Never been to a film festival before? Thanks to COVID, they're more accessible than ever

Brian Truitt

Soon after moving to New York City in fall 1994, Eugene Hernandez walked a few blocks from his apartment and into Lincoln Center, picked up a New York Film Festival schedule and bought a ticket for the opening-night movie, Quentin Tarantino's “Pulp Fiction.”

Flash-forward 26 years, and Hernandez is the new director of the festival (Sept. 25-Oct. 11), which is going virtual this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event aims to make the latest and greatest in cinema accessible to another young guy living down the street or, say, a teenage girl in South Dakota with a love for cinema and a strong Wi-Fi connection.

“We can bring that whole experience to anyone in their living room,” Hernandez says. “That's the sea change and the silver lining out of what has been a really challenging, difficult, hard 2020.”

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Letitia Wright ("Black Panther") stars in "Mangrove," one of three Steve McQueen films premiering at this year's virtual New York Film Festival.

Because so many film festivals have pivoted to digital extravaganzas, there's new opportunity to connect with audiences, inviting people to “attend” who might not have had the chance otherwise. 

Jeff Friday, founder of the American Black Film Festival (Friday through Aug. 30), has already seen the positives of making the move to virtual. Usually, 10,000 film fans show up for his annual June event in Miami; this year, he's predicting 200,000 people interested in streaming more than 90 films celebrating Black cinema, as well as panel discussions featuring Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, “Candyman” director Nia DaCosta, Mary J. Blige, Lena Waithe and Gabrielle Union.

“It's actually a game changer,” Friday says. “I don't anticipate we're ever going to go back to a live event only.”

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The horror movie "Candyman," starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, is getting a sneak peek at the American Black Film Festival.

Some events, like next month’s Venice Film Festival in Italy, are going full bore with face masks and a reduced slate. Others, like Telluride, just canceled outright. (The high-profile Toronto International Film Festival is going virtual next month as well, although digital public screenings will be geolocked to Canada.)  

The "democratization of access" that comes with a virtual film fest is a great thing, says Rotten Tomatoes editor Jacqueline Cole. But it does create extra issues in terms of piracy before a movie's wide release: "There have to be more security measures. It's not the same as just making sure no one is going to record from where you can physically see them."

Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed “Parasite” came storming out of last year’s festival season and rode that momentum all the way to a Best Picture win at the Academy Awards It was an important victory in Hollywood for diversity and inclusion, and those themes are both a large part of the current cultural conversation and this year’s festival slate.

Frances McDormand stars as a woman who embraces a wandering lifestyle in Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland."

The NYFF is kicking off with an opening night featuring Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock,” and will premiere two other of the Black filmmaker’s works, “Mangrove” and “Red, White and Blue,” part of the same anthology. Also on tap: Chloe Zhao’s anticipated “Nomadland” with Frances McDormand; Sam Pollard’s documentary “MLK/FBI”; and the documentary “Time,” about a woman trying to get her husband released from his 60-year prison sentence.

Celebrating diverse voices has been the name of Friday’s game for decades, going back to the early days of interviewers asking him why he'd launch a Black film festival (Friday’s response: “Because Holly-wouldn’t”) and being largely ignored by mainstream media.

"The impetus for these conversations, if we're being honest with ourselves, is what happened to (George) Floyd, but I'm really happy to see it, too," Friday says.

Jeff and Nicole Friday are founder/CEO and general manager, respectively, of the American Black Film Festival.

He thinks there’s a huge shift coming, and one of the places it’ll be seen is the upcoming Academy Awards. “I don't think we're ever going to go back to #OscarsSoWhite. I just don't see it,” Friday says. “I do think this is going to stick, but technology is more of a factor in my opinion, and the accessibility of how we deliver the content. That's more of a driver rather than just a changing point of view of the powers that be in Hollywood.”

Other virtual film fests to check out this fall:


Dates: Through Aug. 30

Focus: More than 160 films, including 35 world premieres, featuring an array of diverse LGBTQIA+ stories and storytellers.

Cost: $59.99


Dates: Through Aug. 26

Focus: More than 80 films by Black and indigenous artists, including "Farewell Amor," about an Angolan immigrant in the U.S. who reunites with his wife and daughter after 17 years apart.

Cost: Festival pass is $100; day passes start at $5.


Dates: Oct. 1-7

Focus: More than 200 independent films, including "Cowboys," about a Montana father who tries to liberate his transgender son by taking him to Canada.

Cost: $125


Dates: Oct. 24-31

Focus: The Savannah College of Art and Design's annual event celebrates student filmmakers as well as the pros with gala screenings and live Q&As.

Cost: Not yet set; tickets go on sale Oct. 1 when the schedule is announced.


Dates: Oct. 8-11

Focus: The newly launched event stars features international sci-fi, horror, fantasy and underground films as a collaboration between The Overlook, Brooklyn Horror, Boston Underground, Popcorn Frights and North Bend film festivals.

Cost: 10-film badge is $90. five-film badge is $55.