September 8, 2020 – 10am – Alan Franey, “History of the Vancouver International Film Festival”- ZOOM

Alan Freney, Director of International Programming, VIFF

Alan Franey is now Director of International Programming for the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), a position he happily assumed in 2014 after having been VIFF’s Festival Director for 26 consecutive festivals from 1988 – 2013. Under Mr. Franey’s direction VIFF became one of the top film festivals in North America in terms of cinematic quality, and one of the largest in terms of both number of films shown and the size of its audience.Mr. Franey has been responsible for executive and rogramming functions of VIFF since its inception in 1982, working alongside festival founder Leonard Schein. Alan was appointed Festival Director in 1988.
Mr. Franey oversaw the creation, construction and operations of the festival’s state-of-the-art year-round exhibition facility, the Vancouver International Film Centre, which opened in 2005, and which began year-round exhibitions at its Vancity Theatre in 2006. Alan has by now travelled to over 170 international film festivals, served on several international juries, and overseen the exhibition of 40,000 public screenings of 14,000 films.

Alan Franey was born 1957 in London, England and raised in Vancouver. He was Student’s Council President at Burnaby Central High School in 1974. He represented Burnaby Central at the United Nations Conference held at UBC in 1973. At Douglas College and SFU, Alan studied film history and filmmaking as part of a degree in General Studies largely focussed on the humanities (Minors in Film & English).
From 1979 to 1985 he served as Manager of Vancouver’s 830-seat Ridge Theatre at Arbutus and 16th Ave., which at that time the most successful single-screen repertory cinema in Canada.

In 1988 Alan was appointed Administrative Director of the Olympic Film Festival at the Calgary Olympics, the first international film event of significant scope in that city. In 1990, Mr. Franey was a recipient of Business in Vancouver’s “40 Under 40 Award”, and in 2012 the Vancouver Film Critics Circle’s “Ian Caddell Award for Achievement” for his ongoing contributions to the British Columbia film industry.
In 2019 the French Minister of Culture awarded him the distinction of “Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters), conferred on “persons who have distinguished themselves by their creativity in the field of art, culture and literature or for their contribution to the influence of arts in France and throughout the world.”
In addition to his functions at VIFF, Alan has served on the Boards of the Pacific Cinémathèque
and of the Vancouver Oral Centre for Deaf Children (now the Children’s Hearing and Speech Centre of BC), where he was President for 5 years (1999 – 2003).

Presentation

Vancouver is in a small theatrical market; however, it is a very cosmopolitan city. With large numbers of East Indians, Iranians, Germans, and Francophones, unlike other film festivals, Vancouver provides international filmmakers with an audience that is already familiar with their work. While the Toronto International Film Festival eclipses any other film festival in the English speaking world, VIFF finds its niche by serving as a complementary opposite.

While VIFF was incepted in 1982, it was really just an incarnation of film festivals dating back to the ’50s, making it the second oldest film festival on the continent after San Francisco. As more nations began to develop world-calibre cinema, there was a barrier to accessing many of the best films in the world that were being celebrated in journals by other filmmakers. There was an obvious appetite for world cinema and VIFF was created to fill that gap. The festival started with 39 films in its first year with great success. VIFF then expanded very rapidly over the next few years, going through a natural period of contraction as well. Following changes in the festival’s leadership, competing visions for VIFF resulted in a reduction in attendance and a loss of funds, a serious concern given the festival’s non-profit status. Eventually, Alan was invited to become the Festival Director. He saved the festival and over the next 26 years, he brought stability and gradual growth to VIFF. In 2005, VIFF made the decision to open their own venue to host year-round programming. This decision was made for several reasons. They needed a space to differentiate themselves from other theatres in the city. Additionally, they wanted a larger lobby for public education events, and a smaller theatre with only 100 seats so that when attendance was low, it didn’t feel like such a big failure. Additionally, movie theatres that they would partner with in the past were closing both as audiences were streaming more and real estate prices were causing multiplexes to relocate to the suburbs. Over Alan’s tenure, and film history as a whole, evolutions in technology and in the expansion of neo-liberalism have threatened the world of cinema. However, the film and cinema industry has always persevered.

In the ’20s, many people thought that the introduction of sound would kill the movies. Television also posed a large threat. After all, why would people go to a movie theatre if they could just watch moving images from the comfort of their homes? While there was a drop in cinema attendance at the time, people did continue to go to the theatre. Video stores in the early ’80s forced theatres to move away from showing older, repertory films and shifting their focus to new films and showing them on a first-run basis. Digital movie technologies like DVD and Blu Ray and the various attempts at 3D technology also raised concerns that threatened cinema. The popularity of computers, the Internet, smartphones, and social media continue to pose a threat today with streaming and downloads, and what no one could have predicted – the sheer amount of content being created.

With everyone having a small camera on them at any given point, filmmakers run into the danger of audiences missing their work amidst all the content and so much dominance of a few things globally. We are now in an era of blockbusters. Most don’t necessarily need to be of the highest quality in order to make the most money. A few films get popular and tend to dominate everything else. Furthermore, with increased globalization, more filmmakers are making the decision to create their films in the English language in order to reach a larger audience. While this is good for accessibility given that so much of the world knows how to speak English, there is also a possibility for a significant loss as movies become more homogenous. At its heart, VIFF and many other international film festivals have always been trying to fight back against this through their mandate.

The pandemic reasonably also raised a lot of concerns for film festivals around the world. However, through collaboration, the industry is hopeful that it can persevere. This year, a small selection of films will be screened to a small audience in person with safety measures in place. More importantly, 100 films will be streamed online. While the festival won’t have the same immersive quality, with no geographic or travel barriers, VIFF will engage a much wider audience beyond the borders of Vancouver. Alan predicts that moving forward, VIFF will continue to provide a large in-person festival, but also keep the online component to remain accessible to those who previously haven’t been able to participate in the festival.

There has been tremendous change, but the importance remains that there is a difference in quality cinema and moving pictures in general. When people have access to the means of technology, they want to learn how to communicate better. Theatre will continue to adapt to the times and persist in the changing world. For as long as there are stories to be told and topics to be explored, cinema is a vital tool in communicating with the world.

Q & A session

Question : Is the schedule up yet for the screening?

Answer: We just announced it. You can go to our website, www.VIFF.org. Passes have been made very inexpensive this year. For $60 you can get access to everything. You can also buy individual tickets if you’re wanting to see films in the theatres. But, we thought we should really be as inclusive as possible. We’re very fortunate in that we’ve had some government support and sponsor support and individual support to keep us going through this year. So, we’re breathing a sigh of relief and we’re taking advantage of that and really enabling it to be an event of celebration and to invite as many people as possible. So, people can go to our website and see the list of films and descriptions. And you’ll see there’s no barrier for entry this year.

Question : Are there still opportunities to see films in person and how do we get into the streamed programme?

Answer: So, yes, the screening in person, as I said, will be limited to about 50 people. So we don’t know how interested people will be in this, people may be shy to go into venues, even though safety measures are being taken. But the option is there for that. And the streamed program will simply be a matter of going to our internet site, VIFF.org, and buying an individual ticket or a pass. And you will be able to see that film at any time during the festival. The way I understand it works is, once you click the beginning of the film you have a 24-hour period to watch it. So, if you’re interrupted by dinner or whatever, that’s fine, you can go back to it at your own convenience.

Comment : congratulations on making VIFF work this year and thank you.

Reply: Yes, it’s been an amazing learning experience for us and I think that one wonderful thing has been the cooperation amongst film festivals internationally. We’ve never had so much sharing of information and evolving best practices in everyone’s benefit. We’ve been in conversations with not just the Toronto Film Festival and other local festivals, but film festivals internationally. Sort of evolving these systems, and technological tools which will enable it this year.

Question : Will the theatre films also be streamed, e.g. Monkey Beach?

Reply: Yes, this is the film we’re opening the festival with. And, it’s a film that we’re offering in both capacities. A few of those films are those that are more high profile will be available both ways. There were a couple of films, where the film suppliers, particularly high profile films, they didn’t want to risk being online because they were really concerned about piracy. So, even though we have a lot of measures in place to protect against that, some high-profile companies said no, it can be online in theatre. But, those tend to be the films that will be released soon in theatres afterwards anyway, so our screenings are more like promotional screenings for them with the added value that there is often a conversational element. We’re pre-recording all of those now, and many of them will be free and available to the world at large afterwards. So, for example when Mongrel Media in Toronto, who are the distributor for the Hidden Life of Trees that I talked about, when they heard that we were able to have a conversation with Peter Wohlleben, the author, they were delighted because they were not able to engineer that. The film is already being sold across the world and it’s then handled by those national distributors. So, we as a festival, because we’re here in British Columbia, which the author takes a special interest in, were able to build that bridge and the great thing is that that discussion will be able to be seen internationally after people have viewed the film, wherever they are.

Question: How has Covid-19 impacted the film industry? Besides the obvious, people not going to movie theatres. Is it a short-term blip in production of movies around the world or is it a much longer term one, like with contracts being so screwed up or whatever?

Answer: It’s been a terrible blow for most people. It’s been hugely disruptive. Like anything, there will be some people who have benefited in odd unpredictable ways, but I think as a general statement, it’s been a terrible blow. Many films that were in the midst of production had to cease production and may never regain what they’ve lost. We don’t know. People can postpone things for a while and pick them back up again, but we simply don’t know, it’s unpredictable. There’s so much money involved in a lot of these productions. I think we’ve gotten through this year remarkably in many respects, but the jury’s out on what this is going to mean for next year. Will we see a real diminishment of product next year? It’s possible. It’s true though that there is a tremendous back catalogue of things that could be discovered and viable business opportunities presented in that, but yes, I don’t think you can put a positive spin on this. Generally, it’s been hugely disruptive and represented losses for a lot of people.

Question: Thanks for your presentation. How do you see the future of the Canadian film industry?

Answer: Well, the Canadian film industry always has this question of two main ambitions. One is the industry as a service. A very talented group of film professionals who work on film and television from other parts of the world, particularly the United States. And then what about our own stories? And how do we cultivate individual stories? How do we tell our own nation’s stories and make them internationally viable and interesting? So, the film industry will come back to Vancouver. There will still be jobs here. I don’t think that anyone is resting on their laurels in that respect. There’s struggles ahead. Perhaps this will create opportunities for smaller budget Canadian productions to really have a moment of opportunity. I think we need to be grateful for government investments that we have had. If any country can get through this Canada can and will.

Question from Michael Jacobson: I’m not exactly sure what platform you’re going to use for your film festival. And the question I’m asking is that the VSO has used Zoom and has tried a number of other platforms that have not been successful and are now forced to develop their own platform from scratch. And I’m wondering if you people have considered the fact that the reception of many of these platforms is challenging. Zoom webinars don’t always work very well. And if you’re going to subscribe to a live situation, you need the quality of Netflix in terms of participation or you need sort of Amazon video, which is phenomenal, and if you can’t produce something of equal quality people are going to be very concerned. 

Answer: That’s a very good question and this is what we’ve been wrestling with. I agree with you 100%. It can’t have failure. People will not have the patience to be running into technical glitches, especially if they’re spending good money for the privilege. So, the technology we’re using is CineSend. It’s not Zoom. It’s a system developed in Canada, which is being used by other festivals very successfully. It’s not the only model out there, but it’s a higher-end, more evolved, more robust, more dependable program. And so that’s one part of it, having the backbone to facilitate it. The other is a public education issue, where we have to have very good customer service to be able to help people out if they are perhaps having problems on their end because we can’t expect everyone to know how to get around some of the problems of the modern era in just interfacing with websites. So we’re having a lot of volunteers trained on this and some good public information language being developed so that we can hopefully minimize that frustration which is, I agree, our biggest threat this year.

Question: Are interrupted productions insured?

Answer: Oh, you mean like literally insured with insurance companies? I am not an expert on that. I assume some are, but I assume that many aren’t or at least not adequately. And how can you address something like that. If you assemble a cast and crew and you’ve done some of the shoot, and then you see this kind of interruption, how can you bring people back together? In the meantime, they’ve aged and gone on to other projects and I just think it’s a very unsettling time and very unpredictable and a lot of smart people are trying to figure out how they can move on and hopefully life will resume.

Question: Are there opportunities to partner with publicly funded organizations such as CBC/GEM?

Answer: Well, yes. There are many partnerships that we enjoy with organizations and this is a good opportunity to build on those. I think at the heart of your question, there’s the larger issue of whether CBC could be providing better access to some of the films we’re showing. We did at one time have the best of the Vancouver International Film Festival on the Knowledge Network. And that was very successful. The problem we ran into then was that the Knowledge Network didn’t have the means to be able to afford the licensing fees that were expected by top films internationally. So we ran into a problem of scale. You know, often a big production from Korea or Germany or whatever, they’re selling to a national network and they’re getting $10-50K for a broadcast fee. BC is small enough, the Knowledge Network is at a smaller scale, and it wasn’t able to operate in that league. So, I think as we evolve, as there’s more product available, and as partnerships develop, we will evolve to a position where if it’s not Netflix showing the kind of films we are showing, then it will be the CBCs and Knowledge Networks in general. So partnerships between film festivals and broadcasters are a natural thing, even though we do obviously operate independently.


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