Ashland’s Indie Film Festival Draws Virtual Crowds

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The Ashland Independent Film Festival is one of Oregon’s biggest events for filmmakers. Most years, around 5,000 people from all over the country come to Ashland for five days in April to share their love of independent cinema.

But this year, due to restrictions on public gatherings due to COVID-19, organizers had to think of a new way to present the festival.

Richard Herskowitz, AIFF’s artistic and executive director, said the organization had agreed it needed to take the festival online.

“We had already been studying for several weeks the possibilities online to recreate the festival virtually, not to lose what we had spent all year creating and not to disappoint all the filmmakers whose films we had accepted”, a- he declared.

But Herskowitz was unsure of the financial viability of an online festival.

“The biggest challenge at the start was how to give our members and sponsors a sense of value over what we could offer them through our virtual festival, which would match what they had paid through their membership” , did he declare.

Actor Bruce Campbell hosted the Ashland Independent Film Festival awards night with director Luz Carasa. Due to restrictions on public gatherings, AIFF has moved the festival to a virtual format.

Courtesy of Richard Herskowitz

The release of AIFF has been accompanied by many format changes. Instead of five days, it was now three weeks, and the festival moved from mid-May to early June.

AIFF has partnered with Film Festival Flix, a company specializing in the creation of virtual film festivals, to present 29 selected films. Each film would play for 24 hours, and after viewing, attendees could interact with the filmmakers in a special Facebook group.

“Wednesdays were movies about the arts, Thursdays were movies about migration, Tuesdays were movies about Asian Americans,” Herskowitz said.

Even though the films were online, Herskowitz wanted to preserve the atmosphere of the festival as much as possible through discussions and forums.

“We have what we call a ‘virtual after lounge,'” he said. “An after lounge is something we do every day at the film festival when it’s physical and filmmakers can get together and network with each other and with people in the industry, we do it online.

The film by documentary filmmaker Deborah Shaffer "Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack," screened virtually as part of the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

Documentary filmmaker Deborah Shaffer’s film “Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack” was screened virtually as part of the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

Courtesy of Deborah Shaffer

Documentary filmmaker Deborah Shaffer’s film “Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack”, has been played virtually. Shaffer, like many filmmakers, appreciated the way AIFF handled the transition to an online format.

“They really took the lead in terms of organization, when the movies were going to be accessible, what was the time window, geo-blocking,” she said. “I’m really impressed with what the festival administration, staff, directors and everyone has done with the festival.”

Hisonni Johnson, a Las Vegas-based filmmaker, came to AIFF after hearing about it for years. Her film, “Takeout Girl,” was screened during the virtual festival.

Johnson admitted the online format was a little different, but for filmmakers like him, film festivals, virtual or otherwise, offer a great way to connect with people beyond the immediate area, he said. -he declares.

“I haven’t been able to shake hands with anyone, but clearly through this virtual experience, I feel supported enough and connected enough to want to reconnect,” he said. “That doesn’t even take into account that you’re in the middle of a pandemic and you’re more isolated than you’ve ever been.

Hisonni Johnson, a Las Vegas-based filmmaker, entered the Ashland Film Festival after years of hearing about its reputation.  His film,

Hisonni Johnson, a Las Vegas-based filmmaker, entered the Ashland Film Festival after years of hearing about its reputation. Her film, “Takeout Girl,” was screened online as part of AIFF’s plan to move to a virtual festival.

Courtesy of Hisonni Johnson

However, even with the ability to reach more people, Shaffer said he misses the human interactions that come with in-person festivals.

“There is no replacement for sitting at the back of the theater,” she said. at the end – all that left in a virtual festival.”

Johnson said AIFF’s decision to continue with a virtual format showed festival organizers understood the importance of bringing people together.

“Ashland is one of those rare places that makes you feel like you’ve got it figured out. They understand this struggle and they salute you for it,” he said. “Every wonderful movie they found could fade into the ether if they didn’t act fast and they did. Thank God they did.

Public reaction has also been positive.

“They find ways, just hooking up their laptop to their TV to watch it on a bigger screen at home. And they really appreciate the Q&A,” Herskowitz said.

Ticket sales are estimated to be around 40% of what they would have been for a live event. Heskowitz said that although the numbers are lower than normal, this is enough for the AIFF to keep its staff employed. Which means the festival was a success.

So, will the future of the AIFF be virtual?

It’s hard to say. But given the success of this year’s festival, Herskowitz hopes it will be something of a hybrid and the in-person experience won’t go away.

“I don’t want to give up the physical festival, that sense of community. The sense of community is what film festivals really bring. Being online, talking to filmmakers in the theater, talking with other moviegoers in the lobby, that’s what film festivals do,” he said.

The three-week virtual AIFF ends on Saturday evening.

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