Technically we’re in postponement, but we don’t know what that means. We don’t know when it’s going to be safe for people to go out into the world as communities again—and we also don’t know if people are going to want to immediately jump back into those situations. We have to be very mindful of that, and respectful of that.
On Friday, March 13, the team at Independent Film Festival Boston announced the postponement of their flagship event, the festival itself, originally scheduled for April 22-29. That was of course decided in the midst of countless other festival delays and cancellations, both film-specific and otherwise—a series of announcements that kicked off in earnest with South by Southwest, originally scheduled for March 13-22 but cancelled outright on March 6.
“Everybody was in a boat with a very uncertain destination at the same time,” said Nancy Campbell, program director of the Independent Film Festival Boston, during a phone call on April 1. “Our decision was made based on other decisions, and in our small way we impacted other things as well. And we’ll have to see what the wreckage is, and how businesses respond—if they’re able to respond—in the wake of all this.”
IFFBoston is pretty indisputably the “major” film festival of the Boston area: To describe it is essentially to describe any of the better-known North American film festivals, just at a moderately reduced scale. First held in 2003, the event now typically occurs for a stretch of 8 days in late April, and can be counted on to host well over 100 movies—fiction and nonfiction, features and shorts—at a variety of local venues including the Somerville Theatre, Brattle Theatre, and Coolidge Corner Theatre. Mixed in among the fairly packed daily film schedules are more happenings including panels, workshops, filmmaker Q&A’s, parties, and the like, once again in line with IFFBoston’s brethren on the “international festival circuit”.
Operated as a nonprofit, IFFBoston additionally maintains a significant local presence during the rest of the year: The organization also presents one-off pre-release screenings at its partner venues, and in 2015 inaugurated the “Fall Focus,” a second multi-day event to be held annually.
So while no one institution or space can lay claim to being the central hub of the Boston area’s film community, IFFBoston is certainly among the small group that could make the argument. Yet that has less to do with the movies it shows, and more to do with how it shows them: The almost-entirely volunteer staff is filled with folks who either work or have worked in the local exhibition industry, and the same is also very true of the projectionists, technicians, and various other workers contracted by the festival. At the end of the day (or rather, the week,) IFFBoston not only brings together disparate elements of the Boston film community, but does so to an extent that’s probably unmatched.
Yet this particular festival is worth reporting on right now not because it stands apart from others like it, but on the other hand specifically because they’re all—as Campbell mentioned herself—in the very same boat, and so every individual case becomes an illustrative one. And the count of the cases themselves of course grows higher and higher: A very thorough Boston Globe article published in late March laid out the long list of New England-based film festivals that, like IFFBoston, have already been forced to postpone or cancel their events for this year—including the Boston Underground Film Festival, the Irish Film Festival Boston, Wicked Queer: The Boston LGBT Film Festival, the Nantucket Film Festival, the Provincetown International Film Festival, the Boston Turkish Film Festival, and the Ciclismo Classico Bike Travel Film Festival, among others.
“Frankly, because of the timing, we’re in a slightly better position that BUFF or Irish Film Festival Boston were,” said Brian Tamm, executive director of IFFBoston, during the same phone call on April 1. “We were scheduled to announce [films] on March 27th. So one of the reasons we took a little longer than some other festivals to decide if we’d [postpone] was because we had time.
“But with that said, like a lot of festivals… before the festival actually happens you’re paying for the marketing that you’re doing, you’re paying for hotel rooms, you’re paying for flights, you’re paying for print shipping costs, you’re paying for screening fees,” Tamm continued (and he doesn’t even mention the months of work that comes before that—attending festivals, screening films, and negotiating screening rights, just to name a few examples). “I don’t want to speak for BUFF, but knowing where they are on the calendar, they must’ve already spent money on all that.”
In an email published within the aforementioned Globe article, BUFF’s artistic director Kevin Monahan indirectly expanded upon Tamm’s point: “We did take quite a financial hit since a lot of travel was already booked, and a lot of printed materials were ordered with the [now] incorrect dates on them,” he wrote. “Only a few of our crowdfunding donors have requested refunds, and most of the ones who did plan to re-donate when things are more firmed up. We’re hoping to be able to continue, but it might involve a hiatus of some kind. We’re more concerned with the health of the theaters and cinema culture in general, especially at the Brattle, because our fate is directly tied to theirs.”
And in an email sent to me on April 11, Monahan elaborated further: “I’d like to clarify that we are 100% intending to go ahead with the 2020 festival as soon as it is possible (and safe) to do so”, he added. “My words about hoping to continue were regarding the festival’s future beyond BUFF22, as any delay in the festival is also a delay in preparing for the next one. So we’re in a kind of weird holding pattern.”
As surely goes without saying, BUFF is by no means the only festival or special event dependent on the survival of the venue that hosts it. Across the country, if not the world, and most definitely elsewhere in Boston, that very dynamic has become incredibly present. Per Tamm: “When all this is over, if there’s no Brattle, Somerville, or Coolidge, then I don’t know how there’s an IFFBoston.”
“We’ve seen a lot of our colleagues from other festivals and screening series jump into doing virtual screenings,” Campbell said, “but for us, right now, those are bloodlines for our venues, and we don’t want to step on their toes. We want to make sure that stuff gets promoted well, and helps to keep theaters alive in our communities, because in the future we’re going to need them.”
“We have a fairly substantial member base, and we would like to do something for them,” Tamm mentioned, while speaking about the potential for an IFFBoston-fronted digital film program. “But we don’t know 100% what that’s going to be yet. … What do we bring to the table that’s different than the Coolidge is something we think about year-round anyways, and it’s something we’re thinking about now. I would say as a rule that if something is happening virtually at one of our venues, then it doesn’t make sense for us to also screen it. That [wouldn’t] benefit our community or the filmmaker. We wouldn’t be adding—we’d be distracting. And we want to make sure that we’re adding to the conversation, not taking away from it.”
“There is a strong connection between us and all of our venues,” Campbell said. “The viability [and] survival of all our venues directly affects our organization—as well as a lot of other organizations.”
It seems fair to say the “other organizations” she mentions are the kind usually overlooked in discussions or stories about the aftereffects of events like SXSW or IFFBoston being postponed or cancelled—those being the local vendors and small businesses that are now missing out on a payday or even just on an expected uptick in foot traffic. The choice to postpone IFFBoston was made early enough that many significant costs were avoided, but as its directors explain, that in turn comes at some cost for others down the line.
“We were on the verge of paying for a lot of things,” Campbell said. “But us not paying for those services means that we’ve created a situation where local vendors and hotels and t-shirt makers are [now] not getting paid for services that they would’ve normally provided for us. So we saved our butts—in some ways—but it hurt other people. … The impact of us not being able to use those services that we’d normally use—especially with our local vendors—that has an economic impact that goes beyond us.”
“We didn’t have to spend money at QRST’s to get shirts,” Tamm adds, “but now that’s money that QRST’s doesn’t have.”
Which is to say the economic impact of a whole season’s worth of festivals being postponed or cancelled is by no means insignificant, especially since the count of events postponed or cancelled will eventually grow much higher than “a whole season’s worth.” And the scope of this particular economic impact grows even more complicated when you take into consideration the unendingly precarious and utterly byzantine system currently governing state arts funding and grant money—which is for better or worse what helps to keep most American film and art festivals solvent in the first place.
Speaking with me last week, Tamm wondered about the effect that postponing or potentially cancelling this year’s festival will have on their applications for state funding next year.
“We do get some amount of money from grants and things, but those grants are dependent on us actually having the festival,” he explained. “So I don’t know what happens now—do I have to go to the Mass Cultural Council, and say, hey we know we didn’t have the festival in 2020, but we [still] need this money for operation costs? Because a lot of cultural grants can’t be spent on operations—you need to spend them on programs. Which is fine, normally, because you make money on ticket sales, or in other ways, to pay for the operation. But when you’re not making money from ticket sales or sponsors, then you say, Okay, now we need to figure out a way to pay for operating costs—can we do that with these grants? … Will they be a little more flexible—and what does that mean for the future? A lot is up in the air.”
Looking beyond this month is at this point a fool’s errand, so Campbell and Tamm are naturally loathe to do so. But when pushed, both say that they hope and to some extent do expect that IFFBoston will be around to program and present films whenever public gatherings are once again reasonably safe. Yet that is of course pending countless extremely crucial variables: The festival is now dependent not just on the survival of its venues, not just on the survival of other local partners, not just on its viability with regards to certain grants, and not just on the viability of arts grants in general, but indeed also on the public opinion about moviegoing itself—whatever that’ll be, and however that’ll look, whenever IFFBoston hopefully starts back up.
And the continuance of the festival is of course also pending its own financial standing, because as mentioned its coffers are quite low even on a good day. In an article published by The ARTery shortly before the festival announced the postponement, Tamm said that IFFBoston was “not covered [for] this by any form of insurance”. And in an email sent to me on April 10, Campbell added: “We’re fortunate that we did not spend a lot toward this season, but in order to survive we would require the income from the festival, and it will be a massive blow to us.”
“It’s tough, because our mission is about creating community through film, and to bring people together to share these stories,” Tamm said. “And when you can’t bring people together in the real world, I don’t know what that means for us… We want to be really thoughtful about where we go next, and to make sure we’re doing something the community needs.
“Am I confident the festival is going to happen [next year]?” he asked himself, moments later. “If our venues are open, and people are coming out for community, we definitely want to be part of that. But I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”
This is the fourth in a series of DigBoston articles regarding the status of local film institutions and theaters during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Previous entries reported on the Brattle Theatre, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, and the Boston area’s corporate-owned multiplexes.