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Virtual film festival was a big success

LLOYD KOMESAR, LEFT, MNFF founder and producer, and Jay Craven, MNFF artistic director, say this year's virtual festival was a success.

MIDDLEBURY — Organizers of this year’s Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival (MNFF) didn’t know what to expect for viewership, after having had to quickly pivot to a first-ever online format after the COVID-19 pandemic made the usual in-person event impossible in Middlebury.
But early returns show the sixth annual festival more than held its own, with this year’s crop of 26 feature films and 33 shorts garnering a combined total of more than 5,000 hits through the CinseSend platform. Instead of viewing the films at a handful of Middlebury venues during the usual multi-day event, this year, beginning on Aug. 27, enthusiasts were able to watch the offerings at their leisure through digital devices — computer, mobile phone, tablet, Apple TV 4K or Roku on television.
“Our learning curve was steep, and we pulled it together in a relatively short amount of time without any blueprint,” said Lloyd Komesar, MNFF founder and producer. “From my point of view, this was an unusual, interesting and very revealing experience that in the end broadened our base of viewers and attendees well beyond our normal range — both geographic and demographic. I’m very satisfied.”
Jay Craven, MNFF artistic director, echoed that sentiment.
“We had no idea what to expect,” he said. “But it’s as strong a program as we’ve ever had.”
And the viewership MNFF6 generated proved a testament to the quality of submitted and curated films offered by necessity to a worldwide online audience, instead of exclusively in Middlebury.
Here are a few takeaways from the festival, according to Craven and Komesar:
• 56% of MNFF viewers were from out of state; 15% were from the New York City area.
“We thought we could extend our reach online, and we did some digital marketing, but this, to me, was astonishing,” Komesar said. “It’s a big deal for us. As we go forward, we’ll be able to market whatever our ongoing programming is and wherever our next festival will be based on their sampling of our festival this past August.”
And it means that MNFF No. 7 — already in the planning stages — will include some kind of online component in addition to (hopefully) a return to an in-person festival in Middlebury.
“It is likely that we will include an online component of 10-12 films,” Komesar said. “These would be for people who don’t live in state and can’t physically come to our festival in Middlebury. We’d like to do a hybrid where the ancillary component would be some small package of feature films that could be accessed digitally.”
Organizers will offer some online programming between now and the next festival. Details will be revealed during the coming weeks.
• Around 250 people purchased passes allowing access to 95% of this year’s festival films. Another 350 purchased individual tickets. But actual viewership was larger, as pass holders this year could share the viewing experience with multiple guests in a living room setting.
“This was a little bit of a two-for-one deal, or maybe even a little more than two-for-one,” Craven said of the passes. “But it expands the viewership substantially beyond the number of passes.”
• The three most popular feature films were all documentaries, beginning with “Finding Yingying,” about the search for 26-year-old Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang, who disappeared while studying at the University of Illinois in 2017. Next was “For the Love of Rutland,” which charted trials and tribulations of Stacie Griffin overcoming addiction and poverty in Rutland in 2016. And third was “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President,” about Carter’s relationship with popular music during the late 1970s.
All three films garnered around a 70% completion rate, meaning a vast majority of people who clicked onto these films finished them. Given the distractions that can come with home viewing, that’s a huge number, according to Komesar.
“It’s a home run,” he said.
Among other feature film hits at the festival: “Desert One,” about the failed 1979 rescue attempt of U.S. hostages in Iran; and “Life in Synchro,” about women and synchronized skating.
• “Night Songs,” an animated six-minute short film about what birds do at night, generated 132 views, making it the top-viewed offering of the festival. Other popular shorts included “La Pastora,” about a Spanish woman who walks away from a PhD opportunity in Barcelona to become a sheep shepherd in the Pyrenées; and “Nine,” about a Boston University women’s racing crew during the early 1970s.
The MNFF’s 33 short films were offered in six packages, each containing four- to seven films.
Also well reviewed were Craven’s online question-and-answer sessions with the makers of 24 of the 26 feature films in this year’s festival. His sessions this year were each 30-40 minutes long — around twice the length of his Q&As during past in-person festivals.
“They were seen by hundreds of people, and a lot of viewers said they were really good and helped them process the film viewing experience,” Komesar said. “Jay is able to extract a lot of information with more than just a few minutes to work with. I think it was universally appreciated.”
Plans call for MNFF to reload Craven’s Q&As onto the festival portal for access by this year’s pass holders.
“If you saw a film and didn’t have time to watch the Q&A, it will be (accessible),” Komesar said.
Komesar expects this year’s festival to end in the black — quite an accomplishment, given the impacts of COVID-19 and sudden switch to an online format. Still, anyone who’d like to contribute to ongoing MNFF effort, or to keep track of upcoming MNFF events, should visit middfilmfest.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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