Film Festivals Pivot Online, Leaving Production Workers Stranded

These interviews happened spring 2020. They have been edited for clarity.

2020 has brought an onslaught of layoffs to gig workers. Film festival programmers and directors host public webinars to demystify what’s next for the industry. Absent of an in-person, communal experience, online film festivals attempt to connect filmmakers and film audiences but cannot replace the opportunity to hire event workers. Although programming teams embrace this pivot, film festival production employees (box office managers, production coordinators, venue managers, volunteer coordinators) get the short end of the stick as public gatherings and the safe return of movie theaters is unknown.

As a film festival production worker myself, I spoke to two female film festival workers and recent college graduates based in New Jersey, Orli Spierer and Amanda Adams, about their current outlook on the future of film festivals.

CS: When did you start working in film festivals?

OS: I started working in film festivals in fall 2018 after graduating from college (Northwestern University), but I also attended and volunteered at a few festivals during college.

AA: I started working for festivals in 2017, interning my senior year of college (Montclair State University) at Montclair Film Festival and I have been returning every year since.

CS: What film festivals do you usually work at/return to?

OS: I have worked at the Chicago International Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival twice, Tribeca Film Festival once, and I was supposed to work at SF Film (San Francisco International Film Festival) prior to the pandemic.

AA:  I work at the Montclair Film Festival and the Philadelphia Film Festival. Montclair for 3 years so far and Philadelphia for 2 years.

CS: What areas of film festival production do you work in and what are your duties?

OS: I usually work in volunteer management and ticketing. As a Volunteer Manager, I recruit and work with volunteers who do everything from checking tickets to ushering patrons. No non-profit film festival would be possible without the generous help of volunteers. They are film-lovers and students, volunteering their time, often in exchange for vouchers to see films at the festival, a chance to meet other film lovers, and access to other perks. Ticketing is a bit more straightforwardwe sell tickets to the films. This can include ticket packages, advance tickets, day-of tickets, and will call pick-up for online sales.

AA: I am usually the Production Coordinator or work as Assistant of Venue Operations, meaning that I take care of all the back end work to set venues up with signage and any other equipment or resources. Sometimes I manage a staff of interns and sometimes I’m needed to jump in as House Manager, the person in charge of managing the people coming in and out of the theater.

CS: What motivated you to start working at film festivals?

OS: I’ve always loved film and I studied film in college thinking I wanted to become a screenwriter or get otherwise involved in film production. During college I realized that I didn’t love being on set or have any desire to move to LA. The summer before my junior year of college I did a film program in Jerusalem, Israel and we got to attend the Jerusalem Film Festival. I absolutely loved the film festival experience and wanted to get involved in festivals any way that I could after that great experience. I volunteered at SXSW the following spring, which reaffirmed that I wanted to get on the festival circuit.

AA: I was a Film major in college who also worked at a theater and was passionate about live events. Putting the two together just made sense.

CS: In a regular year, if anything, what do you have to do to supplement your festival income? 

OS: I’ve been at this for less than two years, but for a little over a year I’ve been doing some part-time, remote work for a Chicago based small humor branding agency. I also worked at a music festival for three months last summer.

AA:  I worked retail for a little while. Recently I was a box office associate at a local theatre and I do production assistance work for an event production company and whatever shoots I can get on in Philadelphia.

CS: Has COVID-19 delayed work or cancelled it? Both?

OS: Yup. Both. SF Film was cancelled and all of our contracts were cut short. Other festivals I had been hoping to work for after SF Film have also been cancelled, and I’m not exactly optimistic that things will be back to normal by the fall festival season.

AA: Oh yes. I lost my steady job (in retail), an upcoming festival gig and a freelance event production gig all at once.

CS: How do you think film festivals will be different now that many of them have tested online release options?

OS: I’m not sure. I think and hope the online releases are just a temporary solution while traveling and gathering in person is not possible or safe. I don’t see festivals continuing to host screenings online once it is safe to travel and sit in a packed theater again because that ruins a lot of what’s special about festivals.

AA: I think we don’t know what the world is going to be in a few months and festivals are trying to adapt. There are festivals that functioned entirely online before this and I think that larger festivals will just be making that change to keep their content going.

CS: Have you used this down time to learn any new skills or pivot into new areas?

OS: Not yet, but I’ve begun to think about looking for more remote writing work, since it’s unclear when festivals will be able to resume safely.

AA: I’ve screened almost 200 films for two festivals. As well as volunteering and doing a bunch of back end work for a nonprofit called Invisible Hands, that delivers food to elderly and immunocompromised people in the tri state area. I also started a podcast where I recap my favorite T.V. show.

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