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Dam Short Film Festival, and others, contend with COVID

Lee Lanier spent most of last year planning two film festivals. One in person, the other virtual.

In November, though, Lanier and his team had to make the difficult decision: For the second year in a row, The Dam Short Film Festival would not be filling its longtime home, the Boulder Theatre, but would exist only online.

“We hoped to be in the theater,” Lanier says of the festival that runs Feb. 10 to 14, “but we just weren’t able to swing it this year for a number of reasons.”

New variants. Social distancing. Changing rules — and public opinions — on the need for masks and vaccines. The festival committee didn’t just have to worry about keeping its guests safe, but protecting its volunteer workforce, as well.

“It’s very difficult,” Lanier says, “to design something like a public event when the world’s kind of unstable.”

No consensus on local fests

Each of Southern Nevada’s long-running film festivals is charting its own course through the pandemic.

The Nevada Women’s Film Festival, which has scheduled its ninth installment for June, moved online the past two years after a slight delay when its 2020 edition was supposed to begin March 19, during COVID-19’s initial onslaught.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Las Vegas Black Film Festival barely missed a beat. It soldiered on, in person, in August 2020 when movie theaters were still shuttered and gatherings were capped at 50. The festival converted to a hybrid live-virtual format last April and is due back at the Suncoast for its ninth version from April 21 to 24.

For Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival director Joshua Abbey, virtual screenings have been the only option that makes sense.

“My audience is 70 percent over 70 (years old),” he says. “Just in good conscience, I don’t feel comfortable bringing a full house together of people in that age group, regardless of their status. I just don’t think that’s appropriate yet.”

Rather than stacking January with several online screenings, as was the case with the in-person event, Abbey’s spread movies throughout the calendar. Up next is the art documentary “Hyman Bloom: The Beauty of All Things” from Feb. 26 to 28. (The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Dr. Miriam Adelson and is a sponsor, as is the Adelson Family Foundation, of the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival.)

Even in a post-pandemic world, Abbey says he’ll still probably only host one or two live screenings, hopefully with high-profile films and famous guests, that can fund the rest of the season.

“It’s really distilled itself into a monthly series,” he says of the festival, which launched in 2002, “which gives me a lot more ability to really choose exceptional films to present, (films) that I feel are relevant to issues of the moment.”

Then there’s the Las Vegas Film Festival, which simply hit the pause button.

“We were kind of just getting into our stride of having the financial wherewithal to get the event to where it needed to be,” says president Milo Kostelecky, “and then all these things happened at once.”

The pandemic not only made gatherings problematic, but Brenden Theatres, which the festival had been using, has remained locked away inside the Palms since the shutdown. The biggest setback, though, may have been what Kostelecky calls “the horrible, unfortunate events with losing Tony Hsieh,” who he says was the festival’s largest benefactor.

Hsieh’s death led organizers to re-evaluate everything about the festival. Now it’s in a holding pattern waiting for its new home, downtown’s Beverly Theater, to open. Kostelecky calls the theater “a perfect fit” for what the festival has been trying to achieve, as well as a “future catalyst” that would give the fest “a new identity.”

Until then, he says, moving things online never seemed like a good fit.

“There’s a lot of great events around the world that are doing the virtual thing,” he acknowledges. “We wouldn’t stand out by any means.”

Hope for a return to normalcy

Given its traditional February dates, Dam Short’s organizers had almost a year to let other festivals work the kinks out of online screenings.

“It went surprisingly well,” Lanier says of the 2021 fest. “We had people tell us that it was the best virtual event they’d attended.”

For its 18th installment, Dam Short is doing what it can to replicate the feel of an in-person festival, regardless of where people are watching. The 147 films are once again curated into themed blocks — animation, comedy, documentary, drama, horror, international, music video, Nevada, sci-fi and underground — while filmmakers will participate in online discussions. A virtual lounge is being set up on Discord.

Screenings go live the morning of Feb. 10. Tickets for each block are $14, with household passes, which include all 23 blocks, going for $140. Each block, once unlocked, is viewable for five days. (For more information, see damshortfilm.org.)

As for the movies themselves, Lanier says the quality remains high at this year’s Dam Short, even if there were fewer films from which to choose. A stockpile of movies produced before the pandemic made the festival rounds last year, he says. Lanier suspects the ability to go out and shoot early in the pandemic, as well as filmmakers who may have lost their day jobs, contributed to fewer films in circulation this time.

“Also, I think people might be holding on in hopes that it returns to physical festivals,” he says. “Because I think for some people, they don’t necessarily want to have their film virtual, they want to have it in the theater.”

Even though the virtual format has its benefits — filmmakers from around the world who wouldn’t necessarily travel to Boulder City can participate, while patrons can watch the films at their convenience — Lanier wants to have those films in the theater, as well.

“Virtual’s great,” he concedes, “but we look forward to getting it back in the theater. And we hope to do that in 2023.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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