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Cinema Chat: The 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival marks a return to in-person attendance

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David Fair: It is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to this week's edition of Cinema Chat, I'm David Fair, and it's a bit of a good news, bad news kind of morning. The bad news is my co-host Russ Collins. He's a bit under the weather and won't be joining us today. The good news is we get to spend the entire show focused on the upcoming 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival. This festival will begin on the evening of Tuesday, March 22nd and run through Sunday, March 27th. And joining me today is the Executive Director of the festival, Leslie Raymond, and thank you so much for coming in and making time for us.

Leslie Raymond: Oh, good morning, David. It's always a pleasure to see you around this time of year. Thanks for having me.

David Fair: We do, don't we? Well, let's review for a moment in getting to this place. Two years of pandemic and when the first year hit, the state shut down just as you were about to go live with the festival, and you had to kind of turn on a dime.

Leslie Raymond: That's right. Yes, it was literally about 10 days before we were set to unfurl in the Michigan Theater. With the onset of that pandemic that we all thought, you know, oh, a couple of weeks and it'll be over, right?

David Fair: Well, the president said it's nothing more than the flu.

Leslie Raymond: I know. Well, we took a look and, you know, we have a great tech director Tom Bray, who is a converging technologies consultant at University of Michigan. And we, at that moment, our board chair John Timan, who had done a lot of work with Tom over the years, who had not only, you know, worked in the industry in film/video production, but is really a poet and experimental filmmaker at heart. The two of them had been talking, you know, for a couple few weeks there, and we had an emergency board meeting and John presented, "We can go online. Tom and I talked about this and we know that we can do it." There's no reason to not. And so--

David Fair: They didn't sleep for a month.

Leslie Raymond: They just, you know, they talked it through, examined it and determined, "Yes, we can do it." So the board said go, and I felt really strongly we need to do it on time. And we did it. And a lot of that was just on the fly figuring it out. And, you know, we have a strong bench. You know, Tom Bray was our lead on that, and we figured out we're going to live stream it on our Vimeo channel. We are going to video conference in the filmmakers at the end of each program. And that was before everybody had been on Zoom for two years. And so it was like, "What are we going to use? This blue jeans or Zoom?" And we went with Zoom. And it was a single live stream. We'd show a program, and then we would bring in the video conference and do Q&A live, and then go to the next program. And it was exhilarating and exciting, and we were the first ones, and we led the way on that.

David Fair: There were a lot of lessons learned in that first go-round with very short time to prepare. As you went into last year, you had kind of that year to reflect and build upon. And how did last year go given that you were forced to be online once again?

Leslie Raymond: Yeah, you're exactly right. We had time to plan and prepare. And we had, you know, our really wonderful operations manager, Angela Lenhart at the time, really researched, you know, what would be a good platform where we could really take our time producing everything and kind of get everything built out and then basically, you know, launch it. And so, we worked with one of these online platforms. I think it was called Eventive. And it was great. You know, in terms of that slowing down the production process and being much more deliberate about designing that whole experience.

David Fair: And the end result was a lot more cohesive to those who did tune in.

Leslie Raymond: Yeah, absolutely. You went to the platform. You could buy tickets there. You know, there was a lot of information there that you could understand what it was you're going to see. I would say, you know, that first exhilarating year, we offered it for free as that single live stream kind of as a "Hey everybody! Have some art and get your mind off the whatever's coming down here." The second year it was, you know, we're going to try this out as a how does this platform work? You know, how do we monetize what we're doing out in the world? And I would say, you know, the first year I think we saw, I don't know, something like 15,000 unique IP addresses tune in, you know, drop into our live stream. The second year we saw we count them as program views. And so, we saw about about 13,000 program views of individual ticket purchases and viewings of things happening or, you know, getting a pass and watching a thing.

David Fair: So I'm not very good at math, and it hurts me to try and do it in my head. But I'm imagining that even given those impressive numbers, that there was a real financial hardship to the last two years.

Leslie Raymond: Yeah, I would say the financial hardship really came from sponsorship. It was a big thing, you know, with the businesses that--a lot of businesses that support us--were hurting. The University of Michigan put a moratorium on any kind of external spending, so I would say that's where we were hardest hit. And I mean, ticket sales. It's important to us, but it's a much smaller part of our revenue stream. We did benefit from some of those government programs. The PPP. And we got a National Endowment for the Arts CARES grant. And thanks to Russ, actually, and Deb Polich, his wife, we figured out how to get in on that SVOG--Shuttered Venue Operator Grant--thing and managed to squeak in right at the end and get a little bit of money out of that.

David Fair: So see. We're headed in the right direction. There's good news there at the foundation and we're headed for more as we move forward. You're listening to Cinema Chat on 89 one WEMU and we're talking with the executive director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Leslie Raymond. This year, you've put together a program. It will have that live component. It's going to be great to have people back in the Michigan Theater and experiencing events, but you're also offering online. It's going to be a bit of a hybrid. So, not knowing how the pandemic was going to play out, what was the stress level in putting together a festival?

Leslie Raymond: Well, you know, the added thing is that it's our 60th. So it's like this watershed year.

David Fair: Right.

Leslie Raymond: It was supposed to be a big deal and do this big celebration. But how can you plan when you know it's shifting sands at every moment? So I don't know. At a certain point, I think, you know, I just stopped worrying about it, just like--

David Fair: You can't control it.

Leslie Raymond: Exactly. I think I've been, you know, learning to laugh a lot more.

David Fair: Hey, silver lining

Leslie Raymond: Exactly. Just, you know, just go with it. Do the best we can. We're planning for an in-person. We've got our target. You know, how do we know how many people will show up for opening night? Who knows? But let's look at the work that CultureSource did in Southeast Michigan on doing surveys of audience for arts and culture. And, you know, at a certain point, I ascertained that we could kind of put a pin in, "Oh, maybe, you know, normally we'd see 350 to 550 turn up on opening night." Well, based on some of the numbers that I saw from those studies, let's just put a pin in two hundred. But, you know, who knows?

David Fair: And that would be considered great.

Leslie Raymond: Right. It would be considered great.

David Fair: So, well, we're going to find out how that turns out on the evening of March 22nd. As you put together the program, I'm sure there are a couple of things that stuck out just to you on a personal level. These are going to be highlights for me. Do you think those same things are going to be what resonates with the grander audience as well?

Leslie Raymond: Well, it's hard to say. You know, we have such a variety of different things that we present.

David Fair: Which is one of the great and unique things about the film festival.

Leslie Raymond: And, of course, everybody, you know, has their preferences. One of the things that I've been saying I'm excited about this year is our music video program, which is going to show on Wednesday the 23rd at 5:15 in the Michigan Theater Main Auditorium. We had a really strong pool of music videos submitted this year. That'll be a films and competition program for the listeners who may not know about, you know, exactly what we show in our avant garde and experimental film festival. We have a bunch of shorts and competition programs. I think 13 this year, which will show a series of anywhere from six to, say, a dozen short films. We have about 12 feature films in competition as well this year. And then, all of that will be available in the online presentation of the festival. The one set of screenings that you can only see in the theater are what we call our special programs, which are specially curated by different programmers or artists or educators, just friends of the festival this year who helped us take a look back at our history. So, this is the place where we're going to see some historic work, things that have shown in the past, but also we're taking a look at what kinds of things were omitted. You know, we've come a long way in the last--whatever--decade or so of making deliberate choices about being more inclusive, which was really the ethos. And, you know, the early 60s when George founded the festival to be open and inclusive. And I think experimental avant garde film is that anyway. But when you look back, it's still, you know, a certain kind of demographic tended to come back and show their work over and over and get awarded. And, you know, we love that demographic, but we've done a lot of work to kind of steer the ship towards really much more clear inclusion and, you know, reaching out to certain constituencies to say, "We want your participation too."

David Fair: Well, I know that the staff has turned over as we went through a pandemic and people have to move on. And it's been a very difficult process to get to this place. But, as you said, you control what you can control. We're looking forward to seeing how it all turns out. Congratulations. This is a big watershed year. This is the 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival. And we're all looking forward to being able to go back in person if we so desire. But, again, those online offerings will be there for you. Go to..what is it? AAFF--

Leslie Raymond: AA film fest dot org.

David Fair: There you go. And you can get all your tickets in advance. There, you can figure out the schedule and see what you want to see and maybe get a pass for the whole festival, which is what Russ Collins always says is the best way to go about experiencing a film festival. Thank you so much for coming in today. I really appreciate it. And we wish you well.

Leslie Raymond: Thank you so much, David.

David Fair: That is Leslie Raymond, the executive director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Kicks off opening night. Tuesday, March 22nd runs through Sunday, March 27th. Make sure you check out some portion of it. I'm David Fair, and this has been Cinema Chat on your community NPR Station 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti.

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Nearly three-quarters of David Fair’s 20+ years in radio has been at WEMU. Since 1994, he has been on the air at 5am each weekday on 89.1 FM as the local host of NPR’s Morning Edition. Over the years, Fair has had the opportunity to interview nationally and internationally known politicians, activists and celebrities. But he feels the most important features and interviews have been with those who live and work here at home. He believes his professional passions and desires fit perfectly into WEMU’s commitment to serving a local audience.
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