Forum, October 2021

Co-Creation for a Virtual Environmental Film Festival, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ZOOM


  • Ann Michel

  • Patricia R. Zimmermann

At the July 2021 online Film Festival Alliance conference, not one panelist longed for a return to in-person screenings.

Yes, we missed parties and socializing, but panelists assumed there was no going back to fully embodied festivals after immersion in the collaborative affordances of virtual platforms.

COVID jump-started a new co-creative period in the history of film festivals, which have a long history of embodied cinematic collectivity in screenings, master classes, and parties. The pandemic disrupted this model, spurring innovation in festival platforms and delivery. Most festivals plan to remain hybrid, combining in-person and virtual exhibition.

Rather than marginalizing online as inferior, many festivals discovered that virtual exhibition offers unanticipated affordances: expanded international footprints; lengthened, intensified discussions; increased audiences; and greater accessibility.

At the 2021 Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF), going virtual meant evolving from a vertical curatorial model into collaborative horizontal co-creation.

The global COVID pandemic spurred the most significant disruptions in cinema since the coming of sound, the Paramount Decree, cable television, the VCR, and the internet. Across proliferating platforms, corporate systems, and interfaces, cinema adapted readily to virtual environments.

The pandemic required film festivals to reimagine strategies for co-creative exhibition.

To explore FLEFF’s theme of “Infiltrations,” it was necessary to develop a more collaborative producing model with guests and our local art cinema partner, Cinemapolis. We recalibrated our team into a more horizontal model that included our student interns.

Our tagline for 2020, “We Are the Screen,” blossomed out of this realization that our FLEFF team, guests, and participants had become simultaneously the festival and the film.  On the Zoom meeting screen, every participant’s rectangle is the same size. These multiple tiny screens amalgamate. Everyone at a Zoom meeting format event is part of the screen image.

Figure 1. We are the Screen logo designed by Julia Tulke and Jacqueline Das for FLEFF 2021.

We learned to stop worrying and love Zoom.

Early in the pandemic, Zoom emerged as the meeting and webinar platform of choice. It was reliable and easy to use with built-in accessibility features and data reporting. FLEFF expanded from one week to three and transitioned to 100% virtual.

We were freed from geographical constraints. No travel budget?  No problem. We were liberated from the concerns of limited theater availability at Cinemapolis. Attendees could screen films on virtual cinema any time within a one-week run before the weekend talkbacks.

This transition demanded redesign for scalability and pandemic budget cutbacks. Once the FLEFF films and events were programmed, we transformed our guests and viewers into collaborators. This concept drove all design decisions.

During FLEFF 2021, we learned that in the Zoom lexicon, the audience is gone. Instead, everyone is a participant. Curators and programmers subordinated individual vision and instead privileged people, communities, and ideas.

Figure 2. Tuba player international flash mob for the album launch of David Earll’s Winding Pathway at the 24th Annual Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, April 8, 2021.

For over a year, most theaters were shuttered.

Many art cinemas and festivals moved to virtual screenings deploying user-friendly platforms like Eventive. They discovered boutique distributors and independent filmmakers eager for screening opportunities and audiences hungry for more than Netflix.

Theaters remained open only with limited capacity. Art cinemas instituted private parties where small groups could rent a theater. Festivals mounted outdoor cinemas and drive-ins for embodied cinematic experiences. The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) CinemaSafe initiative promoted public health protocols of cleaning, distancing, and viewing that exceeded most state guidelines.

Our festival team combined hospitality industry protocols with our experience in film and event production. Hospitality, or the “Guest Experience,” is a major tenet in the hotel world. The “Guest Cycle” divides the customer’s experience into three distinct phases that facilitate a welcoming environment: Joining, Live Viewing, and Departure.

To push the hospitality metaphor a bit more, we began by building an accessible and content-rich festival infrastructure. Collaborative planning and preparation meetings with guests preceded every event.

We assembled a co-creation production team to develop and execute the participants’ “Guest Experience,” which also aligns with the field of experience design that puts users front and center. This back-of-the-house team included festival directors, Zoom producers, technicians, chat wranglers, invited presenters, and moderators. We wanted to deepen the live participatory experience.

Due to Zoom inadequacies, we did not roll films or clips. Presenters were coached to speak concisely and interact with viewers. We chose the Meetings function where all could be seen rather than the Webinar format, which privileged presenters and excluded spectators.

Zoom uses the word “participant,” and we did too. Participants had registered, arrived, could view others, and be seen. We could spotlight them into the discussions. They could chat privately and publicly, pose questions, and stay on for an informal after-party.

Our presenters and moderators co-created their events with the FLEFF team.

Ann Michel and Phil Wilde, principals of Insights International and longtime FLEFF producers, designed an online FLEFF 2021 event entitled “From ADA to Artificial Intelligence to Outer Space” based on co-creation principles.

They chose friends who knew the subject and each other: Tracy Minish, a blind NASA Mission Control manager; John Robinson, a disability activist and designer of AI job placement software; and Nij Suri, who helped John demo his software. Ann and Phil had featured these charismatic guests in some of their documentaries on disability issues.

Figure 3. Back-end crew, producers, and festival staff setting up for festival panel on “Disability, Outer Space, and Artificial Intelligence” with John Robinson and Tracy Minish, 24th Annual Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, April 2, 2021.

The group brainstormed the flow of events, generating a detailed timing script. John would call on Nij to pose questions about the AI software. Zoom recording and closed captioning features were activated. The event’s goal: be welcoming and fun.

To keep it lively, moderators Ann and Phil and the two presenters continuously interacted. Our team chat wranglers posted welcome messages, bios, links, and quotes pulled from speakers’ statements. As participants departed, they received a PDF file of the entire chat. Later, we posted the recording to the FLEFF website.

For people with disabilities, the virtual environment offers many advantages: Access for mobility impaired participants and captioning to assist the hearing-impaired, non-native English speakers those in noisy environments, and writers needing quotes.

With this hospitality model, collaborative online events can build community.

As we quarantine, limit travel, mask, are denied entry into certain countries, self-isolate at home, get tested, and encounter continual public health adjustments for in-person events, documentary film festival exhibition has undergone enormous disruptions requiring recalibration.

This historical time of COVID has produced unprecedented change and anxieties, but also unrestrained optimism for the unknown.

Co-creation principles push the documentary ecology to invent a more engaged, inviting, and collaborative exhibition experience.

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Ann Michel, former President of the Board of Trustees of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, is President of Insights International, a documentary and interactive media company in Ithaca and New York City. She directs, writes, and edits works about technology transfer, science education, engineering, disability, children, and social issues. Insights produces video, builds websites, and creates media for theatrical productions. The company’s clientele has included Cornell University, the National Gallery of Art, Finnair, Program for Workplace Systems, and NASA. Insights International has served as festival producer for the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival for twenty years.

Patricia R. Zimmermann is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Screen Studies and Director of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival at Ithaca College. Her most recent books include Flash Flaherty: Tales from a Film Seminar (2021); Documentary Across Platforms: Reverse Engineering Media, Place, and Politics (2019); Open Space New Media Documentary: A Toolkit for Theory and Practice (2018); The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema (2017); and Thinking Through Digital Media:  Transnational Environments and Locative Places (2015). With Louis Massiah of Scribe Video Center, she is co-programmer of the national touring exhibition We Tell: Fifty Years of Participatory Community Media.

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