On Wednesday a week ago, we were in the Film Society’s Theatre 3 at St. Anthony Main with several other journalists, getting the scoop on the 39th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and watching trailers. Cool trailers. Trailers for films we were eager to see, and this year’s trailer for the festival itself. The tagline: “Adjust Your View.”
A major event on the Twin Cities arts calendar, MSPIFF is 17 jam-packed days of films parties, panels, special programs and appearances by directors and producers. Hundreds of films from more than 100 cultures and countries around the world are shown on nearly a dozen screens in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Rochester.
Last year’s MSPIFF drew just under 50,000 people. This year’s was to run from April 9 to April 25.
In her comments to the press, Susan Smoluchowski, executive director of the MSP Film Society, tempered her enthusiasm with caution. For now, she said, the festival would go on. Because of COVID-19, things could change.
On Friday, two days later, MSPIFF was postponed.
We spoke with Smoluchowski on Wednesday this week. This interview has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: Has the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival ever been postponed or canceled?
Susan Smoluchowski: Never. Not once. Not even in times of real financial hardship for the organization.
This was a very difficult decision to make. The festival is our centerpiece. It’s also our best financial resource. By far, in terms of earned revenue, it’s the event through which we sustain ourselves for the rest of the year.
What we’re trying to do now is figure out alternative ways to present some of these films. We can’t reschedule anything because we have no idea what’s coming next in terms of physical gatherings. We’re literally in the exploration stage as we speak, but we’re trying to figure out how we might be able to do a virtual April 9 through 25 program.
We’re not the beasts of habit we think we are. We’re nimble, all of us. We have this ability of human beings to figure it out and get creative. That’s what I’m hoping we’ll be able to do, too.
MP: When did you make the decision to postpone?
SS: As I mentioned at the press preview, we were moving ahead at that moment, but at any moment things could change. We were in conversation with the mayor’s office and other officials. We were already preparing to postpone, but we weren’t ready to make an official announcement.
We made the decision to postpone the next day [Thursday, March 19] and announced it on Friday. It was driven to some degree by the governor’s announcement and press conference about public gatherings. But we had also been talking to many of our patrons, keeping in mind that a significant number of the people who come to our films are in the high-risk category. We knew that it was very likely that we would have to postpone.
MP: What was the process of postponing the festival?
SS: All of our staff was involved. It was a board-informed decision. I had a special board meeting Wednesday night, after we met with you guys in the theater. Every one of our board members was there.
There were so many ramifications I had to take into consideration as we were making the decision. We’ve got to inform all of our funders, and we have many funders who support the festival. A lot of that funding is our bread and butter. I had to be ready with an announcement to make to individual funders. We also have individuals who fund us. I had to be ready to contact each one of them.
A lot has to happen when you make a decision of this sort. We had to talk through this process and figure out that strategy. Which we’re still doing.
MP: You spent a lot of time on the phone.
SS: And I sent a lot of emails. I got a note back from the head of the media arts department at the NEA saying, “If you’re thinking about doing an alternative program, we want to support that with the funding we’ve committed to you.”
All of the filmmakers, distributors, studios and agents we work with around the world have been more than understanding about the situation. Nobody is holding fast to major fees that we had negotiated, on the understanding that we’re trying to reschedule the festival to a later date, or do something completely novel, like a virtual festival.
It’s also important that we have heard from so many of our patrons, ticket buyers and members. Every minute I seem to get an email or text from somebody saying, “You’ve made the right decision. We stand by it. But we are so going to miss this annual gathering that we look forward to every year with so much anticipation.” It’s a silver lining to know that’s how much we matter to people.
In general, everyone has been totally supportive of whatever we need to make happen. That’s very reassuring, because the financial implications for everyone in this industry – for everyone everywhere – are clear, and the domino effect is terrifying. I want to make sure that I don’t have to lay off any staff, which is a big concern.
MP: How many are on your staff?
SS: About 10 people are on staff on a permanent basis. Not all are full-time. We hire about 50 people to work the festival. Some have started their work already, so we have paid them for the work that they’ve done. I’m trying to work out having them come back at a future date, or some way to compensate them for the work they won’t be doing now.
And then we hire a large number of people to do ticketing and box office. Of course, that’s the group that is the most vulnerable, that people are finally beginning to talk about now. People who are hourly and don’t have salaries or safety nets.
MP: What will be the immediate effects on your organization?
SS: We bring in $400,000 in earned revenues from the festival. That’s our cushion for the rest of the year. That won’t be coming in now. I’m looking at the possibility of emergency funding from a couple of foundations. Alternatives that will allow us at least to keep our core staff.
I’m not even going to talk about going under. Some people have asked, “Do you think you might go under?” I don’t think so. We’re strong and resilient, and we have a really resourceful staff and board. So I don’t think that is going to happen. But it’s certainly something we need to think about and avoid at all costs.
MP: It almost sounds like you’re feeling optimistic.
SS: I am. I have to couch that in the reality of where we are, and the fact that we’re going to have to get very creative about how we move forward. But we’ve been able to establish ourselves in this community in such a way as to warrant support where it may be available.
I feel like people are going to want us to stick around and help us. I have partners I have worked so closely with, like the owner of the [St. Anthony Main] theater, who has been extremely amenable and helpful to the extent that he’s been able to be. Our friends and partners at every level have done everything they can in the last five days to reassure us that they’ll support the decision [to postpone]. A lot of them are having to make similar decisions, by the way.
MP: Can you share tentative plans for your virtual event?
SS: I can tell you we are going to do everything we can to create a virtual MSPIFF that feels like a communal event, during the dates we planned to have the physical festival. I can’t tell you exactly what that’s going to look like because we have to communicate with so many different entities to pull it off.
We have to talk to filmmakers and all the others I mentioned earlier. We have to create a platform. This is not something we’ve done before. So it’s a whole new venture for us. We’re already looking into what alternatives are out there, and I’m feeling very hopeful that we’ll be able to pull this off. That’s a little vague but I have to keep it that way because I don’t really have more in the way of details right now.
MP: What else would you like people to know for now?
SS: That we’re trying to keep all of this in perspective. When you first encounter a situation like this, you immediately think about your own interests. Then you start thinking about that ripple effect people are beginning to realize. In the film and entertainment industry, things will alter forever in some ways, I’m sure, and we have no notion now as to what they may look like this time next year. To be continued, is what I would say.
Soon after we spoke with Susan Smoluchowski, MSP Film launched a weekly Staff Picks list of films from previous MSPIFFs and other Film Society programs like Cine Latino, Nextwave and Lumieres. All of the recommended films are available on streaming platforms. The list will go out on Wednesdays in an e-mail blast, then move to the MSP Film website. Check the website next week to find the latest list.