As the COVID-19 pandemic took over news feeds in early March, BendFilm was putting the finishing touches on a new event—the Indie Womxn Film Festival. Theaters around town were booked and the festival would coincide with Women’s History Month and local marches. But, the planned event full of women’s stories and female filmmakers would have to wait another year. “It was a big bummer,” said Todd Looby, executive director of BendFilm, which organizes the annual BendFilm Festival each fall and operates the Tin Pan Theatre. The theater was abruptly shut down March 12, and the organization’s activities paused. But, only for a moment.
Within weeks, BendFilm was gracefully adjusting to a new normal—launching online movie rentals, facilitating community-building conversations and making plans for a drive-in movie experience in Bend. While certain portions of the organization’s work were altered, their mission—engaging the community in powerful conversations and through meaningful independent films—suddenly became as apparent as ever. “In this age of COVID when we have to be socially distant, we’re still seeing an avenue to create those conversations,” Looby said. “We can get around these social divides and bring people together.”
While BendFilm had considered online film rentals in the past, there wasn’t a strong platform for it. “We had wanted to do more stuff online, but the technology wasn’t great, and there were legal hiccups to get the rights of movies,” Looby said. “COVID hits and all of a sudden the audience demand is there, and people wanted to see new stuff online.” Film distributors and platform developers suddenly got to work, and organizations like BendFilm were able to roll out online movie rental programs.
Another initiative that had been on the backburner until COVID was an idea for online conversations with filmmakers. BendFilm started these livestreams in late March and noticed people were tuning in. “We had all this interest now, and they were getting really good engagement,” Looby said. While the organization continued to plan livestreams with the arts community, they also hosted local business owners to talk about the pandemic’s impacts and had conversations with teachers about distance learning.
When the news of George Floyd’s death overtook headlines in late May, BendFilm was quick to use their platform to facilitate more community dialogue, hosting a livestream with artist and activist Andrea Maria Vazquez Fernandez, who had organized some of the early Black Lives Matter protests in Bend, and Erika McCalpine, a business instructor at OSU-Cascades who has helped lead community conversations about race. “It was just a really great, enlightened conversation,” Looby said.
As the economy gradually reopened this summer, BendFilm continued to innovate with new ways to engage the community—launching socially distant screenings outside in Tin Pan Alley and hosting drive-in movies outside Deschutes Brewery, something Looby had been working towards since the first days after the shutdown.
This fall, BendFilm’s annual festival might look a little different, with lessened capacity at theaters around Bend and more online offerings, but Looby remains optimistic the show will go on in whatever ways are appropriate. He’s hopeful they’ll virtually host some high-level directors and cinematographers who’d been unable to attend the festival in the past because of the travel and time commitment, as well as virtual attendees. “We’re hopefully going to engage an audience from around the country,” Looby said.
The 17th Annual BendFilm Festival is scheduled for October 8 to 11. Learn more at bendfilm.org.