How Fantastic Fest Is Adapting to COVID (Again)

Tim League on doing business in Texas and upgrading FF’s home viewing experience


On September 2, the team at Fantastic Fest dropped a bit of a bomb on their film community. With just a few short weeks remaining before this year's in-person festival, the organizers had been forced to make some tough trade-offs. Out went badges and the highly publicized vaccine requirements; in came buffered seating and multivenue contact tracing. And while these changes may not have been the most popular with badge holders, as our conversation with festival co-founder and Creative Director Tim League suggests, this is just the price of doing business in Texas in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.

One of the biggest surprises – at least for those unfamiliar with Texas politics – was the decision to walk back the festival's vaccine requirements. The festival's original mandate of "no vaccine, no Fantastic Fest, no exceptions," was destined to come in conflict with the recently passed Senate Bill 968, which issued harsh penalties for businesses requiring vaccine passports. Just days after the Fantastic Fest press release went public, two Austin-based restaurants backed off their own vaccine requirements after the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission suggested their liquor licenses might be at stake.

"It's unfortunate, but there's state regulations that we have to abide by to be in business in Texas," League acknowledges. "We still strongly prefer a vaccine, but we will accept a negative COVID test within 24 hours [from a] certified lab."

To that end, the changes that the festival has made – from staggered seating to screenings taking place across multiple venues – represent the team's best efforts to pivot safely for this year's attendees. And unlike other festivals, which are often partnering with a variety of film venues, League believes his secret weapon is the Drafthouse itself. "We've spent a lot of time putting together a safe protocol for people returning to the movies, either with online ordering, the buffered seating, just the sanitization, the facility upkeep, and air purification. We have a leg up there because it's our core business."

Of course, the challenges of running a film festival in a pandemic go beyond the audience. Many of the administrative aspects of Fantastic Fest have been adapted to meet the new normal as well. Even last year – when Fantastic Fest operated in an entirely virtual format – League notes that the global footprint of the festival's programming team allowed them to adjust to a post-COVID industry with relative ease. "The good thing about the Fantastic Fest programming team is it is very international," League notes. "We have somebody in Hong Kong, we have several people in Europe, and we're used to communicating virtually on Zoom as a group anyways."

Even now, this combination of technology and interconnectedness has quickly become a core part of the festival. Those choosing not to attend in-person events this year will continue to benefit from the virtual screening room established in 2020. "There was technology that we were testing out and that's been refined over the past year," League says. "So the platform is better and all those sorts of things have accelerated during COVID." The success of the virtual format is also poised to become a permanent part of the festival, with League noting that the virtual edition opens doors to an international community who might otherwise be unable to physically attend.

And while the changes to the COVID protocols and the loss of badges might leave some fans feeling uneasy, League hopes a more traditional ticketing system will allow attendees to both ease into the Fantastic Fest lineup and gauge their comfort level with the festival's COVID safety precautions. "I like the idea of dipping your toe in," League concludes. "Come to see a film and gauge for yourself, and then maybe come and see more throughout the rest of the week." It's not an answer that will satisfy everyone, but in an industry slowly learning to live with the pandemic, it at least provides people with an opportunity to make their own risk assessments.

How to Attend

Fantastic Fest runs in two parts this year: in-person and virtual. Find ticket info at fantasticfest.com, and follow our continuing coverage of the festival at austinchronicle.com/fantastic-fest:

• In-person screenings are Sept. 23-30 at area Alamo Drafthouse locations. Each screening will be ticketed individually, with reserved seating.

• FF@HOME will take place Sept. 30-Oct. 11 on Alamo On Demand, with over 30 films from the current festival lineup, plus a special curation of festival films from years past.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Fantastic Fest 2021, Tim League, COVID-19, Alamo Drafthouse

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