You might think the schedule for a festival like SIFF would be assembled with the aid of technology. You would be wrong. A look ahead at the festival, and what flicks our arts critic recommends, before it begins May 17.
The Seattle International Film Festival uses a LOT of thumbtacks.
You might think the schedule for a festival like SIFF — which encompasses 24 days, nine main venues and 433 films, most of which will screen two or three times — would be assembled with the aid of technology. You would be wrong. Instead, putting the schedule together involves the aforementioned thumbtacks and hundreds of little slips of colored paper, assembled on an enormous corkboard in the break room at SIFF’s Seattle Center offices.
SIFF artistic director Beth Barrett, standing in front of the corkboard a few weeks before the festival’s opening May 17 (it runs through June 10), said that the festival at one point tried having someone construct a digital calendar, but it just didn’t work — staffers preferred the tactile sensation of pinning a film to a slot. Over the years, she has visited the offices of many film festivals around the world, and they all have a wall like this; “it’s all tactile, never digital.”
Once the film roster began to gel this spring, SIFF’s programming staff assembled a small mountain of those little paper slips, and got to work. Opening night, centerpiece gala, closing night — those are firm anchors. Every other film needs to find a home, and those slips of paper float all over the grid. Some slots have a number of punctures, indicating a flurry of activity; some, by virtue of a single hole, found the right film early on.
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Barrett, walking through the process, explained some of the considerations that go into a film’s placement. Is the director or another guest from the film coming from out of town? If so, its two or three screenings should be on consecutive days, so the guest can be present at all; if not, they can be scattered. Is the film returning for a post-festival run at one of SIFF’s theaters? Then SIFF needs to balance its needs as a festival versus as an exhibitor — i.e. show it in a venue big enough to accommodate interest, but not so big that it cannibalizes later box office. Is it screening in competition? Then it needs a slot in SIFF’s final days, when the festival juries are in town. Is it a Jewish-themed film? SIFF makes sure not to program all screenings of it on the Sabbath.
If a film has particularly violent content, such as a midnight movie, look for it in a Seattle theater, rather than Kirkland, Shoreline or Bellevue. Though only the festival’s Films4Families section is specifically family-friendly, “We try not to be family-unfriendly in the outer venues,” said Barrett, noting that for the farther-flung theaters, programming is crafted with the entire community in mind. She’s also careful to be sure that some of SIFF’s big-buzz films screen in those venues, rather than just downtown.
Once the slips start to fill the grid, another factor is considered: spreading out genres, programs and special interests. Slips are color-coded according to the SIFF program in which they belong (Documentary, Contemporary World Cinema, Archival Presentations, etc.) and marked with dots whose colors indicate a special interest: red dots mean LGBTQ-themed films, green dots are French films, etc. SIFF staffers try to be sure that someone interested in, say, French comedies isn’t forced to choose between two of them screening at the same time. The colors make it easy to see at a glance whether a particular weekend or venue is well-balanced.
One aspect of scheduling has gotten easier over the years: Virtually all films are now digital and are sent either on a hard drive or via web link. In the past, actual reels had to be sent (and coordinated with other festivals, as often there was just one film print), and scheduled only for venues that had capacity to project film. Now, only the Egyptian still has 35mm capacity, and it won’t be necessary this year; Barrett confirmed that no 2018 SIFF selections will screen on film.
Finally, just in time for the SIFF print-program deadline April 20, each of those slips of paper finds its permanent home (with a couple of TBAs reserved near the end, for popular films or award winners). Firmly pinned in place, they stay put throughout the festival, a quiet backdrop to staffers taking a break from the bustle of the main office. After 3 ½ weeks of SIFF, when the parties are over and the Golden Space Needle Awards handed out, interns take down the corkboard and remove the slips as one of their final tasks. The board gets stored away until next spring, when a fresh crop of films — and thumbtacks — awaits.
Moira’s SIFF picks
Having perused the schedule (in its handy print version, which you can pick up at festival venues and most Starbucks stores), here’s a half-dozen SIFF offerings I can’t wait to check out:
“Eighth Grade.” SIFF’s Barrett particularly sang the praises of this irresistible-sounding debut film from Bo Burnham, about a 13-year-old (Elsie Fisher) in the final days of a disastrous eighth-grade year. (Really, isn’t eighth grade the worst?) 6:30 p.m. June 9, Egyptian; 12:30 p.m. June 10, Uptown.
“Sadie.” Seattle’s own Megan Griffiths (“The Night Stalker,” “Lucky Them”) directs the always-great Melanie Lynskey in this drama about a troubled military family. 2:30 p.m. May 27, Egyptian (as part of a special tribute afternoon featuring Lynskey); 6:45 p.m. June 6, Egyptian.
“Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit.” OK, so I’m a cat person. This Canadian documentary sounds insanely fun. Maybe there’ll be some guest cats at the screening? 3:30 p.m. May 19, Uptown; 1 p.m. May 20, Uptown; 3:30 p.m. June 2, Shoreline Community College.
“McQueen.” From the U.K., this documentary looks at the tumultuous, creative life of the late fashion designer. 7 p.m. June 5, Uptown; 4 p.m. June 8, Egyptian.
“The Third Murder.” Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, a master of beautifully subtle, gentle films about families and children (“After the Storm,” “Our Little Sister,” “Nobody Knows”), returns with something that sounds a little different but thoroughly intriguing: a legal drama, in which a longtime defense attorney begins to question his profession. 6:30 p.m. May 25, Egyptian; 4 p.m. May 29, Uptown.
“Dark River.” All I know about this one is that it’s British, set on a Yorkshire sheep farm, involves a bitter family dispute and stars Ruth Wilson, all of which is kind of my Kryptonite. 9:15 p.m. June 2, Uptown; 9:30 p.m. June 9, Pacific Place.
Take a stroll through the schedule yourself; you’re sure to find something that seems chosen just for you. Happy SIFF-ing!
Seattle International Film Festival
May 17-June 10 at SIFF Cinema Uptown, SIFF Cinema Egyptian, SIFF Film Center, Pacific Place, Majestic Bay (May 18-23), Ark Lodge (May 18-24), Lincoln Square (May 18-31), Kirkland Performance Center (May 31-June 3), Shoreline Community College (May 25-June 2). Individual tickets are $11 for weekday matinees ($9 SIFF members), $14 evening/weekend shows ($12 SIFF members); various ticket packages available. Box office: 206-324-9996, siff.net or at festival venues.