Pandemic-canceled film festival recreates itself as virtual event

Three young people hold their hands up.
"Tuscaloosa" tells the story of young man from a wealthy southern family in the early 1970s as he faces life, love and a troubled family history. Minnesota director Philip Harder adapted the film from the novel of the same name by Glasgow Phillips. The film is being shown at MSPIFF39 Redefined, the virtual remounting of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival canceled in April due to the pandemic.
Image courtesy Minneapolis St. Paul Film Society

When the pandemic forced the cancellation of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, organizers promised they would be back with an alternative. And now, just weeks later, they are making good — "MSPIFF39 Redefined," which opens Friday, is a virtual event that retains many trappings of live film festivals. 

Before they had to pull the plug, organizers of the 39th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival had more than 250 films lined up for screenings over two weeks in April. 

"We didn't want all of our work and all this great content that we had sourced over the course of the year to be for naught," said MSPIFF programmer Jesse Bishop.

Bishop said MSPIFF39 Redefined will be smaller than the planned live version — about 50 features and 50 shorts. But the scope remains broad. The festival is a heady mixture of Oscar contenders, potential summer blockbusters, international gems you may never see in a theater again, and a wide and wild assortment of documentaries. And many local films, such as a documentary about the Interstate 35W collapse, simply called "Bridge"

“I watched the expansion joint beneath my van split apart like a zipper” says one victim of the 2007 disaster in the film. It explores how the the trauma of that day still ripples through the lives of people in the community.

Shifting viewings from theater screens to home screens may seem relatively easy in this streaming age, but Bishop said creating a quality festival experience takes satisfying many needs.  

The festival staff wanted an event to satisfy movie fans, used to squeezing into theaters to see the absolute latest. But also they wanted it to work for filmmakers who use festivals to get feedback and build buzz for their movies. 

For one thing, Bishop said, you have to remember these movies are really new. 

"These are movies that have not yet made their way to a theater near you," he said. "Or even a platform at your home."

Often people work for years making their movies and spend a lot of money. Filmmakers want festival exposure, but not in a way that devalues what they made.  

"Everybody has concerns with piracy," said Bishop. "And then there are concerns related to overexposure of a film if a movie has not yet been purchased for eventual distribution. They want to make sure that if we're doing an online event, not every single person in Minnesota has access to watch it."

Bishop said they installed special encryption and put a limit on ticket sales. 

"Just like seats in a movie theater, these films will have viewer caps, attendee caps," he said. "So, it will be a first-come-first-served event."

And just like a live film festival, the hot titles will sell out. That element of exclusivity can be appealing to film fans.

And while people who do get a ticket for a movie will have some choice of when they watch it, they have to do it before the end of the event on May 23. That appeals to filmmakers.

In fact, some films will only be available for a few specific days, linked to another film festival staple, conversations with filmmakers. 

"We're going to be having as many Q&As as possible, and conversations with the film artists and  the directors and people behind these movies," he said. 

Bishop said there will be Q&As every day and sometimes multiple conversations.

And MSPIFF39 Redefined will have another film festival staple: parties. The first one is at 8 p.m. Thursday online as DJ Jake Rudh spins the tunes for the kickoff party. He will also host the mid-festival bash, again online on May 20.  

Bishop said losing the live festival was a major financial hit for the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Society and the virtual event won't make that back. He does hope the redefined event will help maintain the community built around the festival over the years.

"We view this as 100 percent temporary," he said. "We don't want to be in this virtual space. We believe that experience in a dark room together is how our events should be," he said.  

He admits, it may be too soon to tell. Maybe in the future, a virtual event will be the way to bring an artist's work to the community. But now Bishop has a festival to run. 

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