The Seattle International Film Festival was canceled in 2020, and only virtual in 2021, so its return to in-person this month — with a hybrid format where many titles were also available to stream — also represented a return to the pre-pandemic cinema experience for movie lovers. But everything is not back to normal, and questions about the future caused the festival to end on an uncertain note.

Packed showings for crowd favorites like “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” reminded Beth Barrett, the organization’s artistic director, why the cinema is a key part of seeing movies.

“There were about 400 people in the [Egyptian on Capitol Hill], and we were all laughing, and how much I had missed that feeling of laughing and feeling joy around me in the way that you can really only do in the cinema,” Barrett said. “It was just really powerful.”

Though there were hundreds of titles from all over the world, audiences seemed drawn this year to movies that focused on Seattle, giving audience awards to “Know Your Place,” a love letter to a gentrifying city starring Garfield High School students Natnael Mebrahtu and Joseph Smith, and a documentary called “Sweetheart Deal,” about four sex workers working Aurora Avenue and dealing with addictions to heroin.

Long-term questions still loom about what people will return to the cinema to see, and the festival ended with theater staff at one SIFF location, the Egyptian, walking out over what they said was an uncertainty in paid hours post-festival.

SIFF didn’t release numbers comparing its revenues this year with pre-pandemic ones, but the festival was scaled back from its typical three-and-a-half weeks to just 10 days, and from more than 400 titles in 2019 to 262, including short films.


In the past six months that SIFF theaters (which includes the Uptown, Film Center and Egyptian) have been open, patrons have been “slow to return” in line with national averages, according to Jacqueline Dupuis, SIFF’s interim executive director. 

“SIFF must remain focused on the long-term sustainability of the organization,” Dupuis wrote in an email. “This means continuing to work toward a business model that allows SIFF to fulfill its mission to bring independent and international film to the Seattle community, while keeping our theaters open, staff employed and navigating reduced theater attendance.”

Late 2021 and early 2022 have seen encouraging returns nationwide to theaters after more than a year and a half of stops and starts and delayed viewings, but people are largely coming back to see blockbusters like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “The Batman.” SIFF opened with a documentary about the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and closed with a period piece about abortion in suburban ’60s Chicago (“Navalny” and “Call Jane,” respectively).

It was before the closing-night showing of “Call Jane” on Sunday, April 24, that seven employees at the Egyptian walked out and stood outside, handing out flyers that said “SIFF HOURLY WORKERS DESERVE TRANSPARENCY” and talking to incoming theatergoers, according to three of the floor staff who spoke to The Seattle Times anonymously.

The nine part-time floor staff at the Egyptian heard on Monday, April 18, that the cinema would go “nearly entirely dark” six days later once the festival ended, according to a letter they wrote to management obtained by The Seattle Times. The SIFF website says, “ABBA: The Movie,” a Finnish horror movie called “Hatching” and a stoner movie festival are happening at the Egyptian in the next three weeks, but SIFF management did acknowledge they predicted fewer available shifts. 

Management offered alternative work, such as cleaning the theater post-festival and working shifts at other theaters, but the employees said they were vague about how many hours would be available.


During the walkout, the seven employees were locked out of their company emails and management changed the locks at the Egyptian. Dupuis said the company is conducting “an internal investigation to better understand what transpired that led to the employees leaving their posts,” and confirmed the locks had been changed.

The employees at SIFF who spoke to The Seattle Times say they haven’t heard about whether or not they still have jobs. Dupuis said they are “currently” employees of SIFF.

Tommy Swenson, who grew up in Seattle and has been going to SIFF for around two decades, loved returning to the festival in-person but was “disappointed” in SIFF when he heard about the workers’ walkout from some of them.

Swenson, who is co-owner of The Beacon Cinema in South Seattle, said he’s “sympathetic and intimately familiar with how hard it is to keep a movie screen lit up and still going especially right now.” 

“[The festival] really just drove home how special [cinemas] are, how magical it can be to go in them, how big a part of our cultural lives they can be,” Swenson said, “and none of that happens without the people in the cinemas making each show possible.”