November 29, 2020

The St. Louis International Film Festival is more accessible than ever

This year, the St. Louis International Film Festival went virtual due to COVID-19. Now, people from around the country – and even the world in some cases – can view the films. 

On Thursday, Nov. 5, the 29th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) opened its virtual doors to filmgoers following a premiere of the topical short film “8:46” featuring Dave Chappelle as well as a live discussion with Chappelle and his co-directors. 

But this year’s audience experienced Chappelle’s soul-bearing performance and the rest of the festival differently than years past under the overarching influence of Covid. 

The total paradigm shift for 2020’s festival is a double-edged sword, says Chris Clark, creative director at Cinema St. Louis and a programmer of the past 21 years of SLIFFs. Clark and his team digitally processed nearly 400 films from a submission list of 2200. This year, the festival itself is characterized by a new theme of accessibility. 

“Because it’s a new world, and typically we are a regional film festival, people that live here are our primary audience,” he said. “We’re not a destination festival here in St. Louis. We don’t have movie stars, distributors or sales agents or stuff like that. We’re not Sundance in Toronto. But we do the same stuff. This year being online, it’s a completely different dynamic, but it’s basically the same structure.”

The availability of any particular film is dependent on the location of the viewer.

“Each film, whether it’s three minutes or three hours,” he explained, “has its own sets of rules based on [where you’re watching.] The good part about this year is that our lowest level of acceptability is the states of Missouri and Illinois, which is vastly bigger than somewhere most people would be willing to drive to go see a movie. We have a growing number of viewers in Chicago and all corners of the states to see stuff they normally wouldn’t have driven here to see.”

“A few” of this year’s films are available to anyone in the U.S. or Canada and “a sizable portion” of those offered are available internationally. The virtualization of the festival also means that directors have access to new audiences this year.

“We’re getting this weird sort of extra international exposure,” Clark said. “People from all over the world are buying tickets.”

The new medium for the festival also lets its organizers peer into the preferences and viewing habits of ticket holders. 

“We get very basic data like zip codes, what country they might be from, how many films they’ve purchased, what types of film they purchased,” he explained. “In the typical theater situation in the past, we’ve rented theaters and used their ticketing system. They’re not going to give us that data, no way. This year the data is ours.”

Viewers should not worry about their data slipping into nefarious hands, Clark assured. 

Instead, the data is mostly useful for troubleshooting technical issues as Cinema St. Louis hosts the streaming service. “We’re the helpdesk now,” Clark said.

Graphic by Kenzie Akins.

Previous iterations of SLIFF have been centered around 11 full days of live events and showings, but Clark says the pandemic necessitated some modifications to the duration of the festival.

“People can order something and it’s not going to be timed,” he said. “People can span things out. Ordinarily, you order something and it’s only available that Friday night and then after that, it’s over. Well. Most of this stuff is available from end-to-end for 18 days. Once you purchase a ticket, it’s good until the end of the festival. Once you start it, it’s good for 48 hours, and you can watch it as many times as you want in that time.”

Clark also believes that isolated households are getting quite the value out of his efforts.

“A lot of people are getting full usage out of their all-access passes, beyond our wildest expectations,” he said.

Not all SLIFF has to offer comes at a premium either, Clark says there are 59 shows available for free, region dependent.

“There’s mostly documentaries, so you have to be interested in the topic, but there’s a lot there,” he said. “That’s a lot of stuff for free. You can participate in the festival and keep yourself occupied for days just watching short subjects, features, special events and master classes with filmmakers and writers.”

SLIFF is concluding on Nov. 22 with the presentation of the jury-decided Interfaith Awards for Best Documentary and Best Narrative; the Shorts Awards; the St. Louis Film Critics’ Joe Pollack Award (for Best Narrative) and Joe Williams Award (for Best Documentary); the New Filmmakers Forum Emerging Director Award (“The Bobbie”), which has a $500 cash prize; and the inaugural Essie Award for the best film with St. Louis roots, which also includes a $500 cash prize. 

Those interested in learning more can visit the Cinema St. Louis website for more details.

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