Jewish Film Festivals in the Time of Corona

With all of the challenges that have come during this pandemic, there is a field in the Jewish world that continues to thrive. As our community adapts to Zoom conversations and other virtual events, it has become clear that our new world lends itself nicely to virtual films and Q&A’s. Online festivals in no way replace the in-person experience; we believe in preserving the communal experience of film viewing. And yet Jewish film festivals are continuing their work of creating community and amplifying artistic voices, even during the pandemic.

In a survey from this spring of the Jewish Film Presenters Network, a group of over 200 Jewish film festivals from around the world, only 12% said they were cancelling. Many hoped to run live events, but the largest group, over 40% of the film festivals, were pivoting (the most popular word of these times) to a virtual festival of sorts. While many areas of Jewish life are struggling to survive and offer truly engaging programming under COVID-19 restrictions, Jewish film festivals are able to continue to provide audiences with the quality films and conversations they always did.

At The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan‘s Carole Zabar Center for Film, we were set to run our 12th annual ReelAbilities Film Festival, the largest disability film festival in the world, at the end of March, just as the lockdown hit. In less than three weeks, we figured out how to move the festivals entirely online. The films were simply too important to not give them a public event. Despite not seeing any audiences in person, or hosting any filmmakers at our location, the result was our most accessible and well attended festival to date. At the peak of the NY pandemic, we were providing the community with premiere film programs, conversations and special events. This was very early into our new world, but we had been familiar with the virtual world through our Israel Film Center Stream site. The standards we set, and our streaming site expirience, opened the door for us to host more virtual film events in collaboration with other Jewish festivals, including national releases of films that have been festival favorites with such films as The Tobacconist, My Polish Honeymoon and The Keeper. This June, we also ran our first virtual Israel Film Center Film Festival with our strongest numbers to date.

This new format of festivals comes with many tough decisions and challenges, both technical and cultural. The first obstacle is getting the rest of the industry to “go virtual” as well. Many filmmakers fear putting their films online thinking that they will be pirated, ruin premiere statuses, or limit their sales potential by having an online premiere before it has a theatrical or live festival run. It was crucial for us to protect the filmmakers in this process and make sure they had respectful premieres to maintain a pre-release exclusive status. So we committed to presenting the films for short times, to limited audiences, in a protected format. To our surprise, most filmmakers agreed.

The major technical decisions come down to which streaming service will host the films, how your ticketing system will work, and what service to use for the conversations. The biggest lesson of running an online film festival is to make sure you have great customer support. We found that the simplest technologies make things easily accessible and as clear as possible.

Many more Jewish film festivals have ventured into this uncharted world that’s changing daily. More resources have popped up, and now, there are companies like Cinesend, Eventive, and Film Festival Flix that provide a full package of the technology needed to run a virtual festival. The real challenge is to make sure the community engages in a satisfying way, so there’s a true sense of community-building.

People can view films online anywhere, but what makes festivals unique is the cohesion of a program and the community engagement that takes people beyond the films. As creative programmers, we need to figure out how to work with technology and allow people to feel a sense of togetherness even when we are apart. Technology can be daunting for this task, but there are ways to maximize interactivity and engagement.

When festivals were live(in-person), there was competition with all other live events in town. Now, with festivals virtual, the competition is even greater, as we’re competing with everything out there on the internet, including Netflix. That’s why I find it’s important to create relevant programs that have a sense of urgency. These films need to be seen now and are available for a limited time, with exclusive access.

We then also include a live-interactive-Zoom conversation. Having filmmakers attend virtual discussions is even more convenient with Zoom, as there’s no need to fly anyone in. Allowing the community to ask questions and interact with filmmakers keeps a connection with the audience alive. I ask our audience members on Zoom to keep their cameras on. Sure, we get the random person who’s not fully dressed, or the person slurping soup in front of the camera, but seeing one another on camera is the best we can do these days to create community.

Another concern that comes up with virtual festivals is, now that they can be accessed anywhere, will they cannibalize other festivals? This is something of which we need to be aware and respectful of. Although our community is currently more dispersed than usual, we continue to try to focus our publicity locally. Sure, those from other parts of the country who could not attend our programs now can. But our festival brand is most relevant to the loyal customers we have built over the years.

Although we hope to be back, live, in our theater soon, many benefits of running a virtual festival will likely continue. We know people will be eager to get back together, but for those who cannot attend in-person, it would be a shame to let go of some of the virtual components that we’ve mastered over these months. I can imagine conversations being offered via zoom as well as live, and maybe some short films made available online as well. If this pandemic shakes up the film industry enough, the need for filmmakers to hold on to theatrical premieres and traditional release patterns might change, and we’re likely to see many more straight-to-virtual releases simultaneous with theatrical releases.

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