Stories of Adaptation & Resilience: Northwest Film Forum

The Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) plays a crucial role in the Seattle arts ecology. A center for community that presents vibrant programs across the genres of film, performance, and sound, the NWFF also offers a robust set of educational programs for young filmmakers, acts as a fiscal sponsor to organizations and film projects across Washington State, and partners with a variety of institutions through programming. Cinemas, like all institutions dependent on ticket income, were amongst the most deeply and immediately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Adapting quickly to the crisis, the NWFF moved their programs online in three days, and managed to hold on to all their staff by equitably distributing a reduction of hours across all positions. At the same time, they managed to serve their community by offering online screenings on a sliding scale and put out a call for memberships and donations to help see the organization through the crisis.

I spoke with Vivian Hua, Executive Director, and Rana San, Artistic Director on April 3, 2020 about how the COVID-19 crisis had impacted the organization.

Emily Zimmerman: How is COVID-19 affecting programming and the way that you’re carrying out your work on a day-to-day basis?

Rana San: It’s a huge question, but it feels like in some ways the way that we do our work hasn’t really changed that much. The core of how we approach our programming and collaboration with our community partners — how that work gets envisioned and brought to life — hasn’t changed. It’s the platform that’s shifted in a really big way. I keep thinking how fortunate we are at Northwest Film Forum, in that we’ve been on a trajectory that is community centered, so when this hit, we had people to turn to, to say “How do we work together to now create this new normal? To create this new platform, where we can continue to do programming together, continue to offer something that is valuable to all of our communities and to all of our constituents?”

Vivian Hua: It’s been a big benefit that we are a small and nimble organization that has been able to pivot quickly at this time.

RS: The size of our organization and limited resources is something that we occasionally lament but in this case it really turned out to be a benefit, because we can all shift really quickly.

EZ: So factors that build resilience might include having a robust network of resources that you can draw upon and a nimble organization size. I remember someone once told me that in the last mass extinction that size was an important factor for survival, those organisms that required less resources were more adaptable.

Has it shifted your relationship with the community at all?

VH: Honestly, I think that organizations that are really about serving the community right now are really getting noticed for that, and I don’t think we’re an exception or special in that regard. A lot of people who are holding to community values — I’m thinking about people who turn the restaurants in the community kitchens; people who are doing resiliency fundraisers — I think if you’re doing work that benefits not just you at this time, people will notice.

EZ: Acting where your core values are.

VH: It’s been cool to see that you can operate from a place of core values rather than just being necessarily worried about like, “Oh this needs to pencil out.” Or “Oh, this is the bottom line that I need to address.” It’s not like gangbusters profitable; let’s not lie about that. It’s not long term sustainable. But for the moment, it’s cool that we can offer sliding scale ticketing and people can watch screenings for zero dollars because they have zero dollars. It’s been nice to see that people care about values right now.

EZ: I think that’s one of the really beautiful aspects of this time. Have you seen the online communities augment at all?

RS: We have, in really big ways. Over the first two weeks that we moved the ByDesign Festival online, our design and architecture film festival online, and then the following week, we did some throwbacks to award winners from our Local Sightings Pacific Northwest-focused film festival. In both of those weeks, I was sending personal messages to all of the registrants and seeing where people were registering from was amazing. People tuning in from Spain and from Mexico and from France and lots of people from the East coast.

There’s this interesting thing happening where the people who are rooted here in Seattle and have those networks and connections out, who are really championing Northwest Film Forum, have been writing to me personally and saying, “I told all my friends in Canada to tune in to this one program.” Or “My aunt in New Jersey is going to be watching tonight.” And we’ve actually been receiving requests to add showtimes because we started out doing just dedicated Pacific Standard Time programs, starting at 7:30 PST. You tuned in or you didn’t.

With Cadence, which is our video poetry festival that opens on April 15th, I built into my request to the artists who are participating, asking for permission to show the program for 24 hours. It’s still a dedicated screening in that you have to set aside an hour of your day to watch it within those 24 hours, but at a time that’s convenient for you, wherever you are. That’s a bit of an experiment. This whole thing feels like a laboratory, “What happens if we do this?” Or “What happens if we mix these things over here?”

VH: I think we’ve been able to do that too, because we’re keeping all of our staff, we need to occupy them with things, so let’s just experiment. And these things that we started out experimenting with have actually been successful. ByDesign brought in the same number of people as last year and more people purchased significantly more festival passes than last year.

With that initial festival we saw international audiences, but we’re only just at the beginning of that, because we didn’t try to market it internationally. With Cadence coming up and the second week of Children’s Film Festival, we’re going to do a larger push to get people from other places. It’ll be interesting to see, because all of those have a very globally centered program, how that radiates out. Especially with way more lead time also for these. So for Children’s Film Festival, we’re going to try doing a bit of a mini PR campaign and see how that works.

RS: Having artists who are participating from other countries as well has been huge, and that was the case for ByDesign. For filmmakers, when you send your film to an international festival, the chances that you’re going to actually go and see the other films that it’s in conversation with is rare. So, we had filmmakers tuning in from around the world and Cadence has a lot of international filmmakers who participate as well. So, just the prospect of them sharing out to their communities and saying, “View my film in this context” is really exciting and I have no idea how the next festival is going to go, but we’ll find out.

VH: When I was running REDEFINE magazine, I found the articles that we did that were network oriented were more successful. So like, “We’re going to do a piece about Butoh dance for instance, and we’re going to interview 10 to 15 Butoh dancers from all over the world and then consolidate it into a long-form piece. Most pieces did so much better just through natural word of mouth, because it’s just the smart programmatic model for the internet. Festivals that way I think will be really beneficial.

EZ: So there’s a resilience built into the programming from the very get go. Speaking of resilience, the way the forum handled staffing was something that I think became a beacon in the country, in kind of the way art house cinemas can handle the challenges of this moment. I wanted to ask, what’s the hardest decision been?

VH: The staffing decision was not hard. Chris and I had a conversation, it was basically like, “We’re not going to lay people off, so let’s figure out how to make it work.” I mean, everyone’s getting pay cuts. I mean, I’m sure that’s not fun, but everyone has a job.

RS: I think the hardest decision daily for me is whether to ask someone else to do something or to do it myself. Acknowledging that our pay was cut, but our time was not. I know that our team is working triple time to keep everything going. And so with that in mind, having our other staff in consideration and just being like, “Is this something that I can do even if it takes me a little bit longer?

Or is it worth delegating? Those are some really challenging asks right now because we’re all strapped for time.

EZ: Difficulties with delegation can get compounded in a situation where in-person communication is not possible.

RS: We’re used to being in an open office, and so, we overhear each other’s conversations. There’s so much that happens in the body language and the overheard moments and so many decisions that are made on the go. I’ve been feeling like I’m communicating, having these kinds of virtual conversations more than ever. I’m online with someone at all times of the day, and I feel lonelier than ever.

EZ: A as we’re moving through this crisis, it’s clear things aren’t going to be the same on the other side of this and so, as an organization, what are you carrying with you into the future and what do you want to leave behind?

VH: I think the online program is going to continue to some degree, especially for our custom-curated festivals, I think that that’s going to be really beneficial for us. I’ve been thinking about ethics about how to bake that into an organization long term. Transparency is key. Many people have been like, “Oh, we like how communicative you all have been about every step of the way,” whereas a lot of organizations were doing stuff and then suddenly, everyone’s fired. I think that’s something that needs to be written into our values or strategic plan, so that it continues long term.

RS: This is a small thing, but I’ve been noticing in my communication I tend to be efficient like, “Let’s get to the point.” There’s been a slowing down, in checking-in, and starting off with a human connection, “How are you really doing?” and “How are you taking care of yourself in this moment?” That intentional connection has been making everything else more possible, because we’re aware of where we’re coming from. For me personally, I recognize in my operations I can be very “get it done” and this forced slowdown has been huge. I want that to carry forth. And I think it will, I think it’s bringing us together on a level that we never connected with each other previously.

There’s a quote that I’ve been sort of living with daily, by Valerie Curtis-Newton. It’s part of her Fear and the Creative Process: A Manifesto for Creative Survival and there’s a line in it that says lower the stakes, not the bar. And that’s been huge, just thinking about how to work better, not more. How to get to the core of it as everything we’re doing is still coming, like Vivian said, from an understanding and core place of our values. So how do we keep that bar as high as it is, but lower the stakes for each of us doing the work so that we can stretch our energy across the span of time that’s required to keep this going? And that mentality for me also will carry forth into the next chapter of the Forum.

EZ: That’s a really good strategy for adaptability and resilience.

VH: I’m also just being reminded of how much self-care I need and what types of very introverted, meditative yoga stuff I need to stay effective, in a way that when working at the Forum non-stop, that I forget because there’s no way to make time for it and it’s kind of remembering that aspect right now.

EZ: Creating the space for a work life balance has re-entered the picture in a powerful way.

RS: It’s in my awareness; it’s not yet in my practice. I’m becoming more aware of the need for it, and that I’m not going to survive without it. But putting it into practice, I am very envious of the people who have had a moment to take more bubble baths and go on more nature walks. I want that. And also, everything else is weighing in more heavily right now. There are a lot of things with the Forum that need my attention.

VH: Well, yes we’re trying to make sure we still have an organization by the end of this and then we are one of the organizations that’s lucky enough to have a full time staff, it’s a responsibility to be using that time in a way that is beneficial to the people.

EZ: It would be good if there were a mechanism for relief for leadership built into the organization.

VH: I think that is an argument for the horizontal organizational structure. Because the traditionally vertical structure does not allow for any alleviation, any time off, because if someone’s gone, no one knows how to do it.

EZ: That is so true. And organizations had already started moving towards a horizontal structure, in the service of equity. So, it seems like maybe that trend will continue in the future as we adapt.

VH: I hear that some people are exploring more horizontal board structures as well. We haven’t explored that yet, but it could be interesting.

EZ: The board’s structure sets the tone for the organization.

Thank you both so much for taking the time to talk about these issues during such an intense and busy time. The work you do is crucial to the Seattle arts community, and a big part of what makes this such a good community to live in.

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Director + Curator of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington, and Founding Editor of MONDAY Art Journal. Seattle, WA.

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Emily Zimmerman

Emily Zimmerman

Director + Curator of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington, and Founding Editor of MONDAY Art Journal. Seattle, WA.

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