Entertainment & Arts

Nantucket Film Festival Wraps 27th Edition, Joining Other Regional Fests In Navigating Pandemic Comeback Challenges

At first glance, it seems more idyllic than angsty on the island of Nantucket, a tony dollop of sand and clapboard houses 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast. Tourists have returned in force to the cobblestone streets, passing shops and restaurants nestled in the center of a centuries-old town square. Summer is here, and the Covid ordeal is starting to fade into memory.

Yet the pandemic is very much with the Nantucket Film Festival, which wrapped its first fully in-person edition since 2019 on Monday. Like a couple dozen other well-established regional fests across the U.S., Nantucket is navigating the most challenging operating environment in its 27 years of existence. Today, it announced its annual slate of awards, topped by the Feature Film Audience Award winner, It Ain’t Over. Director Sean Mullin named his film after one of the enduring and eccentric aphorisms of late New York Yankees great Yogi Berra.

While Yogi’s rallying cry holds true for the dozens of film events a rung or two down from top-tier global fests like Cannes, Sundance and Venice, the game was changing significantly even before the onset of the coronavirus in 2020. They are returning to in-person mode to a transformed marketplace, one in which festival laurels still carry weight, only a different kind.

“People have been starved for experiences,” NFF artistic director Mystelle Brabbée told Deadline in an interview. “They’re so excited to come back to theaters.”

Even so, the festival planned a slate that is about two-thirds of its previous scale and the opening night screening of National Geographic documentary Fire of Love at to the Dreamland Theater was still only about 70% full.

Although she is optimistic about the path forward, Brabbée acknowledges that a major factor affecting festivals has been the rise of streaming services scooping up a number of titles. Also, films backed by streaming services are less oriented toward theatrical and so they “often bypass festivals altogether,” she added. “There’s no question that’s impacting regional festivals. And a huge swath of quality films” — titles that Nantucket would slot in after their premieres at Sundance, South By Southwest or Tribeca — “have just gone away.”

It isn’t that Brabbée has anything at all against streaming. Like other festivals, Nantucket weaves plenty of it into its slate. Ben Stiller, a founding board member of the Nantucket fest, is often a major presence and returned this year for a screening of an episode of Severance, his Apple TV+ series. The relationship of festivals to streaming is just a newer one, especially with so many new streaming outlets having just reached the market over the past three years.

Mark Famiglio, chairman and president of the Sarasota Film Festival, says expectations are being recalibrated for events like his. “We had a budget that was five or six times what it is now,” he said. At its peak, Sarasota would welcome 50,000 visitors and he estimated its impact on the region’s economy at about $50 million. Economic impact is always an inexact science, but it measures the amount of incremental spending on food, lodging and local services by the crowds flocking to a fest. Sundance has estimated that its 2019 edition pumped $182.5 million into the local economy, but the past two fests have been largely remote due to lingering Covid concerns.

While keeping donors and sponsors engaged during this grueling period is never easy, some additional buffers for fests include regional production and having a slot on the calendar during awards season. Palm Springs and Santa Barbara, for example, have benefited from their timing in the heat of the Oscar race and their locations near LA. Government funding has been available to many festivals during the pandemic, with Nantucket saying it made up 25% of its public support revenue in 2021. (Many smaller festivals and cultural events, however, have been unable to secure government support, creating a more dire situation than that of the better-established regional stalwarts.) In-kind sponsorships, long a staple of festivals large and small, have declined as the larger economic pressures build.

The Woodstock Film Festival, which has unfolded each fall in the Upper Hudson Valley, has seen crucial new interest flow in due to local production. A number of new soundstages have sprouted up nearby, bringing new people to town, who in term connect with the year-round activities at Woodstock. Meira Blaustein, the co-founder and executive director of Woodstock, said awards screenings held at the theater in town reach small but important pockets of Academy voters in the region. (New Jersey’s Montclair Film Festival shifted to the fall for its 2021 edition, but could wind up with a similar opportunity.)

Those new sources of revenue and vitality have helped counter a sobering set of economic burdens experienced by all fests during the pandemic. Many switched immediately to online mode in 2020, but then had to invest in a range of safety measures as vaccines kicked in and business started to return in 2021 (ahead of the Omicron wave in the latter part of the year and in early 2022). “We definitely had to raise extra money” for Covid expenses, Blaustein said. “And for the festival to raise money, period, is always an uphill challenge. Thankfully, we have long-term, loyal supporters who understand our needs and want to see us not only sustain ourselves but grow.”

Famiglio says Sarasota — which managed to survive the housing crash and financial crisis in 2008 — has seen encouraging signs from an unexpected development: new residents moving in as remote work, taxes and other incentives lure them to Florida. “That influx has not completely offset the challenges we’re facing, but it has mitigated them,” he said. “It has brought about a different kind of excitement, a different kind of culture.” Programming for the annual April event, he said, is starting to reflect the new constituents, many of whom are younger. Serialized programming from streaming “certainly has changed the festival circuit,” he said. “It’s like sticking a needle in your arm, it’s addictive. It’s a whole new art form.”

The work-from-home era, which made life so complex for fest organizers early on (“I did not even know what Zoom was before 2020,” Woodstock’s Blaustein laughs) has ended up being a ray of sunshine for some destination festivals. Where once seasonal migration would bring flocks of people to town for certain weeks of the year, now the prospect of building more of a year-round presence seeming realistic. “We’re seeing traffic jams in April – you never used to see that until July,” Nantucket’s Brabbée said. She added, “the face of the island is changing quickly,” with many longtime residents and business owners with ties to the fest cashing out when the real estate market spiked.

This year, as the weekend progressed, enthusiasm built for Nantucket’s less conventional offerings. It resumed its annual “late-night storytelling” event, which featured participants including the filmmaker Peter Farrelly; John Turturro came through, not only for an onstage chat with his Severance director Stiller, but for a staged reading of parts of his forthcoming Spike Lee-produced film Howard Beach. Ramin Bahrani, Jenny Slate and Cooper Reif were among others in town.

With the path of all indie films a bit uncertain, film fests have also found support by joining forces with other cultural events. Nantucket has comedy, food and wine and many other activities on the docket. “Our community partnerships have quadrupled over the past two years – that’s the beautiful silver lining,” Brabbée said. “The island is chock-full of festivals and we all support each other.”

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