Reaching Out: Rachel Rosen, Festival Director
“Hey, how you holding up?” In this time of reaching out and touching base, we asked colleagues across the American film ecosystem how they’ve been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, what adjustments they’ve been making on the fly, and what they expect is coming down the pike. This series will be updated regularly here as we conduct additional status checks.
THE FESTIVAL DIRECTOR: RACHEL ROSEN, SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Rachel Rosen is the outgoing Director of Programming at April’s annual San Francisco International Film Festival, which announced the cancellation of its 2020 iteration on March 13. Interview conducted by phone at 8pm EDT/5pm PDT, on Wednesday, March 18.
Walk me through the decision to cancel the San Francisco International Film Festival—when did you think it might be necessary, what were the arguments before and against, were there contingency plans if you went through with it, what information were you getting from government or elsewhere, and what were the deciding factors?
I’ll give you a stripped-down version. As news started to break about the virus, we were definitely keeping a very watchful eye on events that were happening before us, like South By Southwest—as much as watching what they were doing, and watching the swell of people petitioning them to cancel the event. And of course, in the early days, we were very much hoping that our opening date of April 8, and our program announcement date of March 18, might be just far enough out that we might still be able to proceed. At that time, the most difficult thing was the uncertainty. We’re on a really tight production schedule, just because of various specifics of where we fall in the calendar. We’re at full speed once Sundance is over to confirm the program, write all our program materials, and get them ready to announce. We knew we had to keep going forward full-speed as if we were going to have the festival; at the same time holding in our heads the possibility that it might not be able to happen. For that first week or so, we were mostly just concentrating on what needed to be done if there was going to be a festival. If you pause—we didn’t want to be in a situation where March 18, things looked completely different, it would be time to go ahead, but we didn’t have everything ready that we needed to have ready. It was [a lot of] odd communication at that point: We were still reaching out to filmmakers about booking travel, digging into details about live events; at the same time we were saying, at the beginning half-jokingly, “Presuming that we’re going to go forward, let’s get your ticket booked,” or “Presuming that there’s any festival at all, how would you feel about this stage setup.”
We announced our opening-night film on Friday the 9th, with that same sort of, “Well, we’re going to move forward as if we’re doing this,” and then things just changed so quickly, between the 9th and the following Friday, when we announced that we were cancelling the festival. It took us until that Friday to announce because we needed to convene an emergency meeting of the board—that’s when we really started, the beginning of that week was when we started looking seriously at all the contingencies. What would happen if we kept moving forward and then the festival could happen but wouldn’t have had time to market it… We came up with a lot of different possible scenarios. But even that wasn’t absolutely necessary by the time the board met, because just by then, it was so clearly an ethical decision, above and beyond the practical factors that were beyond our control that were a part of all the scenarios. Like, we don’t have our own venues—some of the venues we use are city-owned, some of the venues we use are owned by private companies that had, in advance of us canceling, cleared their theaters from outside use or closed down. It was a heartbreaking decision, but in many ways, there was really no decision to be made.
Just to go back—we were in touch with the city government every day, and they were definitely encouraging us not to move forward. They did not technically cancel us, but again, they didn’t really need to.
So now what happens? What are the repercussions of canceling? What have been the challenges—whether related to employees and volunteers, revenue and sponsors, travel, is there insurance? I’m curious, now that you’ve canceled, what the major challenges are logistically, and also in a mission way.
Yeah. I think it’s so soon—it’s literally, what’s today? Wednesday? We’re three business days into post-cancellation territory. There’s a lot of regrouping going on, so I’m a little hesitant to say what I think is going to happen. The first thing that we decided, because we had done all the work and were so close, was that we wanted to post our festival program online so that we could at least share our support of those films in some way. That’s been taking up a lot of our energy; we’re going live with that tomorrow. [Update: SFIFF 2020 program available here.] And then we’ve really been doing a lot of talking and watching about what to do. There’s not a clear answer to how best to support these films. There’s both a lot of internal conversation and a lot of festival-to-festival conversation. Again, this is where I get very hesitant because what sounds like a good idea an hour ago may not hold up once we really look into it.
One thing is that SF Film is a multifaceted organization. Filmmaker grants and reviews are things that can continue on virtually. Our artist development team is able to move forward with their work in some ways. We’re doing a lot of discussion about where we should be focusing our human resources right now.
Was there any conversation about postponing versus canceling?
I guess there was, and ultimately what we felt is that the Bay Area has a very robust cultural life and season in the spring and summer; it’s so unclear…Our festival only requires a Bay Area premiere, it’s very broad in its programming interests, so everything from studio films to avant-garde shorts, and we really feel like together they make up a program. There was no clear way to take 150-something movies and put a flag and a date months from now on the calendar and expect that it would look anything like the program we put together. Where we came to pretty quickly was, we really really want to look for opportunities to do screenings, to support these films, to work with them, but that the festival itself is canceled. It can’t exist in the form we envisioned in the future. There may be a program that we’re so excited [about] that was a unique thing that we put together that we can do sometime later, but it won’t be The Festival.
What are your concerns going forward, as you think about the festival giving up its slot in the calendar for the year, any logistical challenges or long-term consequences…
To get a little more granular, there’s a domino row lined up of festivals that are still where we were three weeks ago. It’s hard to know—our venues are a lot of independent theaters that are shuttered right now. What’s going to be complicated: Presuming that some sort of normalcy returns (which is already a pretty big presumption), the challenge is going to be for everyone to get their corner of exhibition time and space, and how we’ll all work together to support each other, and the films that we had programmed or would like to have programmed. For example, some filmmakers have approached us because they’ve been contacted by other local festivals, asking how we feel about them accepting those invitations. Obviously, we feel great about them taking any opportunity that’s going to be helpful for their film. What is going to take a lot of work, and is unclear, is how we’re all going to support these films and each other, in the limited time that we may have…
From your perspective as somebody in the film festival world, what are your concerns on a broader social or political level, what sort of support is necessary for an organization like yours to be able to continue in its mission going forward?
The concern is that this is really affecting everyone in the arts. So many festival workers are contract workers, and their contracts are being canceled everywhere. It’s already difficult for nonprofits in the Bay Area to put on events because it’s so hard for people to make a living as event workers. That’s not going to get any easier any time soon. And we’re all going to be in the same shape. Yesterday, I was like, Okay, I’m gonna… I bought a membership to the Roxy Cinema. I bought a gift card from my favorite local restaurant that hopefully I’ll be able to use in the future. I bought a book from a local independent bookstore. There’s exponential need for small independent businesses and nonprofits. The fear is just that some sort of competitive spirit takes over instead of a collaborative one. I feel like crises are opportunities for people to work together, but that is also an idealistic view of the world. A lot of the same benefactors and foundations support many of the institutions in the Bay Area, and they’re wonderful generous individuals and organizations, but that just seems like a very heavy burden for them to bear. The arts are always considered nonessential, [even] as essential as they are to everyone, but I also recognize that there are people who’re just worried about how they’re going to feed their families. If you want to turn to the pessimistic side, that’s what I’m worried about!
On the positive side of the coin, it’s been really beautiful to see how our organization has come together to help each other—people are being so lovely and grateful to each other, and expressing positive feedback that they might have just passed by in former times. It’s such a smart energetic dedicated group of people that I know they will find a way through somehow. I don’t see the path, but I look forward to going down it with them.
Read more from this ongoing series here.