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Sundance and the New Kid

Sundance and the New Kid

Jan Mercker

What Do Big Changes for America’s Indie Film Goliath Mean for Smaller Fests?

The quirky. The wonderful. The unexpected. That’s what film lovers seek out at local and regional film festivals around the country. But COVID is turning the film industry on its head. With the Sundance Film Festival dramatically changing its approach for 2021, smaller festivals are bracing for the ripple effects with excitement and a little trepidation.

Last week, Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson announced in a blog post that the country’s largest independent film festival will be making big changes. Sundance is still planning traditional programming in Utah in 2021. But organizers are also taking the big step of moving screenings online while extending the festival’s in-person reach, partnering with venues in cities around the country.

“At the center of all our planning, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival will have an online home, making the festival accessible in a way it never has been before,” Jackson wrote.

Organizers are also working to create “a grand partnership of communities…in at least 20 independent and community cinemas across the U.S. and beyond.”

Along with programming in Utah, Jackson wrote, selected partners will “host a bespoke slate from the official selection alongside complementary programming of their own…We are in exploratory discussions with cinemas from LA to Louisville, from New York to Nashville, from Austin to Atlanta, from Detroit to Denver, from Minneapolis to Mexico City — with many more to come.”

All eyes on Sundance

Taking the 42-year-old Sundance online and expanding its geographic reach will open doors for filmmakers and break down some barriers. But will it take the wind out of the sails of smaller niche fests?

That’s a question that’s on the mind of festival organizers everywhere, including Wendy Keeling. Keeling is a longtime independent film actor, director and producer and creative director of the brand new Loudoun Arts Film Festival in Northern Virginia. 

“It’s exciting and scary at the same time because everybody’s going virtual. The problem is how do we keep from stepping on the small festivals’ feet? How do we make sure that filmmakers have opportunities to see their work on a screen? How do they make money? All these things are kind of thrown into the air right now, and we’re kind of watching to see where the dust is settling,” Keeling said. 

A new way of viewing films

As a new kid on the festival circuit block, LAFF is taking a bold leap — launching a new fest in the DC suburbs smack in the middle of a pandemic. While Keeling screens submissions from her home base in Florida, festival co-founders Kaeley Boyle and Owen Palmiotti are on the ground in Virginia, moving forward with a planned combination of virtual and drive-in screenings in early August.

“Here we are mid-COVID starting a first-year festival, and we’re still doing it,” Keeling said. “We’re jumping through the hoops, and we have some amazing content.”

For Keeling, the upsides of taking festivals large and small online — including the exalted Sundance Film Festival — are greater opportunities for filmmakers and more accessibility for audiences. While previously streamed films might not have been considered for traditional film festivals in the past, Keeling sees a new openness emerging.

“The industry has been forced to acknowledge a way of viewing film that they have refused to in the past,” Keeling said. “When the bigger festivals like TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] and Sundance come out and say we’re going virtual, we take a deep breath and we look and we say, ‘How do we work with this?’”

But with Sundance expanding its reach, protecting filmmakers and preserving smaller regional festivals will be key, she says. Keeling is involved with regular virtual meetings organized by the Film Festival Alliance, a professional community for festival organizers. 

“That’s one of the things that we’re all talking about — how to protect the filmmakers, how to not purposely hurt the small festivals and other big festivals,” she said.

Holding fast to great storytelling

For Keeling, the rich diversity of smaller fests, with plenty of room for niche and low-budget films is worth preserving. Some regional festivals have more mainstream tendencies while others focus intently on low-budget work, she says, but the heart and soul of any good fest is creating an outlet for great storytelling. 

“When you watch an independent film, it does not follow the studio structure…An indie film actually shows you how the director and the writer’s brains work. You can get these really interesting stories that are not what we’re used to seeing in the theater,” Keeling said. “You’re exposed to different ideas…It’s all told from a very different lens. Some of us have money and some of us don’t, but they still can tell a good story if they’re crafty about it.”

Keeling’s niche as an actor, director and producer is in quirky horror films. She’s known for her work as an actor in the 2018 feature “Madhouse Mecca” and as the director of 10 short films, including the award-winning “Clown College.”

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While her own genre-based work often plays smaller fests, Keeling is also a Sundance veteran. She attended her first Sundance Film Festival in 2004 as part of the marketing team from the documentary “Key West City of Colors.” Keeling made it to Sundance this winter just before COVID shook things up forever. She’s been a screener and juror for numerous festivals and was creative director for the Orlando International Film Festival before joining the Northern Virginia project.

New film festival, new realities

Palmiotti, a Northern Virginia-based novelist and filmmaker, who co-wrote and produced “Madhouse Mecca,” brought Keeling on board for the LAFF project. Organizers are moving forward with a combined drive-in and online experience slated for Aug. 7-9 in the DC suburbs of Loudoun County. Organizers are also exploring ways for filmmakers and audiences to get the most out of a new festival in an entirely new reality.

For Keeling, LAFF has the makings of a top-notch upstart regional film festival: showcasing new filmmakers and offering high-quality, thought-provoking material for viewers.

“We have submissions that I’m incredibly grateful for as a first-year fest,” Keeling said. “We’re going to have some films that have gotten some exposure and some stuff you’ve never seen before…We’re going to bring stuff to the screen — whichever screen it is — that [viewers] probably would never have had an opportunity to see.”

Editor’s note: Artistic Fuel is a proud sponsor of the Loudoun Arts Film Festival. The film festival’s co-founder, Kaeley Boyle, is creative director at Artistic Fuel.

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