How do you premiere your movie and navigate festivals during COVID-19?
In these trying times—just kidding. Going through the festival process in the midst of COVID is a very different situation than the one we anticipated finding ourselves a year ago, though. With a low-budget indie feature, we knew how competitive the festival landscape was going to be when we started applying. I couldn’t possibly have imagined how different that would look 6 months later.
My movie is called Milkwater.
The story follows Milo who, seeking direction and purpose, rashly decides to become a surrogate and egg donor for an older gay man she meets in a bar. However, as Milo becomes increasingly attached to him, she starts leveraging the pregnancy as a means of staying embedded in his life.
The film stars Molly Bernard (Younger), Patrick Breen (Madam Secretary, A Series of Unfortunate Events), Robin de Jesus, Ade Otukoya, and Ava Eisenson.
In the midst of post, we faced a difficult decision: should we start submitting to larger festivals with a picture lock that hadn’t yet gone through sound design, color correction, and VFX, or should we push a whole calendar year and begin applying once festival submissions kicked off in the late fall? We ultimately decided to wait a year, which we didn’t know at the time would land us squarely in the middle of COVID-19.
We were supposed to premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival, followed by the Brooklyn Film Festival, however, Atlanta pushed their dates to September in hopes of hosting the event in person. Brooklyn decided to maintain its original dates but go online for the festival. We’ll also be screening at the Lighthouse Film Festival in June, which is showing much of its lineup at drive-in movie theaters.
While a festival run can be useful in terms of access to distributors or press generation, in my opinion, they really serve as a cathartic release for the filmmakers. Socialization bookends the filmmaking process—you begin with a crew working long hours and investing creatively as a unit, and then you go through months of post-production which is often a tedious and lonely process.
Filmmaking is inherently a social art, and that’s one of the reasons I fell in love with it. I tried to find a serious BTS photo of me looking like a badass director from all of our set stills for this article, and realized in every single one I’m laughing or screwing around with the cast and crew.
I love set, and I love people. The ability to gather together to celebrate the film at the end seems like a right and necessary final chapter in the process. Not being able to celebrate two years of work with the people who helped me do it, who poured as much of themselves into the story as I did, is the most heartbreaking part of festival cancellations.
With that being said, the unanticipated silver lining is my ability to share the film with a much broader audience. A free online screener gives access to so many more people than a festival can naturally accommodate. I’m able to share it with my family across the country and my friends across the world.
I have truly been struck by the creativity that has arisen from so many festival programming teams amidst COVID. Between Instagram live sessions, recorded interviews, online rating systems, and the wonderful idea to screen films at drive-in theaters, it’s inspiring to see people banding together to make this festival season something that, if different, is still reflective of the immense amounts of work that has gone into independent filmmaking in the past two years.
I’d be lying if I said this is the reality I envisioned or wanted for Milkwater when I called “action” on the first shot outside a guitar store in Queens in October of 2018. But I also didn’t envision having the cops called on us by some angry men in deep V-necks giving off Property Brothers vibes on our first day of shooting. It happened. It’s all a part of the fabric of the film.
At the end of the day, the loss of a normal festival run feels more like a loss for selfish emotional reasons than practical ones.
I don’t think screening online significantly reduces our access to distributors, and if anything, content seems to be in higher demand now that the proverbial pause button has been pushed on film production. I’m genuinely happy that this platform allows for more of our cast and crew’s loved ones to engage in and celebrate the festival circuit with us. And when festivals do happen again, hopefully we can all truly appreciate the gift of being together and celebrating one another’s art.
MILKWATER will have its World Premiere at the 2020 Brooklyn Film Festival, which will be held virtually this year from May 29th through June 7th.