Outfest Charts Online Territory in Midst of Pandemic

Newly anointed Outfest Executive Director Damien Navarro has his work cut out for him.

In mid-March, Navarro, the first Latino executive director for Outfest, oversaw their annual Fusion Film Festival for filmmakers of color at the Aratani Theater in downtown LA. Opening night’s screening kicked off a slew of humorous and provocative short films and afterwards, a party ensued in the courtyard with a vodka host bar and free delicious gourmet food trucks.

The Fusion Festival lasted five days with screenings of more than 40 films throughout Los Angeles. It appeared that Navarro’s reign was off to a great start, and then two days later on March 19, the bottom fell out for Californians when Governor Newsom shut down the state with stay at home orders.

Fusion’s successful celebration would be bittersweet as the Corona virus not only put its summer festival into jeopardy, but also put Outfest’s various theatrical screenings and its filmmaking programs that take place throughout the year on hold.

Navarro was specifically tapped to expand Outfest’s footprint nationally, globally and digitally for the next five years, and with that directive, he didn’t skip a beat even with a state lockdown. Like zillions of canceled live events across the planet, Outfest turned to the Internet to hold virtual events.

Outfest’s premiere Watch Party and live panel discussion took place five weeks into the lockdown. Navarro ingeniously partnered up with Netflix to stream the 2019 documentary Circus of Books.

Last July, Outfest opened up their festival with director Rachel Mason’s film about Silver Lake’s iconic bookstore, now available to watch on Netflix.

Mason cleverly captures a historical LA queer moment by telling her story through the eyes of her parents, the owners of the infamous porno/bookshop shop. Most people do not know that the owners were a straight Jewish couple with children.

Nearly 60,000 viewers tuned in to the live panel discussion to hear Mason and her parents discuss their remarkable and ironic story. Clearly, the defunct bookstore turned out to be a nostalgic cache for those that fondly remember the neighborhood business that operated for more than 40 years.

Navarro’s greatest challenge, however, is yet to come. “This year Outfest has to be as flexible and agile as it possibly can,” says Navarro. “If we’re just planning for Outfest as it normally is, we along with everyone else will likely be sorely disappointed.”

Unfortunately, just going with the social distancing flow doesn’t cut it either when one is trying to plan for 250 film screenings throughout Los Angeles. The first thing Outfest has done to reflect these unsettling times is to push the festival back to August 20th through the 30th.

Navarro explains, “If you look at the scientific models, most of them show that we are going to be fully open and operational in almost every state by late August.”

But even with the anticipation of Los Angeles opening up by the summer’s end, Navarro insists on proceeding with caution.

“We haven’t made any concrete decisions. We’re curating the festival as we always have, but we’re looking at lots of different options.”

Navarro decided to create a planning pyramid of the things the festival is known for, against a backdrop of what the festival will be allowed to do publically.  And then there has to be a way to reach those who would prefer to stay home to watch these films.

At the base of that pyramid are the actual venues that will be available to screen films. Navarro is looking into which theaters are confident enough to reserve screenings for August.

The other issue the Executive Director faces will be which venues are going to have the ability to provide the type of social distancing that will probably still be required at some length. And psychologically, what will the public be willing to experience by the end of August? Just because the theatres open, doesn’t mean people will flock to them.

At the top of the planning pyramid is streaming films into people’s homes with platforms like Youtube, Tribeca, and Amazon.  “We’re also currently looking at a partnership with Vimeo to launch our own multifaceted channel,” states Navarro.

Opening and closing night of the festival could also look very different, Navarro admits, with a hybrid between a live party and an at home party option with packages provided by Outfest. Navarro wants Outfest moviegoers to celebrate the end of the lockdown with whatever they feel most comfortable doing. To achieve that goal, Navarro wants to have a strong, much more advanced digital version of his festival so people can download a packet or curate their own version of the festival.

“I want to make the films as accessible to as many community groups as possible, not just by streaming the films, but by downloading an Outfest gift packet of screeners. It’s about bringing people together to watch incredible content.”