Well see each other here again one day. Until then, Northwest Film Forum is online only.
We'll see each other here again one day. Until then, Northwest Film Forum is online only. Courtesy of NWFF
With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down arts venues deemed nonessential, many movie theaters around the city are turning toward online programming for the near future. Independent theater Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) has one of the most robust online offerings in the city, quickly converting many of its planned festivals and events into Facebook Lives and digital screenings. Yesterday, I spoke with NWFF's Executive Director Vivian Hua to learn more about the theater's new online venue and its future in a post-coronavirus world:

THE STRANGER: It seems like you guys pivoted pretty quickly and easily into an online structure. Was this something that you had planned to roll out before coronavirus hit or did it come together organically?

VIVIAN HUA: It absolutely came together organically. I mean, I think one of the strong suits of the Film Forum is—we're an institutionalized nonprofit—but I think at our core, like the walls in the space were hand-built by members of our board. [We have] a DIY ethos in a lot of ways.

That carried through in this situation, where we had a festival we were planning to put on four days out from [the shutdown]. It was do or die. We gotta [go online] or we're going to basically throw away this festival that we spent so much time organizing.

How long do you see this online model being sustainable? Have you guys really gamed out, like, what the six-month plan is? Is it a day-by-day assessment of what's happening?

Yeah, I think there are certain aspects that we will probably continue to keep. The first two festivals we did online were ByDesign, our design and architecture festival, and Cadence, our video poetry festival. Actually those did really well because I think, in general, the audience is pretty global. So to open it up to more people I think is something we will continue to do even when we have cinema programs. That being said, I don't think the online situation as it is, is necessarily sustainable at all.

What have ticket sales, donations, and community participation looked like since the closure?

It's been good. Individual ticket sales are, like, okay, but people are actually really into festivals. They might get festival fatigue after a while, but we just did the Capitol Hill Arts District Streaming Festival this past weekend that was a benefit for Artists Trust. That also was fairly successful financially. So I think there's still an appetite for that. I don't know how long it's going to go for.

What, in your estimation, has been working really well?

Film festivals. And then one of the things we've done—one of them we'll continue to do on like a three-week basis—is an exclusive screening of a film by a local or semi-local filmmaker with ties to Northwest Film Forum. Then have a live chat and a post-screening Q&A where the director and filmmakers and cast and crew are present.

We did one for [Seattle filmmaker] Megan Griffiths's The Off Hours and that was really awesome. It was a mini fundraiser for us and it probably pulled in a hundred people and a thousand-something dollars, so we're trying to do more of that to leverage our relationships in this time. And I think that's what's been successful—we were able to kind of move online really quickly because we have such deeply embedded community relationships. I think if we hadn't had that, it would not have been as easy.

So going forward, once we hit Phase Four, do you definitely see a mixture of digital and in-person being a part of Northwest Film Forum's future?

Totally. Although it's going to also partially rely on what distributors and filmmakers are willing to do at that point because right now people are like, "Sure! Whatever!" because we know we can't do screenings. But by [Phase Four], I'm not sure if maybe the whole game will have changed where the industry is like, "Okay well online is just as valid," or if they're going to want it to go back to normal in terms of what can be screened online and digital streaming rights.

What can a first-time viewer expect from this experience? What's the process like to go see a movie at NWFF now?

You buy a ticket like you normally would, but one thing we're doing is having everything be sliding scale because we know that times are hard, money is hard. People who have the means are paying for it and people who aren't can still be entertained, hopefully. Which also probably is not a great longterm solution, but for now this is what we're doing as a community service. And then an hour before the screening we email you how to log into this screening and it's a password protected, limited window viewing of whatever program. Some events, like the special film screening with Megan Griffiths, we're doing live streams on Facebook or YouTube. We ran into a bit of a rights streaming issue with Facebook, so it might change.

What happened?

We basically had our Facebook page deleted yesterday on Giving Tuesday and we were freaking out. We did the [Capitol Hill Arts District Streaming Festival] and there were some artists, like drag performers, who had Beyonce in [their number] or something. So maybe that was why, although it's not clear. I think right now as everyone is just trying to figure out how to navigate the live stream, there's a lot of that kind of negotiation where a lot of people are streaming via Twitch cause they know they can get through the filters that way. It's just an interesting rights management issue that I think a lot of organizations are learning how to deal with for the first time.

What films or programming are you looking most forward to?

I'm excited for Translations this weekend because we worked with Three Dollar Bill Cinema. This is probably the deepest partnership we've had [with TDBC] where Film Forum is actually like more of a 50/50 partner as opposed to them renting out our space like they normally do. So that's exciting. And then we're bringing back the second weekend of our Children's Film Festival in Seattle next week because the second weekend got canceled because of COVID. That was a huge financial impact for us because it's our biggest event of the year, so it's nice to be able to bring them back online. We'll see how it does.