as well as the interaction between audience and filmmakers and the filmmakers with one another,” she said.


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