Never let the city with big shoulders down.
The 2021 edition of the Chicago Critics Film Festival returns after a Covid-induced postponement of the 2020 edition. Unlike in years past going a full week, the 2021 edition will be a weekend long affair, abbreviated, but still to be held at the beautiful Music Box Theater on the north side of Chicago, this Friday, November 12 through Sunday, November 14.
One thing remains constant after all these years: the CCFF is the only known film festival curated, programmed and operated by a critics organization.
Unlike most film festivals reopening in a post-Covid world, striving to adapt like anyone else, the 2021 CCFF will carry zero virtual showings. The majority of the films shown are seen by the festival producers at other larger fests, such as Sundance of SXSW, so virtual is a keen one for them given the size, scope and number of global attendees in a time where the pandemic still continues.
Festival producer and Chicago Film Critics Association Events Director Erik Childress indicated that only a brief consideration for virtual options came up during the planning stages of this year's edition, with safety being the top priority. Ultimately, the CCFF was determined to be a different type of animal compared to, say, the Toronto FIlm Festival.
"Ultimately, when you consider what this festival is all about, virtual was never really a consideration," Childress said. "Our festival was always about bringing films to the people in our community who otherwise would not have the time nor travel expenses available to them to experience these grand festivals across the world that many of us, as critics, get an opportunity to."
With an obvious draw being the jewel that is the Music Box, having a virtual CCFF would only have them become the same tune as everyone else.
"I think we would just blend into the mix instead of something unique to moviegoers that we have been doing well before the pandemic began," Childress said.
With health and safety being of utmost importance, the CCFF will abide with the Chicago masking mandate as well as the private Music Box policy of requiring proof of vaccination. A physical or digital form of the card must be presented to gain entry.
One of the great aspects of the CCFF was the stars and filmmakers coming to the windy city to share the passion of promoting a film a critics group was equally over the moon for. Obviously, with Covid still raging and future question marks, the festival producers were keenly aware of that being a strong obstacle. However, according to Childress, it became more about the few festivals back up and running also asking some of the same talent that the CCFF wanted.
"It became more about their already busy scheduling than direct safety concerns," he said.
One other obstacle became timing. The question, as Childress put: When could we mount an event where everyone, including ourselves, felt it was safe to do so? Plus, putting it in a weekend of November puts it as part of the usual festival circuit, after such larger ones like Toronto of the Chicago International Film Festival.
"In May when we normally have it there’s a nice cushion between the first quarter festivals and an entire summer where the next swath of major festivals are planning rather than performing," Childress said. "So while in some ways there is a larger pool of films to consider, the risk of that pool being drained quicker was always on our mind. Thankfully we continue to have some great partners at the studios who kept us on their mind."
With filmmaking undergoing significant changes in a pandemic-laced world, so, too, has the consumption of films. Streamers pounced at the opportunity when theaters initially shuttered--some, even permanently. Did that mean that the streaming platforms saw an opportunity to come calling more than the traditional studios? According to Childress, the time spent in a movie theater still has branding power across the board.
"I think in the back of every studio’s mind, not just the streamers, that there is still something special about theatrical experience," he said. "Our relationship with the studios only continues to grow. We’re only interested in the best of films, not where they will ultimately play."
The CCFF has seen a growth in past editions that included streaming studios supplying films to show, like Amazon Prime. This year, for example, has two of the three opening night films belonging to Netflix.
Still, the Music Box is a significant draw and cannot be "tossed aside," as Childress puts it.
"The Music Box IS the theatrical experience everyone talks about as they rhapsodize about what may be getting lost with the growth of streaming," he added.
In the end, Childress sees a bright future for the CCFF, sharing the optimism of many and hoping to put this "nightmarish past year-and-a-half in the rearview mirror."
"We are so gracious to hear what people on both the attendee side as well as at the studio level think about what we are doing with this festival," he said. "The niche we have carved out – which still has not been matched since we began in 2013 – has grown in ways that we would never have dreamed when we were just a little startup weekend festival in the suburbs.
"And as you will find out at this year’s event, we are not going away anytime soon."
The 2021 Chicago Critics Film Festival opens on Friday, Nov. 12 at the Music Box Theater, closing on Sunday, Nov. 14. Full details, including the schedule and ticket info, can be found at: https://www.chicagocriticsfilmfestival.com/