The Scottsdale International Film Festival was getting ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, and Amy Ettinger, the executive director and founder, was excited due to the positive feedback she received after the 2019 festival. They were set to put on a festival with 80-100 films over the course of 10 days.
During the February board meeting, Amy posed a question, “Have you been paying attention to this thing called coronavirus?” The room was split about whether to develop a “plan B” if things got worse, deciding instead to wait until the March meeting to discuss it further. Before they could have their next meeting, the decision had been made for them. This year, the festival would have to be virtual.
Amy says that it’s in a film festival director’s DNA to be extremely limber and that the first time the Scottsdale International Film Festival ran was 17 days after 9-11.
“You know, we made lemonade then. And we’re making lemonade now,” she says.
Fortunately, Amy is a member of the nonprofit Film Festival Alliance, a consortium of film festivals from around the country that immediately offered assistance.
“It was such a lifeline because had I just been here trying to figure it out on my own … there were hundreds and hundreds of decisions to make, which I wouldn’t have even thought about,” she says. The group held weekly meetings to coach film festival directors across the country to successfully go virtual.
Amy has discovered a few benefits to having a virtual festival. One is that anyone with accessibility or transportation issues can now attend. “There are a lot of people who we found out wanted to come to the festival and haven’t been able to,” she says.
Another advantage is that the films are available 24 hours a day for the five days the festival runs so that you can create your own experience. Whenever you want to watch, you can. And thanks to technology, Q&A sessions with the filmmakers will be added to the end of the film.
“I was able to pull together the 20 films that I had targeted because if you think about it, it’s our 20th year and it’s 2020, and I wanted 20 films,” says Amy. “So, there’s this beautiful poetry that I was going for, a symmetry if you will.”
Two of the films in this year’s lineup have a Jewish theme.
The first one, “Aulcie,” tells the inspiring story of Aulcie Perry, a basketball player from Harlem who led Maccabi Tel Aviv to an upset win in the European Championship in 1977. After the season, Aulcie Perry converted to Judaism, adopted the Hebrew name Elisha Ben Avraham, and became an Israeli citizen. The producer of the film is Nancy Spielberg (Steven’s sister) and will be featured in a Q&A after the film.
The second film, “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” is based on the real-life story by Judith Kerr.
It takes place during World War II and follows nine-year-old Anna as she is forced to leave her favorite stuffed pink rabbit behind and uproot her entire existence as her family flees to safety first in Switzerland and later to Paris.
“My heart swells with pride at the quality of the films,” shares Amy. “COVID or not, I didn’t want to do a festival if I couldn’t put solid, really strong films there.”
And Amy has achieved this goal based on feedback she has received from the Phoenix Film Critics Society. The society is the voting board that decides the best film, best screenplay, best documentary, best actor and actress.
“They keep sending back comments indicating to me that they are very happy with the film selection, and someone on the jury said, ‘It’s the best stuff I’ve watched all year.’ We are just so starved for great content,” says Amy.
The Scottsdale International Film Festival will run from Nov. 6-10, and tickets are on sale now at scottsdalefilmfestival.com. VIP passes will be available until Nov. 5 until 5 pm. During the festival, only individual tickets will be available for purchase.