Scottsdale’s annual film festival to celebrate 20 years remotely

By Connor Dziawura

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, the film industry was quick to adapt. Theaters found themselves shuttered, while some renowned events canceled this year’s festivities. Still, some festivals made the jump to a virtual format, allowing films to be seen from the comfort and safety of viewers’ own homes.

Now half a year later, the 20th Scottsdale International Film Festival will continue that trend, running from November 6 to November 10 online.

Amy Ettinger, the festival’s executive director, was one such person who took to the idea of an alternate plan early in the pandemic. In late February, a month before Gov. Doug Ducey issued a temporary stay-at-home order, Ettinger recalls a board meeting in which she felt there was an “impending coronavirus invasion of our shores.” The board didn’t come to a consensus, so the idea was tabled. Weeks later, everything changed.

“It was shocking—the March board meeting—how much had unfolded in 30 short days,” Ettinger recalls, noting meetings had switched to a virtual format.

“There still were no clear options at that moment in the March meeting,” adds Ettinger, who admits to having been concerned about the festival’s future.

“Suddenly, we were offered an opportunity with the Film Festival Alliance (FFA), which is a peer group of film festivals who network throughout the United States, to do a streaming event—and it was called Film Festival Day,” she says.

“More than dipping our toes in the pond, we really got our feet wet (and) could see that, wow, our audience is really willing to do this. We didn’t think our patrons would ever go along with it. To the contrary: Out of all the film festivals that participated across the entire country, I think we were No. 3.

“I think word travels fast, because suddenly we had various distributors knocking on our door, asking us would we consider ‘this’ or ‘that’ or the other streamer?” she continues. “They were all different price points and all different kinds of content, and as time has gone by, we’ve seen what works, what doesn’t work, what people will do, what people won’t do.”

Observing the FFA and other film festivals holding streaming events, Ettinger began researching the idea and having it tested, including the annual Scottsdale event hosting streamers on its website. It’s now a reality for the annual November event.

“We had garnered a considerable amount of momentum from last year as a film festival,” Ettinger says. “We finally hit our stride and had, gosh, 11 really high-profile premieres. It just would have been a real shame to not do something this season to, A. celebrate the 20th, but B. also acknowledge that we are a force now to be reckoned with.”

‘Build your own festival’

The festival’s streaming slate has been reduced and duration cut by half—to make scheduling more manageable for viewers, Ettinger says. Set for five days, this year’s festival is expected to feature 20 films from around the world.

Some filmmakers will particular in virtual Q&As. Phoenix Film Critics Society awards will also be presented on the first night, to allow festival attendees to plan their schedules accordingly. The audience can then vote on the films they see.

Some films will be available in what Ettinger calls a “24/5” format, allowing them to be watched at the viewers’ leisure over the five days, while select other films may only be available within specific windows.

“You can basically build your own festival to watch things in any timeframe that you want so long as they’re a 24/5 participant, but we will notate all those films that are not participating,” Ettinger explains.

Films will include anything from comedies, dramas and thrillers to documentaries. Check the event’s website for more details.

In 2019, Ettinger told The Entertainer! Magazine the festival had added more light, humorous and accessible fare than previous years in response to audience feedback. This year, she contrasts, the festival isn’t holding back—despite Ettinger having considered going lighter in response to the mood surrounding the pandemic.

“I’m not shying away from the super challenging this year,” Ettinger says, explaining that to mean anything from thrillers, suspense and murder mysteries to psychologically and emotionally challenging works—or even just those with a message.

“So, whatever it was I said last year, that was then and this is a whole new now,” Ettinger says. “I’m going full bore into those films that I feel are deserving of a platform and are very prestigious events.”

A win for cinephiles

Even with the switch to a virtual format, Ettinger says it’s just a victory to be able to continue.

“We really just consider it a massive victory to still be on our feet. … We just think the 20th anniversary celebration is we live to see our 20th anniversary,” she says. “There are a lot of festivals this year that didn’t happen. … One was South by Southwest. And so the celebration for us is we didn’t have to miss our 20th year.”

She feels the pandemic has even opened the door to new opportunities that can continue when the festival returns to an in-person format. That includes a new balloting system for the audience to vote, and the platform with which the organizers are partnering has an app the festival can continue to use. Ettinger says having an online component allows participation from those who otherwise would miss out.

“This year we understand that there are challenges that we could never have imagined prior to COVID-19 reaching our shores. That being said, we are still here,” she says.

“We are still taking probably one of the biggest risks we’ve ever taken in mounting this festival, and participating by way of buying a single ticket or a package of five or 10 films or even a VIP pass cannot be more appreciated on our part. And the more people to participate in the festival the better. We really need everybody in the community on board with us this year so that we can do better than limp into to 2021.”

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