Many changes separated this festival from past ones. Besides it being a hybrid festival, it was a shorter festival, lasting for 11 days (14 with press screenings) as opposed to the usual 25 days (30 or so with press screenings). Here are other differences I noticed:
- Press screenings were at the Uptown this year, instead of at Pacific Place. The last time they were held at the Uptown was in 2015.
- No one introduced the press screenings. Usually someone goes up to the front and uses the microphone to announce the next movie and its runtime (this is especially important if technical difficulties necessitate the playing of a different film from the one scheduled). According to one friend who went to the first press screening at 10am (I went to the noon one), the lights went down and the movie started right at 10, with no warning. The two people who usually do announcements didn’t do them this year, and while Ramsey yelled “Turn off your cell phones” from the aisles a few minutes before each feature was about to start, I didn’t see Jeff at the festival at all. After the noon show, the Uptown Manager made an announcement to leave the theater in-between screenings and line up outside, but that was the only announcement we heard.
- Usually press screenings run the entire length of the festival, and the movies start later in the day. This year press screenings ended on opening night, and there were four rounds of movies each day, instead of three rounds on weekdays and four rounds on weekends.
- There weren’t any press screenings for press only, and possibly because of the virtual component of the festival (which I couldn’t access with my press badge), I never received a list of screeners.
- The Opening Night movie is usually held at McCaw Hall; this year it was held at the Paramount
- No red carpet outside, just a step-and-repeat inside.
- The Gala itself was on the stage of the Paramount (dancing) and outside on 9th Avenue, instead of in Seattle Center (Pacific Northwest Ballet Building, or — more recently — Fischer Pavilion).
- The usual Opening Night DJ was replaced by a less dance-inducing DJ.
- Fewer box office locations, fewer staff, fewer volunteers, fewer attendees.
- Held April 14-24, instead of mid-May to June, so it was darker out earlier.
- No SIFF catalog to buy (only the free guide), and all merch seemed to be only available through the website.
- No ShortsFest over Memorial Day weekend while Folk Life is happening at Seattle Center. Instead, it occurred the first weekend of the festival.
- Because it was a shorter festival, there was no Centerpiece Film or Gala.
- Since Vulcan ran the Cinerama into the ground — an impressive feat of gross incompetence — the Closing Night Movie played at the Egyptian.
And obviously, fewer movies played during the festival than in past years.
Best of the Fest
One of the ironies of the festival is that the fewer movies you see, the better they tend to be. On a scale of 1 to 5 on the official ballot, only one short scored lower than a 3 with me, and most movies were 4s or 5s. On the unofficial Fools ballot, that translated to one rating under a 5.
Here is everything I saw during the festival, with my Fools rating:
Feature Films (16)
Call Jane (Closing Night) 7
Cha Cha Real Smooth 8
The King of Laughter 8
The Last Film Show 6
The Passenger 6
Phantom of the Open 5
The Red Tree 6
Bernstein’s Wall 7
Children of the Mist 6
Fire of Love 8
Framing Agnes 5
Navalny (Opening Night) 7
The Pez Outlaw 7
The Pursuit of Perfection 6
In the Event of My Death 5
In the Water 8
paper plain 5
Rachels Don’t Run 7
The Ref 7
The Space Between Never and Always 4
Wheels De Amor 7
Best Movie: Superheroes
Nobody I talked to at the festival saw this movie, so this was, in essence, the perfect festival film. A true discovery.
Runner Up: Cha Cha Real Smooth
Best Documentary: Fire of Love
This film about two volcanologists who fell in love over their love of volcanoes boasts stunning footage, informative voice-over narration, and a great balance between a love story and a disaster film. Just a great all-around film.
Runner Up (Tie): Bernstein’s Wall, The Pez Outlaw
Best Short: Sojourn
Production values, acting, and the storyline made this a standout among a strong field of shorts.
Runner Up: In the Water
As a former worker at SIFF (2012-20 at the Uptown), I know both the frustration of being scheduled fewer hours that is sustainable and the tough position SIFF is in with regards to revenue not being what it was post-pandemic. If the audiences came back, they came back virtually.
I’m also pleased that SIFF recognized on their webpage that “there was a breakdown in providing more timely communication of the anticipated reduced programming in May,” as poor communication and transparency between office and cinema staff was a frequent issue in my early years with the organization. Some of the year-round hires who helped that issue be less of an issue have returned to SIFF, so I’m hopeful that this was an aberration, rather than a backslide.
Also, SIFF is still looking for an Executive Director. They have an interim Executive Director, but as she didn’t address the crowd at Opening Night and I never had her pointed out to me during the festival, I can’t tell how active her role has been since she was hired in April of last year.
The longevity of Executive Directors has been something of an issue at SIFF. In the time I was there, we went through four managing/executive directors and two interim directors. In contrast, programming was run under two different artistic directors, and Beth Barrett is still the artistic director. Whoever they pick next needs to be there longer than a few years and needs the support necessary to help the organization repair relationships (among donors, staff, and year-round volunteers), communicate better, and be financially solvent.
As I mentioned, attendance was low this year. It’s also been low at most theaters throughout the year. I’m sure that factored into SIFF’s decision to not schedule much at the Egyptian once the festival ended, since it’s a one-screen theater (the Uptown, with three screens, is better suited to take a loss if one of the films playing there doesn’t do enough business). In that respect, the hybrid model was a smart move, as people not comfortable going out to the movies could watch them from their homes — though some of the films were geo-locked to Washington State, and not all of them could be streamed. I’m hoping the numbers at home smashed the numbers in the theaters, because if they didn’t (and the signs aren’t encouraging), I worry about the future of SIFF.
A big thank you to Jaclyn, Sophie, and everyone else at InJoy Studios for keeping me and the rest of the press informed of changes in programming and in securing tickets for me for Opening and Closing Night, as well as for answering my questions — not just during the festival, but also during the mini-festivals SIFF had in the run-up to their year-round festival. Thanks to all of the staff and volunteers who worked/volunteered at the venues. Thanks to the projectionists for showing the films. Thanks to the programmers for programming, the guests for attending, the filmmakers for creating, the food trucks for feeding, and anyone I missed.
And hopefully, I’ll see you all next year.