While Missoula’s annual International Wildlife Film Festival had to move to an online format this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event had its biggest reach yet, selling passes in nearly every state and 25 different countries. Now, the Roxy Theater-based nonprofit is looking at options for tacking on the virtual offering as a permanent component for years to come.
“Using a virtual festival as sort of a more sustainable model of connecting with more people and connecting with people from far away in a more responsible manner is appealing,” said IWFF director Carrie Richer. “We’re not going to make any serious decisions right now about next year obviously because who knows where we’ll be, but I think we probably will consider doing a virtual package again.”
This, of course, would be in addition to bringing back the in-person event as it’s traditionally been held, she added.
“That is something we would never compromise or give up, but it would be really cool to tag on three or four days after those live screenings where people could soak up more films or get to see the films they didn’t see, or where people from far away could feel like they’re part of the festival.”
This year, some 1,600 passes were sold for the weeklong event that featured more than 80 films from around the world. Richer said the virtual nature of the festival allowed filmmakers to engage people in their hometowns, giving the IWFF a farther reach than it had in the past.
“It really became international and I think that’s because so many of our filmmakers from this year, and years past, are international and so they just shared with their communities and it became a cool global thing,” Richer said, adding they had some films come out of nowhere with large amounts of views and realized the filmmakers had been promoting links to their festival screenings via Facebook and Instagram.
“We had this one film, ‘Wild and Wool,’ and it had more views than anyone else,” Richer said, adding the Bozeman-based filmmakers wracked up more than 4,000 views on their 20-minute short film about the interaction between bighorn sheep and domestic herds in the American West. “They just did such a great job of telling people about the event and sharing the link really well and I think it just shows you the power of social media and word of mouth.”
With more than 50 of the films offered for free, the accessibility factor was key in getting as many people to tune in as possible. Passes were offered on a sliding scale with a minimum cost of $5, but Richer suspects many people paid more than just the baseline number.
“I think the model of paying what you can and a sliding scale is a really powerful model … people who can pay a little more will pay a little more,” she said. “We came out looking really good, especially considering we didn’t have as many hard expenses because we didn’t have to wine and dine and rent a venue and print a big brochure — all stuff that is kind of important for a live film festival experience.”
Organizers were surprised at how well the live events held via Facebook, Zoom and YouTube were attended, and said those aspects helped mimic the in-person festival.
The film “Tigerland,” a Sundance selection on tiger conservation, won the Best of Festival award and Richer said the timing couldn’t be better considering the entire world was binge-watching the Netflix documentary “Tiger King.”
“We didn’t really want to directly talk about ‘Tiger King,’ but we did want to make a big deal about reflecting what a movie could do in terms of tiger protections and those issues that were really an important part of that story, but got lost in the spectacle of ‘Tiger King.’”
In addition, the film has Oscar-winning animations and graphics that Richer described as the best she’s ever seen.
All in all, the virtual IWFF wracked up more than 49,000 views, signaling to organizers that it’s a viable option for the future.
“We have lots of people asking us to do it again and just thanking us for making it available online,” Richer said. “I think people watched more movies than they really ever have, which is really cool.”