EXCLUSIVE: Austin Film Festival 2020 will go mostly virtual due to pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted another beloved annual event in Austin and left the presenting organization scrambling to re-imagine itself, at least for a year.
Austin Film Festival executive director Barbara Morgan announced Tuesday that the festival she co-founded in 1993 will be held almost entirely virtually for the first time in the fest’s history.
The festival that champions screenwriters has always served as an electric space in which film lovers from all over the world congregate to celebrate and discuss their shared passion. And it’s that collective energy that Morgan says she will miss the most this fall.
“It’s funny, the first thing that I thought of with this is, the thing I am going to miss the most are the lines,” Morgan said. “They’re electric. You get people who were really excited to see the films, and they’re chatty and friendly. It’s weird to be thinking about not tangibly feeling that energy.”
The festival will still take place Oct. 22-29, but almost all of the events and screenings will take place online. World and regional premieres will screen online, with badge holders receiving links at the time of the premieres that will then remain valid for the duration of the festival. The festival will release its first round of titles in the coming days.
Attendees also will use an online portal to access mentor sessions, panels, conversations and roundtable discussions, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers will be presented online. The festival’s hallmark screenplay competition will also take place, with Morgan saying submissions are up about 10 percent compared to last year.
Morgan expects some of the festival’s conversations to be taped, while others will be livestreamed, and said the online nature of the festival will hopefully allow the festival to secure some far-flung talent that may not normally be able to make it to Austin.
“We’re trying to do as much of it as we can that has a live feel,” Morgan said.
The liveliest places during the festival each year are invariably the Paramount Theatre and the Driskill Hotel and Bar.
“When I called the Paramount and Driskill, there were tears in my eyes,” Morgan said of canceling the majority of the live and local aspects of the fest.
And while the Paramount, which has been a partner with the fest since 1994, and the Driskill, a partner since 1995, will not be the central hubs of the festival’s 2020 iteration, Morgan hopes there is some way the fest can still incorporate the venues, possibly with a few limited-seating screenings at the Paramount or a livestreamed conversation from the Driskill Bar.
Badges for the virtual fest will cost $175. Attendees who had already purchased badges for this year’s festival can either swap it out for a virtual badge; roll the purchased badge over to the 2021 or 2022 fests; or donate the cost of the badge to the nonprofit film festival.
Morgan said the festival received a Paycheck Protection Program loan via a local bank and called her banker her “new Marvel superhero.” She said that has helped keep all of the festival staff on payroll during the pandemic.
“We’re really working hard not to do (layoffs); that would be truly heartbreaking,” Morgan said. “We’ve gotta get through this year. If we can hit our badge number, we’ll be OK.”
And while the prospect of taking what is usually a social event into an online space is “beyond weird” for the very analogue Morgan, the festival’s founder says that she thinks the new experience will also help her team look at the 27-year-old festival with fresh eyes.
“I have to admit, I feel like there are some opportunities that we have with doing this that are good for us,” Morgan said. “As much as this has been difficult, it’s also been a learning experience — revisiting what you do and why you do it; thinking about what kind of stuff makes you better in the long run, or relevant as you move forward. So, not all bad.”