Bowing to the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, the Seattle International Film Festival’s 2021 edition will take place in April and will be entirely virtual. It will be shorter than the festival’s usual run, taking place over 10 days rather than SIFF’s standard three and a half weeks.
SIFF Artistic Director Beth Barrett said earlier this week that the decision was inevitable, due to the length of time it takes to ramp up for a festival as massive as SIFF — which typically involves several hundred films, an army of seasonal staffers and volunteers, long lines and crowded theaters. “We just know that it’s impossible” to run a festival at its usual capacity, she said. If pandemic guidelines change and it is possible to hold some events in person, “we will work on that as a separate project,” but the plan now is for “100% virtual.” (SIFF’s year-round cinemas are currently closed, and the organization has said they will not reopen until 2021.)
The move to April 8-18 — SIFF usually unspools beginning mid-May — was made in order to coincide with the run-up to the Academy Awards ceremony, which in 2021 will take place on April 25. Barrett said the festival is being planned as about 80-90 feature-length films, 10 short film programs and 10 special programs, such as festival forums, works-in-progress, panel discussions and education classes.
The process of choosing films, Barrett said, would remain exactly the same, except that SIFF’s team of programmers is attending international film festivals without leaving home. The festival lineup will be made up of typical SIFF fare: “those great international independent titles — really focusing on discovery titles, on films that may or may not fly under the radar of the general moviegoing public.” As is typical for SIFF, numerous filmmaker/actor guests are planned, both for prerecorded Q&As and live events.
More details about the festival, including ticket packages and what to do if you bought a 2020 SIFF pass, will be available early in the new year. In the meantime, Barrett and her abbreviated staff (SIFF is operating on a skeleton crew of fewer than 15 employees, after the majority of its 70-plus staff members were furloughed last spring) are looking for silver linings for this new kind of film festival.
“We’re no longer limited to being physically in a theater in the Seattle area, and so we’re able to expand nationwide, and even worldwide,” Barrett said. Her goal is to find a way to replicate the SIFF experience for people watching from their living rooms. “That’s so much what SIFF is about — connecting filmmakers to audiences,” she said. “That’s very high on our planning list: figuring out how to really encourage and create that sense of engagement.”