Like ‘redesigning a car while driving’: VIFF goes virtual for 2020

The 39th edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival will feature some in-person events but will rely primarily on online screenings

Vancity Theatre on Seymour Street has been undergoing renovations and will open to the public September 24 for the Vancouver International Film Festival | submitted

No reminders to turn off smartphones, no collective jolts of surprise in the theatre, no debates in the lobby after a screening.

With the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) shifting to a primarily virtual event this year, interim director Kyle Fostner admits the 39th annual event will feel fundamentally different with cinephiles watching the programming in their homes.

“But by the same token, there's advantages to it as well and we need to embrace those advantages,” he said, likening the experience of pivoting to an online festival to “redesigning a car while driving it.”

The festival, running September 24 to October 7, confirmed in June it was tapping a virtual platform known as VIFF Connect amid pandemic-induced health concerns.

But the in-person experience isn’t vanishing.

A select series of screenings will accompany the festival at The Cinematheque on Howe Street and VIFF’s Vancity Theatre on Seymour Street.

Physical distancing measures will be in place and tickets are limited, however.

As for those advantages of which Fostner spoke, he points to the opportunity afforded to film aficionados who previously had trouble securing a babysitter or else those who live too far outside Metro Vancouver to attend.

“There's silver linings hidden in there,” he said.

“One view or more in each of those regions is 100% more than we’ve had in the past. It's a good way of building faith in those communities as well.”

More than 100 films will screen virtually and in theatres this year, while panels featuring filmmaker such as Charlie Kaufman will be streamed online.

The festival is also facilitating an immersive XR marketplace for creators tapping virtual reality and augmented reality.

An animated shorts program is also slated following a multi-year absence and Fostner said the selection of Canadian films is “quite strong” this year.

“There's a few comedic films strewn throughout, which I think we all need,” he added.

The festival will also be a coming-out party of sorts for Vancity Theatre, which reopens to the public September 24 following months of renovations.

The limited number of people attending in-person screenings will see the concession area has been moved and a second screen has been added to the theatre.

“I'm legitimately very excited for other people to come and see what it looks like. It's wildly different. It's beautiful. And for people who are familiar with the space, especially, it's going to be quite a moment when they walk in,” Fostner said.

“When things are back up and running at full tilt, it's going to really change the way we do business.”

While Fostner said it’s too early predict the exact nature of next year’s festival, the current program was built knowing that the COVID-19 crisis was likely to persist.

Those who purchased premier subscriptions will gain access to VIFF Connect programming year-round for curated content.

“I can't really imagine the scenario where we return to a brick-and-mortar festival in 2021 and completely abandon that work,” he said.