After about 18 months away, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (AJFF) is headed back to theaters. 

It wasn’t a decision taken lightly. The last time the AJFF was fully in person was February 2020, just before COVID-19 hit the United States. In 2021, the festival came back with virtual screenings and even offered drive-in events – but sitting in your car is not quite the same as being back in a movie theater. 

Now, just a few months after their annual festival, AJFF has decided to take the plunge and come back to movie theaters with their August mini fest, AJFF North. The Reporter talked to AJFF Executive Director Kenny Blank about being flexible during the pandemic and the decision to come back.

Kenny Blank, the executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.

Let’s start with last year. You were able to have the festival in person in 2020, it was right before things got really serious. Do you remember thinking about COVID at all during that time?

Kenny Blank: We were very fortunate. Our 20th anniversary festival, we were able to get it in just prior to COVID getting a foothold in the United States. When the festival is ongoing, at that time of course, it’s all hands on deck. Everyone is so consumed with the event itself and audiences are engaged in the film. COVID seemed like this far away thing in another land, and we were really focused on the festival. 

But I do remember some conversations that were happening in the lobby of the theater and amongst our staff on closing night – wow, this COVID thing is coming and what’s going to happen next – and then sure enough, very quickly within days after our closing night in February 2020, that’s when we first started hearing reports about cases breaking out the United States. We were starting planning for our next in-person movie event happening in that spring, and that’s when things started to shut down. It was a very surreal time, and as I said at the beginning, we just felt very fortunate that we had this last coming together of community and our audience. We were certainly probably one of the last big events in the city before things shut down.

When things did get serious, do you remember thinking that this had the potential to affect the 2021 festival? 

Blank: I think now looking back at it, it seems obvious that there was no way the festival was going to proceed as usual. I think in those early weeks, all of us, we had no idea what we were in store for. Clearly [with] what’s going on now with the Delta variant, we still don’t. It’s still hard to predict where this is headed and where the finish line is. I think initially, we thought surely there would be some impact in our planning process. But in the early weeks, we weren’t sure if next year’s festival was going to be in person. And if it wasn’t in person, what that meant. Would we hibernate and kind of skip a year altogether or try to reinvent the festival experience as we ended up doing? 

You ended up doing a drive-in and virtual combination for the 2021 festival. Was there ever a consideration of trying to do something in person?

Blank: We had the huge benefit of time that a lot of other arts organizations and other festivals did not, because our festival had concluded right when COVID started. We really had a full year to sort of figure out what’s the best path forward, given the set of circumstances and all the unknowns. So we were able to sort of monitor and see what other festivals were doing, how other arts organizations were pivoting and adapting, and to see what the data was showing in terms of how COVID was behaving, [and] how we had to plan around that. We had the benefit of the longest lead time to figure that out. 

We tried to hold open as many different scenarios as we could as late as we could. I think we’ve all had to learn to build flexibility into our planning for everything, no matter what sector you’re in. Certainly that has become our mantra at the festival – planning with flexibility in mind, and we’re already doing that for next year’s festival. Given events of the recent weeks, we very much hope and anticipate a return to being in theaters, married with a continuation of the virtual experience for those who want that option. But knowing we have to be prepared to modify that balance based on what conditions are like at that time.

Do you think the virtual option will persist whether or not COVID gets better sooner? 

Blank:  I think virtual is here to stay. Frankly in our industry and the movie-going experience, that was already here before the pandemic. There was already this move towards more and more audiences watching films through streaming. It’s a little bit generational, but a little bit just audience behaviors and preferences. There’s a lot of different things competing for people’s time and attention now. Some people, like me, are traditionalists who like to go to the movies. We like our movie theater popcorn and seeing these movies the way they’re intended to be seen on the big screen. But many audiences are perfectly content watching these films from the comfort and convenience of home. 

As a film festival – again being somewhat purist about it – we probably resisted that move to streaming for a number of years, and now out of necessity with COVID, we knew we needed to lean into it and embrace it.  A lot of time, energy, and resources were spent last year figuring out how to do virtual right, and I’m very proud of how we delivered the virtual experience for our audience last year.  I think the user experience – the ease of it, the quality of the presentation and how we were able to utilize that platform – was as good as any international festival anywhere. 

We want to carry that innovation forward. Audiences responded to it in a very positive way. Again, I think people want options, and probably as long as the pandemic is with us, need those options to watch films the way they’re most comfortable. So yes, long way of saying, virtual is here to stay for certainly next year, but I think [virtual] can be a permanent part of … a film festival going experience, married with those other kinds of traditional in person experiences.

What was the turnout like for 2021’s festival? 

Blank: That ultimately for us was the biggest measure of success in this pandemic environment. Our number one priority was to take care of our audience – our core audience that’s been with us, has been loyal with us over 20-plus years, our sponsors, our donors. So the final analysis – when we looked at all of the tickets issued, number of eyeballs, people watching these films from home – we actually matched our previous year’s festival attendance. So we believe we were able to largely retain the audience that we have, and hope to build upon that for next year as well.

Moving on to AJFF North. Can you shed some light on the discussion you had behind the scenes as far as returning to in-person screenings? 

Blank: Everything we do, we plan for very intentionally where we can. The idea for AJFF North actually sparked a couple of years ago. The film festival received a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta to bring cultural programming to our north Metro communities. Our annual festival is primarily known as an event for in-town audiences, and Sandy Springs communities, and circumstances do not allow us to always include a venue up in North Fulton County and the sort of northern arc. 

This festival is here to serve the whole community – those audiences up in East Cobb and Alpharetta, Roswell, Johns Creek, Dunwoody – those audiences are very important to us. So this was a really unique opportunity to bring the festival to them in their own backyard, and to really demonstrate our support for those audiences that aren’t necessarily in geographic proximity to our traditional festival venues. That was the Federation’s goal as well; they wanted to provide high quality cultural programming to those audiences and make them feel a part of a larger community. 

We received this grant, and we started the planning process. Then COVID came, so we had to suspend the festival last year, but we saw our window of opportunity here, as movie theaters started to gradually reopen, to push forward with this event. So that’s what we’ve done. Fully recognizing the fluid nature of the situation on the ground with COVID, we wanted to offer this hybrid experience so audiences can continue to watch these films in a virtual cinema, the same way they do the annual festival. But for those audiences that are ready to get back to theaters, to be reconnected with the community, who are vaccinated, or want to mask up and feel safe coming back to theaters, we have this wonderful new partnership with the Aurora Cineplex in Roswell, and we’ll be bringing the same films in person as well.

Have you seen many ticket sales yet? 

Blank: We’ve had a really strong healthy response right out of the gate, given some of the uncertainties and the headlines of recent weeks. I think our audience and particularly the North Metro audiences are eager to see this particular diverse mix of films. We are featuring some brand new releases, films audiences would have never had access to before … and then some classic films and films from our festival vault. It’s a little bit of something for everyone – documentaries, shorts, narratives, family-friendly films.

I think we’re seeing people gravitating both towards the virtual experience and the in-theater experience. I imagine a lot of audiences are taking time to look at the lineup, familiarize themselves with the films, see what’s happening out there in the communities as it relates to COVID, and make a decision closer to the event date about whether they want to come experience this as a virtual event or an in person event.

As far as the films that are coming, is there anything that you’re looking forward to personally? 

Blank: Even in this very compact lineup, [it’s] a really nice, diverse mix of genres, themes, and subjects. We have a classic film like “Keeping Up With the Steins,” which most audiences have probably seen at some point, but may not have seen on the big screen. So [it’s a] chance to go back to theaters and have that escape of something that is purely a fun, light, comedy escape. “Keeping Up With the Steins” is actually celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, so we thought it was a great milestone to bring it back to theaters. 

The short programs are something that are often overlooked at the annual festival, because there are so many great features to see. So this is a chance in the virtual cinema to see some of the best short films we’ve ever had at the festival. These are past jury and audience award winners. 

“The Meaning of Hitler” is a film that is actually truly brand new. It has not been released yet anywhere in theaters or virtual. This is the only chance to see this brand new documentary, which is very timely. It features some interviews with names that will be familiar to our local audiences – Deborah Lipstadt, the famed Holocaust historian of Emory University, is featured in the film. We’ll actually be having a live Q&A discussion in the theater after the film, with some academics and some scholars. That’s always been a priority of the festival, fostering dialogue around these movies, so there’s a chance to do that. 

“Lansky” – we’ve got some star power in this lineup as well with the amazing Harvey Keitel. [“Lansky”] is a very different kind of film. 

It’s hard for me to pick favorites. I always say this with the annual festival, it’s like trying to pick your favorite children. You can’t do it. They’re all special, and they all offer something unique for audiences. 

Are there any other Q&A events with any other film? 

Blank: There will be two Q&As. The “Lansky” Q&A will be virtual, and “The Meaning of Hitler” will be live in the theater. And then there will be recorded introductions for many of the filmmakers. 

In the theater, we’ll have the live Q&A around “The Meaning of Hitler,” which is one of these very provocative films that audiences are definitely going to want to sit with, process, and talk about out loud, so there will be the chance to do that if you come to the Aurora Cineplex for that film. 

There is one other Q&A we’re very excited about, and that’s for “Lansky.” We actually will have the director of “Lansky” in conversation, along with the actor John Magaro who plays the young Lansky and got some great reviews for his performance in this film. For those who don’t know, John Magaro is probably known best for the film … “First Cow.” It’ll be moderated by Jason Evans, who’s a CNN producer and chairs our Film Selection Committee for the annual festival. 

AJFF North will take place Aug. 28-29. The entire line-up and ticket prices can be found on AJFF’s website. 

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.