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Regional film festivals go virtual, broadening their reach and accessibility

The Grand Cinema is a nonprofit movie theater in Tacoma.
Amelia Vaugh
Courtesy of The Grand
The Grand Cinema is a nonprofit movie theater in Tacoma.

Many of the region’s annual film festivals are going virtual this year, as the pandemic continues. That includes next year’s Seattle International Film Festival and the Tacoma Film Festival, which is going on now and continues through Sunday.

Beginning Thursday, The Grand Cinema will be open for three days only as part of the festival. Wade Neal, assistant executive director at The Grand Cinema, said there won’t be concessions for sale to encourage continuous mask usage and additional safety measures will be in place, including socially distanced seating.

“We want to hear back from people what the experience was like so we can tailor what we do in the future,” Neal said.

This will be a sort of “trial run” for reopening. The Grand Cinema has not officially reopened, although some other theaters have under new state guidelines. But it's continuing the 15-year-old tradition that is the Tacoma Film Festival.

Going virtual also makes staple cultural events like the annual film festival more accessible. The event’s programs are available to stream through the festival’s virtual platform.

Neal said all the festival’s feature films are available throughout the state, while the short films can be accessed from around the U.S.

“It does broaden the viewership very much outside the city, so we’re very excited about that," Neal said. "A lot of people have purchased passes to get involved all around the Puget Sound area already."

This year’s event features about 150 films and programs, including a number of shorts by local filmmakers. The films cover a range of topics, from the journeys of stray dogs in Turkey to what it means to be safe in schools in the U.S.

The Seattle International Film Festival also announced plans to go virtual next year. SIFF 2020 was canceled this spring, as public health restrictions began rolling out in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It returns virtually for its 47th year April 8-18, 2021.

Beth Barrett, SIFF’s artistic director, said they took into consideration what the landscape of the state and city would be in the spring when making the decision. She said they recognize it’s possible people may be back in cinemas and life could start returning to normal by then, but it wouldn’t be possible to have the capacity a festival thrives on.

“We wanted to be able to still present the best in international independent films, but also in a way that is safe for all of our patrons and our staff, and made the most sense just sort of in the big scheme,” Barrett said.

In addition to being virtual, SIFF 2021 will take place earlier than usual. Barrett said they moved the festival to April from its typical May start date to concentrate on some feature films ahead of the 2021 Academy Awards, which take place the following week.

Barrett said they are planning to include about 100 films and other programs in SIFF 2021, with the full lineup yet to be announced. SIFF is accepting submissions for next year’s festival through Jan. 8.

Rebekah Way is an on-call news host at KNKX. She began her career in public radio as a news intern at KNKX, where she's also worked as an interim producer and reporter. Rebekah holds a life-long passion for music and also works as a professional musician and educator in the Seattle area.