When COVID-19 pandemic concerns sent public events canceling like rows of dominoes this past March, the Oxford Film Festival, or OFF for short, made a squealing right turn worthy of a scene from the “Fast & Furious” franchise and met the challenge.
The flicker turned to a stream, and the Oxford Virtual Film Festival is now in Week 8 (through June 21), with the motto “Stay home and fest on.” Also, the festival just launched its OFF to the Drive In series, reviving its in-person appeal, in as safe a way as it can.
The festival, which typically draws 8,000 to 10,000 people to Oxford from around the world, provides the chance for filmmakers and fans to mix and mingle over a slew of great films at five venues. It was originally set for March 18-22, but as the pandemic’s impact unfolded, organizers prepared to announce the 17th annual fest’s postponement.
“Problem is, we’d already paid for everything,” says Melanie Addington, festival executive director since 2015. “We couldn’t just cancel and say, ‘Good luck, filmmakers.’” Their Memphis-based ticketing system Eventive, which works with film festivals across the country, developed a new virtual film-fest platform, and Oxford Film Festival became the first in the nation to roll out with it.
The pivot to online started April 24, extending what is normally a five-day deep dive of independent film exposure, appreciation, camaraderie and Q&As into a several-months sweep of film blocks, accessible from home. “People were too overwhelmed. They were just not going to pay attention to 200 movies over a couple of days. So we stretched it out to Sept. 11, so people could tune in to watch a couple of blocks each week,” Addington says.
“It’s sort of on-demand … basically like a DVR. It lets people have a live experience, but if they don’t have time, they don’t have to miss it.”
In the virtual screening experience, proceeds are split between the nonprofit film festival and the filmmaker. Viewers can buy virtual access passes or buy a stream from the weekly on-demand catalog, and also find live and recorded Q&As with filmmakers and get e-news updates, through oxfordfilmfest.com. OFF’s audience gets emails Friday mornings on the week’s lineup of films to catch in the virtual film fest, the drive-in series and in the Virtual Art House (an OFF partnership with Film Movement, launched in late March).
‘We’re All Human’
The shift hasn’t come without hurdles. Running a film festival on the ground involves hundreds of volunteers, but “with a virtual fest, it’s maybe four to five people doing this,” Addington says. It also means a focus on broadcasting and online marketing. “You have to figure out a whole new audience and hope people will find it.
“It’s a lot more work. … But it’s brought a lot of genuine value, connecting with people all over the world,” she says. That includes pandemic updates from places as far-flung as Japan and Australia.
Why the big switch? Addington says it was critical to continue to prove the festival’s worth to their supporters. Also, she adds, “It’s not just us. … It’s an entire generation of filmmakers whose hopes and dreams would be dashed. I didn’t want to leave them with no way to show their movies.
“And third, I’m not the only employee. We have a year-round part-time employee and some seasonal staff. … We have people who love this festival and love Mississippi because of this festival, from all over the world, and I didn’t want to be, ‘OK, I’ll be at home watching Netflix.’ I wanted to offer them something beyond news coverage of the pandemic and remind people, there’s more than this.
“There are so many great stores that remind us we’re all human, and our differences are less than we think. This is as important a time as any to remind people of that.”
Stories in the 8th Weekly Virtual Film Festival include Ben and Bo Powell’s Rosedale, Miss.-set film “Nothin’ No Better,” and two programs of shorts.
Coming up June 21-22 is David Midell’s “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain,” based on the true story of events leading up to the death of Chamberlain, a mentally ill African American veteran, in a conflict with the police officers sent to check on him.
“His son will actually come, virtually, to speak and talk about why he wanted his father’s story to be told. … It’s a really intense film. It takes up a lot of emotional space to watch it, but it’s timely and beautiful,” Addington says. Proceeds will go to Kenneth Chamberlain Jr.’s nonprofit Socially Responsible Unit. The film is a Narrative Feature Juried Award-winner in the festival.
Also in the 9th Virtual Film Festival Week, June 19-27, is a LGBTQIA+ block that includes award winners “From Baghdad to the Bay” and “Unspoken.”
Honk If You Love Movies
The festival’s latest endeavor is its OFF to the Drive In series, scheduled for Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and occasional Sundays through July 11 in Oxford, and the rest of July and August in downtown Water Valley. In Oxford, presenting sponsor Cannon Motors hosts screenings at the Cannon Lot (100 Thacker Loop). In Water Valley, the location is 1004 Central St.
“Our goal is not just to provide a safe entertainment option, but also provide economic value for our town,” Addington says, noting the venture hired eight people who had lost jobs in the pandemic.
The drive-in model’s a first for them, requiring research and investment—a large projector, large screen and radio. Last week’s kickoff screened “Plan 9 from Outer Space” on June 11, and Loki Mulholland’s documentary “The Evers,” about the family of slain civil-rights activist Medgar Evers, on June 12 and 13. Because of rules with distributors and more, it’s not possible for every film to be included in the virtual film festival. With “The Evers,” OFF got the blessing to play it on the anniversary of Medgar Evers’ death.
Jim Henson’s classic “Labyrinth” is on tap for June 19-20 at the Cannon Lot (100 Thacker Loop) in Oxford. And, on June 21, the drive-in will screen the Sundance Film Festival hit “Miss Juneteenth,” with a free pizza party from Dodo Pizza.
Oxford’s Juneteenth celebration was among the many pandemic-related cancellations; OFF reached out to local organizers, who are working on a video message to accompany the screening. “We’re really excited to be able to continue to help other organizations, and provide a safe way for them to do some sort of celebration,” Addington says.
Nostalgic favorites such as “Grease” and “Dirty Dancing” are on the drive-in list to come. “It’s fun—go watch a movie in the car, and kind of see people, but in a safe way. I think everybody had a great time last night,” Addington says the day after the drive-in’s debut.
“It’s great to be able to give paychecks to people, and also really great to provide an in-person community experience again, in a safe way.”
A Way Forward
The turnabout has challenged OFF to find new ideas that won’t leave filmmakers behind, or the community and state, either, Addington says. OFF is a big draw that, many times, introduces visitors to Mississippi in a positive way. “We’re not just showing movies. We’re really ambassadors. Virtually, they get to experience a little bit of it,” she says.
This year’s switch has been an eye-opener. The physical festival brought in only people who could travel to Oxford. “With this virtual festival, filmmakers from all over the world are Zooming in and joining us,” she says, and Q&As have international reach.
OFF live-streamed its recent Hoka Awards ceremony June 6, with video still on view on YouTube and Facebook, with an estimated reach of 300 to 400 people (more than would sit in a physical building, if they’d had it, Addington says).
“One of the winners, of the documentary short “The Loop,” was a young filmmaker with Down syndrome from Australia, and he got to give an amazing acceptance speech,” she says. “ … Those are the rare moments that couldn’t have happened, without us going virtual.”
Keep up with OFF’s films, schedules and activities at oxfordfilmfest.com.