TSB interview: NW Film Forum’s Executive Director Vivian Hua talks about moving forward in the time of COVID-19

It’s not surprising that movie theaters have been struggling to stay afloat since the start of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Any business model predicated on getting people congregating in public is going to be forced to adapt, or close their doors, during a time when public congregation is prohibited. Laying off staff and shutting down has been the only option for a lot of theaters and arts organizations.

One organization that has adapted quickly and moved forward without having to lay off anyone on staff so far has been the Northwest Film Forum, which quickly pivoted to showing their ByDesign Festival online and has a handful of acclaimed movies that you can stream online while supporting the organization.

I wanted to learn more about how the Northwest Film Forum was able to adapt and pivot so quickly, so I was able to talk with Executive Director Vivian Hua by phone last Friday.

The first thing I wanted to ask is how did the ByDesign Festival go last week?

It actually went incredibly well. Surprisingly well I would say. We kind of pivoted online really quick in four or five days after we knew we had to close and it reached a really wide international audience and we sold more festival passes than when we ever have, so in that sense it was a big success.

Did you get to tune in?

I didn’t get to. I really wanted to, I just couldn’t make it work. I was sent some screeners because I was told it was still a go after a lot of theaters were closing. And then a couple of days later it’s, “oh no we are shutting down, we have to do this online.” I was amazed at how fast you guys pulled that off.

It was surprising for us, too.

Your predecessor as Executive Director at the NWFF, Courtney Sheehan, once gave a TEDx talk about reinventing the movie theater, but it feels like that’s something you are forced to do, again, because of the unique circumstances you (and all of us) were dealt.

Yeah, I think what was really cool about the path that Courtney took the Film Forum on, and I came into this role after already working there for a while… I feel like it was really an extension of the trajectory it was already on in terms of reinventing and being more about local community in a lot of ways. So I think right now what has really set us apart to a lot of theaters around the country, [is that they] laid off all of their employees and they’re not really trying to make a go of it right now.

For us, it was one of the values that we approached this with from when we knew we had to close, it was like, okay we know we don’t want to lay anyone off and we’re just going to make whatever else work. And maybe it’s because we’re scrappy, maybe it’s because we’re crazy, I don’t know but that was how we approached this and it’s just sort of figuring out the community pieces around it to make it work.

The calendar looks really great, with Vitalina Varela (which I loved) and Bacurau, and some favorites from the Local Sightings Festival, and that was just what’s showing now. How did you get, say, those two movies in particular to screen? 

Yeah, so I think it’s a really interesting time because of this some distributors, not very many right now, but a few major players, Kino, Grasshopper and Film Movement are the three that stick out…. I guess they must’ve been working on this for a while already, but they have online platforms to be able to stream some of their films. So as soon as this happened, they reached out to the Art House community and they said, hey we can offer these films. And it’s basically the same as it normally would be, so the 50/50 split for tickets so that we’re still able to offer these first run theatrical releases, even though it’s from home.

Vitalina Varela was an interesting case for me because it was already on your calendar, before you had to shut down. Your communications manager sent me the screener a few weeks ago, before there was any talk of anyone shutting down. So it feels like you’re trying to keep offering some of the same movies that were already on your docket…

Yeah, it’s interesting. Well, I mean it’s only been a couple of days. Anyway, it’s to be determined what it’s going to look like in terms of the number of people tuning in to view it but it’s all kind of an experiment right now. I think we decided that because we’re keeping our staff at this point and we want to make the best use as possible of everyone’s skillsets, we’re just trying some crazy experiments to see what works.

And so that’s a combination of the distributor, first run theatrical releases, and then our personal, highly-curated festivals and programs similar to ByDesign Festival, because right now it kind of feels like the early days of the internet in some ways where you go on Facebook and suddenly it’s like everyone is live streaming they’re acoustic performance from their bedroom. I feel like there’s this unique need for curation in a way that maybe visual content has been a little bit lazy because everyone just gets Netflix and then you’re watching stuff on Netflix and you don’t even necessarily want to watch some of that stuff, but because it’s there, people watch it. And I feel like now [there’s] this opportunity to bring the art house curation into the digital space in a way that maybe hasn’t been done yet.

Photo by Leo Carmona.

And it really feels like too there’s a kind of a real hunger for movies like that right now. I don’t know if it was because Parasite won Best Picture, or the evolution of my own tastes and those of the people I talk with, or something else, but it seems like people are really seeking out these movies. So I’m glad that you have really kind of stepped up and been a place for these movies to be accessible.

Thank you! And then the other prong of this is kind of we work with certain community partners year round and [we showed Patrinell last weekend], which was a award-winning feature film from the Local Sightings Film Festival last year, our Pacific Northwest filmmaker festival and it’s the first time this will ever have been shown online. They probably won’t have an opportunity to show it online because I don’t know that it’s big enough to get a distribution deal. So this is actually allowing the opportunity, so it’s very interesting.

That was another movie I wanted to ask you about because I believe it played at SIFF last year and then the Local Sightings Festival and has been really well-received, but like you said, I’m not sure it was big enough to get a distribution deal.

I mean the story is still pretty universal, right? It’s this aging gospel singer, gentrifying communities, African American communities, and it’s local. It has relevance in a lot of places, I think.

I want to get back to talking about the ByDesign Festival because you said it was very successful and you have another niche festival coming up, the Video Poetry Festival. Is it going to be done in a similar fashion?

Yeah, totally. So I actually think that festival is going to be pretty great to bring online this year because the program is so international and it’s highly curated: we get hundreds of submissions from all over the world. But that being said, the video poetry community in Seattle, even though these festivals happen all over the world actually, it’s not necessarily that there’s that huge of a video poetry audience in Seattle. So in some ways I actually think this particular kind of festival is well served from being online. I guess we’ll see what it looks like, but it seems like a big, exciting opportunity.

 And then the other one coming up that I think is really interesting is Three Dollar Bill Cinema’s Translations, which happens in early May and usually we host some of the programming, some of it is at SIFF but I think this year it’s going to be more of a close partnership where Film Forum is actually taking it on and using our platform similar to ByDesign as the platform for Translations.

Even before COVID-19, it wasn’t always possible for everyone who wanted to go to be able to make it to Capitol Hill, so I think a lot of people are going to be receptive to having the online component.

Yeah. One person from ByDesign posted a personal comment where he said, “Yay, now my friends linked all over the country can actually see what the hell I do at this job.” I think a lot of us feel that way right now.

Are there any things coming up besides offering streaming movies that you’ve got in the works right now that you can talk about?

I think the other big thing that’s happening right now, which is that you’ve probably seen a lot of these artists’ relief initiatives that are very grassroots and community grown.

I think it’s so important being a film organization but also just in general, a community organization that serves a lot of communities. We found ourselves fiscally sponsoring a lot of these kinds of community-rooted artist relief efforts, in this time, which has been exciting for us because it’s really helping people who really need it and often representing communities that are extremely, historically speaking, disenfranchised. So it’s been this weird silver lining in some ways to see that this type of community organizing is something that we can help with right now and that it’s really needed. So that’s the other kind of a big thing that we’ve been doing internally.

And one more thing, actually. We’re working with a coalition of people who are interested in building on a more robust platform for online streaming. It’s for performers, filmmakers, etcetera to really kind of A, get money into the pockets of local artists, but also to just elevate the creative economy in this area. So that’s going to launch on April 6th, I think.

Do you think that when you’re able to reopen the theater that you’ll still continue a lot of these digital initiatives and make the movies more accessible to people at home or through streaming?

That’s such a good question. I think we’re going to have to, at this point, because we’ve kind of figured out a workflow and again with the highly curated festivals, like ByDesign and Cadence, the Video Poetry festival, it’s not just that it’s for a local community because these festivals don’t necessarily happen very often anywhere. So if that’s the case, having it both locally and abroad, I think it’s just a smart move.

I think that this is going to be a big shift with people’s viewing habits. I think it’s probably going to be hard to get everyone just to go back to things where they were, where when the movie comes out, you go see it the weekend it opens. I think that’s kind of going to be changing a lot. I know that this is a unique situation, but I don’t think people are going to stop liking getting first run movies to watch at home.

That’s true, yeah. Well, I think for us, we’re hoping that it’s also going to go the other way, where people get so stir crazy that suddenly when they come out of this, they’re going to be so amazed by the wonders of gathering in public with other people and they’ll go out a lot, but who knows.

that’s certainly the case for me. I really want to go see another movie in a theater soon. It’s something I’ve really, really missed. Besides people going back to congregating in public, are there any other things you see changing in the future?

I think a lot of people have talked about how the nonprofit structure is broken, funding structures are difficult, all these things and how they wish for new systems to be created. And I think maybe this is a bit optimistic but right now because so many systems that we have come to know and take for granted are falling apart, in some senses, and there is potentially a way to create a new system. Because of some of the stuff that’s happening right now, very strong coalition building is something that I hope in the future will lead to a stronger artists’ network. To be determined, but that’s a big thing on my mind right now.

Are there other things that you’re excited for, once you’re able to reopen the doors and let people back into the theater?

At the moment, no, no idea. I think honestly, all of the programming we had planned is probably not going to happen considering when we’ll probably be likely to gather in person again. I just heard this morning from the County that the peak infection time is probably going to be around mid April, which is what they’re anticipating. So if that’s the case, it’s probably going to be at least until May.