VIFF Interview: Curtis Woloschuk, VIFF Associate Director of Programming, on the changes and challenges of hosting a festival in a pandemic

There’s no denying that 2020 has been an abnormal year for film, and film festivals are by no means exempt from that. I sat down with Curtis Woloschuk, associate director if programming for the Vancouver International Film Festival, to talk about this years festival moving online and other challenges of hosting a festival during a pandemic.

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Matthew: So how is this 2020 going from a behind-the-scenes point of view?

Curtis: It’s a lot of looking at behind the scenes. I hate to repeat myself in this, but it bears repeating: this is our 39th edition but in many respects, our first one, Because we were operating without any of the muscle memory that we had before, and without any of the metrics you would typically use for things. 

I think that we got to day two of the festival, and we were looking at all the viewership numbers for the online format and scratching our heads and wringing our hands wondering if we were on track, or if we were ahead of where we thought we would be. Each day, that kind of passes just gives us a bit more of a frame of reference. 

I think that what we’re seeing right now is that we’re certainly ahead on some films than what we thought we would be. It’s interesting to see the viewership patterns grow over time. 

I think that there’s kind of everything is consistently building with the VIFF Connect platform. You see some impulse buying, the equivalent of the Tic Tac at the grocery store cashier. We have like a rotating Carousel of “today’s highlights”, and every day, the films that are in those see a spike in viewership. 

I think it’s a reminder that it remains a very large festival program for ourselves, and that people will take any sort of guidance you offer them in terms of where they may direct their attention in a given day, and just different ways that people are navigating in the festival is quite interesting to see.

Matthew: Are you able to share where you’re at in terms of viewership, ticket, and subscription sales as compared last year’s more traditional physical festival?

Curtis: You know, I think that I’d have to look, I know that we’re ahead of our financial targets, I can say that quite confidently. What isn’t reflected quite yet is that our variable costs, in this case, are things like the data rates for people with streaming so that’s like kind of the piece that will still come home to roost, but I’m quite confident we’ll make out just fine there we have some allowances. 

It’s a good feeling to know that audiences have certainly supported the festival this year. We are available throughout the province for the first time, and what we certainly haven’t had time to do is to see where viewership is coming from. We took a quick glance at Monkey Beach earlier today, which has been very popular for us –it was our opening film– and definitely we are seeing viewers from throughout the province on that one which is really exciting, but we don’t know yet if that really carries over to a lot of films in the festival or if we will see that a larger number of films may still be centralized to Vancouver in terms of their viewership or if it’s the dyed in the wool VIFF festival-goers who have just migrated to this online platform.

Matthew: Speaking of the geo-lock to BC, which is obviously exciting and I’ve been trying to tell friends and family from around the province “it’s available to you this year! Why aren’t you watching?”  Was there a conscious choice to limit it to British Columbia and not to all of Canada?

Curtis: when we close the Vancity Theatre in March, when, you know, really severe restrictions came into place, we started to talking to festivals that were going online then. So I’ve talked to Cleveland International Film Festival, who were one of the there are like a festival of similar size to this. And a very public-facing festival as well. So talk to them about their experience, had a number of conversations with HotDocs as well. 

Both those organizations used the same company, CineSend that we’re partnered with, and then attended a lot of knowledge sharing sessions with like the film festival Alliance. There were regular meetings set up with the fall festivals as well as all Canadian festivals to see where this was going, and one thing that was said really early on was that it was important for filmmakers and film suppliers to have this sense of a regional exclusivity with the festival. 

For instance, VIFF is happening right now, at the same time as Calgary, so for the filmmakers who are playing both festivals or for those sales agents for films that have films in both festivals, they want to have that assurance that if they licensed a film to Vancouver, they can do the same to Calgary and from a business standpoint have that sense that they’re not limiting their options with films.

For filmmakers, they also want to be able to do a pre-recorded q&a with us and do one for Calgary as well, and really have these kinds of unique festival experiences. They also don’t want to have this assumption made that it’s covered Western Canada by playing one of those festivals.

As we saw this kind of real dramatic shift in how festivals approach things like online, does online play forbid them from playing other physical festivals? Trying to keep it really restricted to a geographic region, I think it seemed to make good sense for us as an exhibitor and also for the filmmakers who were entrusting us with their work, that they were still going to have other opportunities open to them, and they wouldn’t close any doors for themselves as well during this time of real epochal change.

Matthew: Yeah, this is one of those things that I think many people –and I’m sure I’m guilty of it too– like to forget: that film is art, but it is also a big business.

Curtis: Yeah, it is business, but I think again, and on the art side of it as well, just knowing that there’s a different audience in Vancouver than there is in Calgary or Edmonton, those filmmakers can have a really unique experience with each one of those festivals, even if there is an overlap of dates. 

We know how the same film that plays our festival also plays other festivals and maybe has to be framed in a different way for each audience, and our programmers are seeing something different in it than another programmer. I think there’s that curatorial element of it, and then also the real considerations of how the film continues to find its way out into the world.

Matthew: Speaking of VIFF Connect, which, by the way, is pretty great, I just went back through all the press releases in my inbox and the earliest mention of the pandemic that I can find is from March, and it’s the message that the was announced that the VanCity Theatre was closing –and at that point, it was just closing from March to April. Then the announcement that the festival was moving online was in June. That was only four months later. Can you speak about how fast you went from “Let’s wait and see” to “Okay, we have to do this online?” 

Curtis: To begin, we consider ourselves very fortunate to be able to stage an event of this size. There was a lot of festivals –be it film festivals or music festivals– in Vancouver this year that had their summer events severely impacted. I think just from the outset, we consider ourselves, you know, fortunate to be in the position we’re in.

That being said, before there were some measures being put in place to allay the impact of the pandemic on different organizations, there were other outcomes for us that were very dire. So I think that it was not just a matter of whether we can do an online festival, but really, what does this mean for us moving forward?  

Once we knew in April, or May, that we would be in a position to do something this year, by that time it was clear to us that, at best, it would be a hybrid festival and that we needed to offer a festival we knew we could execute. 

I have friends at Nouveau Cinema in Montreal who found themselves in a position this week where the day before they announced their full program they had all of their physical screenings cancelled. So we needed to be in a position where we knew that we could execute an online festival.

It’s part of our DNA to say we wanted to a nine-screen, in-person event with guests in attendance but we knew that we couldn’t do that with confidence. So we really did have to throw ourselves into devoting our resources into developing an online platform that we could pull off no matter what the restrictions would be once the festival dates arrived. I think it was around May that those conversations really began in earnest.

Before that, we were already looking at different platforms, such as Vimeo on-demand or Shift72, which is what TIFF used. Really looking at, you know, what were some options open to us? How could we move forward? And then entire conversations around would the curatorial model look like for this, and how many films can we support properly? What is the offer we can make to our existing audience base, but also potentially new audiences?

 So I think it’s probably been part of the conversation since March, but it was around May or so that we knew that this was going to be the significant portion of this year’s festival.

Matthew: I’d like to come back to the VIFF Connect in just a second, but we’re fortunate enough in BC to be handling the pandemic relatively well – at least compared to the rest of Canada– and there are about half a dozen films that are showing in theatres. How are those screenings going?

Curtis: I think it’s so three films that we only had in theatres, due to some restrictions from distributors, everything else is either on the online platform, or people have the option for online or in person. 

We’re six nights into it now, and most of those films have played to capacity audiences, which of course comes with a significant Asterix attached to it because those are a maximum of 50 people. I can honestly say we have not hit 50 people even though we’ve had sold-out screenings. 

 The way that we need to ensure safety for filmmakers for filmgoers for staff and for volunteers is to break the theatres up into bubbles of two seats –I think the Cinematheque has 21 of those and the VanCity has 23– and people can either buy those in one or two-seat increments. So it does mean that you can technically have a sold-out screening with onl7 23 seats sold. I would have to go back and look, and I think that most screenings have probably been between 35 and 40 people.

It’s another learning process for ourselves. I think that as we continue to have year-round screenings of the VanCity theatre, we’ll look to maybe tweak that a little bit. We may have to look at having a certain set number that can be sold to single attendees and a certain number that can be sold to people attending in pairs. 

We’re very fortunate to have staff who are very accustomed to working at the festival and in exhibitions. They’ve really drawn upon their experience drawn upon their feeling of responsibility for the audience’s to ensure that, you know, all the safety protocols are being met. We have like one hour between screenings of the theatre to ensure proper cleaning is being done, we ensure that masks are being worn, and all these different pieces. I was at their first screening two nights ago, I’ll be there again this evening, and I think it’s being run in a very orderly fashion. I believe there is a sentiment amongst those people that are there as well, that they are all doing their part to ensure that these proper restrictions are being met.

Matthew: Yeah, as a film lover, I can say that I very much missed the theatre. But the introvert in me also loves just that it’s all at home now.

Curtis: Yeah, it’s that eternal balance, you know?

Matthew: Yeah, exactly. Coming back to VIFF Connect, in terms of shifting to the online platform primarily, did that present any challenges in a from a programming standpoint? Were you able to get the same variety of films and the same sort of budget level of films for lack of a better way to say it?

CurtisSomething we certainly encountered was the severe disruption of the festival circuit, True/False was one of the last festivals to occur in person, and then up until Venice, in September, there weren’t those in-person elements to things, we had HotDocs, and many other major festivals go online in various capacities. I think that we were having conversations on an ongoing basis as to what films will be open to us or available to us. 

Some that were out of the conversation early on came back into the conversation later in the game. Amongst the Canadian films, which were a conversation not on a distributor basis but more of a one-on-one with the producers or the directors, there were certainly films that chose to sit out this year in hopes that 2021 offered a more normal year.

There are some cases where films had Canadian and US crews on them and wanted to make sure that the US crew could be present for a premiere of the film. Others where it was important for them to be at a market festival, and when they didn’t get into TIFF that put them in a position of wanting to sit back and wait for a festival with a more of a market component.

It was a lot of conversations, and probably a lot of what-ifs can be added, but I think it was maybe the day after the program went live we got an email from one of our individuals on our screening committee and, who had worked with us and other capacities and they said: “This, this looks like a VIFF, you know, it looks like a real VIFF.” 

That’s the exciting thing that we can look back at all these conversations and some films that we would have loved to have had, would have loved to have showcased, and know would have really connected with our audiences, but the end of the day we have 100 feature films. While it is a more streamlined program for VIFF, it’s as sizeable as many North American festivals are in a given year.

We still have films from 45 countries, we have a large number of world premieres, we have a large number of North American premieres. We’re really, really excited at the fact that our programming team can normally leverage the relationships that we have with filmmakers, to have them entrust us with their work in what is a really bizarre year. 

I think it’s it’s a tremendous show of faith for someone to say “we will give you the world premiere of our film” on an online platform. 

So there’s that element of it, and I think there’s also the element that I think our programming team has been able to look at what are the films that will connect with the VIFF audiences? What are the stories that will kind of resonate with them? Who are some of the creators that we can show some early work from that will excite the audience? And I think that’s been a unique opportunity to kind of fall back on some of that expertise in this year and look at these challenges, but also see what are some of the kind of editorial though lines for this year’s festival. 

Matthew: Well as a filmgoer So you guys have done a bang-up job. With COVID it feels like it could have been so much worse, but it’s actually still incredibly good.

Curtis: Well, thank you for saying that. It feels that way. And, you know, it’s every day when you look at the films that we’re putting into today’s highlight section, and it feels like there’s still so many great films that we haven’t necessarily had a chance to be showcased yet. Take Abel Ferrara’s Siberia, and it’s like, “how have we not talked about Siberia yet?” It’s one of the really talked about films at Berlin, a very divisive film, but film from a true iconoclast, and yet, it’s there as a hidden gem somehow, this year’s festival. 

Matthew: Again, I really like VIFF Connect, is there a plan to keep that running or is when festivals over is it just gonna stop?

Curtis: No, the plan is to keep it running. In the lead up to this year’s festival for our gold subscribers, we had some advanced content for them. I think it was maybe two weeks before the festival we’ve played things like The Corporation and Deep Time by Noah Hutton –who has Lapsis in this year’s festival. We played some films by filmmakers who had films in this year’s festival for people to be able to familiarize themselves with those filmmakers or go back and see those films again. 

That is, I would say the basis of our plans for the platform moving forward. As we have first-run features in the VanCity and eventually the 41 seat studio theatre, also having this as a way of looking at some repertory work by filmmakers being showcased, or maybe some complimentary work as well. 

In a world where we were able to show Bacurau in March, as we planned for the VanCity, maybe VIFF Connect an opportunity for us to show other contemporary Brazilian cinema. People will be able to go and see more films from that school of cinema, or maybe short work by a filmmaker whose feature we have at the VanCity theatre or take a deeper dive into the canon of these filmmakers work. 

I think it’s an exciting opportunity for us to build out the platform and have it support what we’re doing in the first run, brick and mortar cinemas, but also to deepen people’s understanding of the schools of cinema and the filmmakers we’re showcasing.

Matthew: Nice! Just one last question: Top three films of the festival so far?

Curtis: I had the good fortune of seeing Last and First Men in the theatre in Berlin. And not just because of circumstances this year, but particularly because of circumstances this year, I really think that’s like just such a beautifully immersive experience. So if people are going to watch it, please watch it with your lights off, and maybe a set of headphones on to really just sink into that film. I think it’s just such a spectacular offering.

Michelle Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian is also such a rich work to be able to dive into. It just has so many jumping-off points from it, and it’s a film that just sits with you for such a long time afterwards.

I’ll just say these are three highlights, maybe not my top three, because I know as soon as we hang up I’ll think “Goddammit, I didn’t say this <laughs>. I do want to say that Andrew Stanley’s Flowers of the Field is a film that we have a world premiere of. He’s a filmmaker from Toronto, who really kind of came out of nowhere. He hasn’t made a short film before, he just made his first feature film and just went for it. It’s shot by Jeremy Cox, who’s a fantastic cinematographer from here in Vancouver who also shot a couple of short films that are in the festival this year.  

It just demonstrates like such a remarkable sensibility for a first-time director –from what I understand truly a first time director– and really formally bold and yet these tremendously humane performances within it. I think it’s a film that also requires its cast to do much of their acting through passages of silence rather than lines of dialogue, and it really is like a revelation of a really exciting new voice. 

I would cite Flowers of the Field as one of those films where it demonstrates a remarkable act of faith on the team’s part to entrust us with that film. I hope that it’s one that people seek out because I think we’ll see much more from Andrew in the years to come.

I really enjoyed speaking with Curtis this past Thursday and it seems like the festival is well in hand. I know that next year’s festival, however it ends up looking, will be in good hands.


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