BIFF’s Future Boffo
The Chinese symbol for crisis is famously said to be composed of two characters, one representing danger, the other opportunity. Victor Mair, professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, provides more nuance. He says “Ji” represents an “incipient moment; a crucial point when something begins or changes.”
The combination of meanings could not be more apropos for the Berkshire International Film Festival. Last year, Covid-19 forced it to abandon much of its planned 15th anniversary celebration but at the same time the delay offered a chance to explore new avenues and opportunities.
BIFF will return this September 9th–13th, with a new executive director, Emmy-nominated entrepreneur, David Tochterman, and a hybrid format that extends its reach far beyond the Berkshires. In addition, a day has been added to the normally weekend-long event.
“Like everyone else, we had to pivot and adapt,” said BIFF founder and artistic Director Kelley Vickery. “Last year’s shutdown came literally as we were completing the programming for our fifteenth anniversary. It was sad for all the filmmakers who had worked so hard, some over many years, but we were able to pivot and create a pop-up drive-in where we presented 50 percent of the films with many filmmakers in attendance. We felt grateful to find an alternate way. Now, here we are in round two and it feels good to be vaccinated and out in the world.”
Vickery said moving the festival to the fall, rather then in its normal June slot, “presented challenges, but, boy, do we have some gems. Looking over the films, there are some that are so beautiful and so full of hope. It is not going to be a heavy film festival—we are rising from darkness into the light.”
Vickery promises a great range of films - international, domestic, documentaries and shorts—"something for everyone.” She added that filmmakers had to become very creative during Covid but reported that makers of independent films often work with small teams. “Independent filmmakers can survive because of the way they work,” she said. “They wear many hats. They quarantined together with teams that were lean and mean and tight. When I attended the virtual Sundance Festival, I was amazed at the quality and range of the films.”
As Vickery and her team scrambled to recover from last year’s setback, Covid delivered a new opportunity. Laura Palmer, former executive director, announced that she was stepping down. “So, we were looking for someone new,” said Vickery. “I had met David Tochterman through an advisory board member before the lockdown began. He had just purchased a home up here as a weekend home and then moved here fulltime during Covid.”
Invited to become a member of the advisory board, Tochterman called Vickery and said he thought “we could be a good fit all around,” she said. “To get a person of his caliber and experience was really cool. He is bringing his industry experience and a different energy. He’s bringing on industry people, enlarging our format so what we do can be accessed by someone living in Colorado or anywhere else.”
Tochterman is an executive and producer in the digital and traditional entertainment industry. He is CEO/Founder of Canvas Media Studios which produces and distributes original programming for film, television and social platforms.
“This was supposed to be a vacation home,” said Tochterman, “but here we are a year and a half later in this incredible, creative, community and I wanted to become involved. I thought maybe I could find ways to use our skills. When Kelley suggested I join (BIFF’s) advisory board I liked the fact that they were thinking about what is next for BIFF."
“I didn’t realize how many film festivals there are out there—what a big industry it is,” he continued. “I’ll continue to go back and forth to California and New York—I’ll stay active—but we’re Massachusetts residents now. I feel very, very fortunate that out of a pandemic survival strategy came a new life. We’re living here happily and loving it.”
Tochterman also recognized that the pandemic was creating a turning point between the actual and the virtual. “By the time I joined, almost every film festival was online,” he reported. “I saw a real opportunity for BIFF to make its brand younger while staying true to its roots. By September we will have a very robust online offering that people can experience whether they live here or not.”
The festival, which will bring back the deferred 15th anniversary celebration, will have familiar elements but will also reflect changes wrought by a year of shutdown.
“The 15th anniversary celebration will be held on Labor Day weekend, leading into BIFF,” said Vickery. “Every other year, we do a gala. This year is not really a gala, but a celebration at a private home. There will be a tent theme so patrons will buy a tent rather than a table. We’ll be ‘glamping,’ roasting marshmallows under the stars.”
The festival itself will be presented in fewer venues, with social distancing, and will have 60 rather than 80 films. There will still be three tea talks, perhaps even a script reading.
“There are aspects of the festival that will be a little more industry-driven by virtue of my relationships,” said Tochterman. “There will be more of an industry presence for the Tea Talks. We will be able to present Talks this year that will be interesting to audiences and filmmakers. For instance, there is such a great story here in the way Kelley choses its movies. There is a theme every year so BIFF connects with what's going on in the world. Art should connect to life. That is a story that is compelling that should be presented across various platforms.”
A limited number of in-person passes for the festival go on sale Friday, June 11th. Virtual passes follow on July 28th. Full details of the films and events will be released July 28th. For more information, visit the new website at www.biffma.org.