Even though a vaccine is on the horizon, Denton’s festival organizers say COVID-19 has forced them to reimagine their events for 2021 — especially the festivals that fall in the first quarter of the year.
“We’re definitely all virtual,” said Joshua Butler, the founder and director of Thin Line, a documentary film, music and photography festival. “We’re not looking at doing anything in person.”
South by Southwest, the enormous music and film festival in Austin, announced last month it would stream all of its events online as well.
Butler said Thin Line’s leadership opted for an all-virtual festival for two reasons. First and foremost, COVID-19 has already driven Americans indoors, and with the event happening March 24-28, there are too many unanswered questions about how public life will look in just a few months.
“This is our lives right now,” Butler said. “Everyone is doing everything on their computer at the moment, and I don’t see that changing in the next few months.”
The second reason is that Butler launched his own virtual conference business, Falcon Events, during the pandemic and saw his company boom almost immediately.
“I’m all in on my virtual business, and so is Susan [Carol Davis, film programming director,] and … my treasurer,” Butler said. “So we have this virtual event machine set up, and adding a festival to it is just adding another event to the process. Maybe ‘easy’ is the wrong term, but it is something we can do without so much expense. For that reason, it’s all virtual.”
Harry Eaddy, the director of the Denton Black Film Festival, had a much shorter runway to get his event off the ground for 2021. The festival will be Jan. 27-31.
“Right now, we are anticipating a hybrid festival,” Eaddy said. “We’re looking at some in-person screenings, and we’re looking at the Campus [Theatre] for that.”
The Black Film Festival, which promotes films by Black filmmakers and films about Black lives and experiences, usually screens movies at Alamo Drafthouse Denton. The cinema closed in September, with company officials saying they would not reopen the space until big movies begin to release in multiplexes again.
Jaye McLaughlin, the artistic director of the Texas Storytelling Festival, said the 2021 event will happen online, through a matrix of Zoom accounts that will keep patrons moving between storytelling concerts and workshops. The festival, “The Magic, Mystery and Miracle of Storytelling,” is set for March 11-14. This year, the festival was shuttered on the second of its four days due to the pandemic.
“We may be using Facebook Live, but we know people will have to register to get the Zoom links for their concerts and workshops,” McLaughlin said. “It’s been a major thing. Ever since March, storytellers have been stumbling and trying to figure out what to do.”
McLaughlin said officials anticipate having some content recorded before the festival, but most of the events will happen live.
The three spring festivals haven’t trimmed much from their 2021 events. Butler said Thin Line’s all-virtual platform — which will include music showcases and a virtual, 3D photography exhibit — allowed them to trim some expenses and divert money toward the online experience.
Eaddy said the Denton Black Film Festival plans to screen 90 to 100 titles, which are split between short films and feature-length films.
“We’ve probably grown about 30% from last year, so we’ve had outstanding film submissions,” Eaddy said. “It’s been a grueling process this year with the pandemic, so it’s been surprising to see it grow. We’ve had filmmakers in LA and in places like Atlanta talking to us and talking about us, so that’s part of it.”
Davis said Thin Line has seen a dip in submissions but will still offer a robust program.
She said the festival’s programming team, a group of three volunteers, has split the films into four categories, including shorts, international films and domestic films.
“It’s been impressive to see how these connections are bringing the films together for a really comprehensive program; it’s been really nice to connect all those dots,” Davis said.
McLaughlin said the storytelling festival will have more to offer, starting earlier on the opening day and ending later on the closing Sunday. It will still include four featured tellers, too.
The pandemic’s economic punch means festivals have fewer sponsorship dollars to use — at least in theory. Butler had some positive news for Thin Line, at least.
“Panavision has supported us for a long time, and we’ve been talking to them, and they’ve told us they are going to support us next year at the same level,” Butler said.
Eaddy said the Denton Black Film Festival Institute has ongoing conversations about fundraising, and he expects to deliver a full roster of films, virtual spoken word and art offerings. The festival won’t offer the major concerts that filled the University of North Texas’ Winspear Hall.
The Denton Arts & Jazz Festival — the biggest and most crowded of the city’s outdoor festivals — falls in the second quarter. The event has announced its 2021 dates, April 23-25.