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Arts & Culture

Coronavirus Forces Cancellation Of San Diego Film Festivals

San Diego Latino Film Festival's website now informs people the festival is being postponed, not canceled.
San Diego Latino Film Festival's website now informs people the festival is being postponed, not canceled.

Organizers address issues of cost, role festivals play in the community

The coronavirus, known as COVID-19, is having a devastating impact on people around the globe. The San Diego arts community has responded by canceling many events.

On March 12, what was to be the opening day of the 27th annual Latino Film Festival, organizers announced that the festival would not be taking place following California Gov. Gavin Newsom placing a ban on public gathering of more than 250 people.

The coronavirus, known as COVID-19, is having a devastating impact on people around the globe. The World Health Organization labeled it a pandemic and countries are scrambling to figure out ways to keep people safe. These very real health issues take precedence during a crisis like this, but there are also peripheral problems that can also arise.


The San Diego arts community has responded by canceling many events.

UPDATE 10:30 a.m., March 16, 2020

Another San Diego film festival, FilmOut has also decided to postpone planned dates for its festival and reschedule.

Filmmakers received this notification late last week: "Due to the novel Coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak and the recommendation from the California Department of Public Health, FilmOut San Diego has decided to postpone our scheduled film festival from April 30–May 3, 2020, to a later date in the fall. We appreciate your understanding with this difficult decision, but the safety of our filmmakers, attendees and staff must take priority. At this time our film schedule is finished and all filmmakers have been notified. Ideally, we would like to keep our selected films and just delay the festival until the fall. However, we do realize this might interfere with your schedule or rollout of your film. If you would like to withdraw your film from our festival, please contact Michael McQuiggan at the email below to let us know. Once again we apologize for this inconvenience. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and be in touch with new selected dates and confirmation of venue."

FilmOut programmer Michael McQuiggan had just had a monthly screening event last Wednesday and was watching updates while deciding what to do about the upcoming festival.


"What a crazy last few days," McQuiggan said. "On Tuesday evening, we launched our new festival poster with the dates of April 30 to May 3, opening at TheNat with rest of the festival at the Museum of Photographic Arts. On Wednesday we had a near-capacity crowd at our screening of the 25th anniversary of 'Jeffrey,' and on March 15, we were one of the co-presenters for the iSomos! Cine LGBTQ+ Short Tract at the San Diego Latino Film Festival. Then on Thursday came the notice from Gavin Newsom. Cancelations were announced. SDLFF canceled on its opening day (devastating and I can't even fathom the losses) I was back and forth with Brian Hu, since PacArts was scheduled a few weeks before our festival. What should we do? My thoughts were to hang on until at least the first week of April before we actually went to print. I was also looking at the statistics that LGBTQ folks seem to have a heightened risk of acquiring the virus, so ultimately we made the right decision, the inevitable happened and I canceled. Postponed, not canceled. Everybody was supportive and was on board to stay and wait for the outcome of postponement dates. Although, I am not 100% sure what the next several months will bring I am hopeful. After much deliberation with my Executive Director, Kaleb James and board, we negotiated with both of our venues and settled on September 10 through 13 as our postponement dates. The last few days, the Program Directors/Executive Directors from almost every film festival that are currently being affected in San Diego have banded together to discuss options, offer solutions and provide hope.

San Diego Latino Film Festival

Ethan Van Thillo is the founder and executive director of the San Diego Latino Film Festival. The festival made every effort to launch on Thursday and to take every precaution that attendees and filmmakers would be safe. But with the March 12 ban on large public gatherings festival organizers felt it had no choice but to cancel.

"Personally, it’s heartbreaking," Van Thillo said. "For 27 years we’ve struggled to keep our commitment to the community; and present this wonderful event to San Diego-Baja California audiences. We’ve always kept our word; no matter what incredible obstacles are stacked against us each year — like lack of funding, limited staffing, venues, illness, demanding filmmaker/artist schedules, etc. So, I feel bad that we finally met our match and could not overcome this. I feel bad for our staff who worked tirelessly for months to curate the movies and prepare for fest. And I feel bad for the audiences who each year gather as a family in celebration of great Cinema and their culture."

Friday would have been the first full day of programming for the Latino Film Festival.

"So there’s a lot of unknowns and true costs are still unclear," Van Thillo explained. "That said, to organize the film festival each year; it costs $300,000 to $350,000. Half of the funding to put on the festival comes from ticket sales. Eighty percent of these tickets are not advanced sales but are 'day of event' sales at the box office. So, at minimum, our non-profit is looking at a $100,000 to $125,000 loss in ticket sales; that will cause long-lasting damage to our organization."

Van Thillo, however, insists the festival is not "canceled" but rather postponed.

"We will for sure continue to fight to have the 27th San Diego Latino Film Festival this year," he added. "We’ll have to wait until after the summer blockbusters are done in order to gain access to the AMC movie theater again. So, we’re looking at a projected festival dates sometimes in late August or early fall."

Earlier this week, when the Latino Film Festival was still a go, I spoke with Moises Esparza, exhibitions manager for the festival. We discussed the role a Latino film festival plays in a community at a time when border issues, immigration, and xenophobia are prominent topics of discussion.

"To pretend this festival isn't political, it's really a disservice to Latino culture as a whole," Esparza said on Monday. "To pretend that film exists in a vacuum outside and disconnected from actual realities would would be inauthentic. A slogan that I saw said, 'The big screen constructs realities,' and that really spoke to me as I thought about the selection of films this year and that they are true reflections of what's happening in the world. I saw many, many films and the call for entries received almost seven over 700 entries, which is a lot for a festival our size. But a thread that became really apparent through most of the submissions is that there's unrest and there's disillusionment from these filmmakers and they are creating films that address these disappointments in society, in their government, in the status quo. And I think I truly do think that through their films, they are trying to burn expectations to the ground."

That is the loss that we as filmgoers face when a festival like this is canceled. We miss the opportunity to get exposed to diverse perspectives that speak to current issues.

Esparza reflected on the postponement of the festival: “Pre-producing the festival in conjunction with the day-to-day updates regarding the COVID-19 outbreak forced us to reckon with some pretty heavy existential questions -- Why does this festival matter? What does it mean to our community? Why should we proceed? Ultimately we carried on as planned for so long-- up until the morning of our festival launch date-- because we determined the festival was much more than just an exhibition platform for amazing films-- it’s also a celebration, a moral booster, and a respite from the day-to-day grievances we experience. That’s the power of art, it transforms our lives when we consume it. Our postponement, however, is not the loss of art-- art is forever. And the festival isn’t lost either! It will be back”

Van Thillo considered what canceling or postponing the festival could mean in the long term.

“Without a doubt, many local arts organizations and artists will suffer financially over the 6-12 months,” he said. “I don’t think most people understand how fragile arts organizations really are. Most live day by day; and always have cash flow issues. If a non-profit has budgeted a certain amount of earned income and that does not happen because of a public performance cancellation that can have huge consequences to the overall financial health of the organizations.”

Arts organizations are urging people to not ask for refunds to canceled events but turn that ticket amount into a donation or to just outright give donations to your favorite arts organizations.

Another potentially longer-lasting impact could be that during self-isolation and social distancing to avoid the spread of COVID-19 people develop different habits regarding watching films. They may become more comfortable with streaming options and they may harbor lingering fears about large gatherings.

“In terms of fear; yes, I think the immediate reaction by most of the public will be to stay home and stream their entertainment,” Van Thillo said. “That said, eventually, people will come out again and once again want to see live concerts, movies, and theater. It’s one of the wonderful things about San Diego; all of the cultural arts exhibits and public events. So, in time and when things calm down; I fully expect people to once again re-engage with society and support our film festival, movie theaters, and other arts organizations in the region.”

"Infection" is one of the films that had been scheduled to play as part of San Diego Latino Film Festival's Un Mundo Extraño sidebar.
Luz Creativa Films
"Infection" is one of the films that had been scheduled to play as part of San Diego Latino Film Festival's Un Mundo Extraño sidebar.

Miguel Rodriguez, director of the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and programmer for the Latino Film Festival's sidebar Un Mundo Extraño.

"I had a wonderful genre film section at San Diego Latino Film Festival planned, including three revival films that I couldn’t wait to screen for people," Rodriguez said. "Seeing that event shut down on the very day it was supposed to open was quite a blow. I programmed films that express or explore fears or anxieties, and being able to discuss them would have been quite cathartic. There was a zombie film from Venezuela called 'Infection,' for example, that was a way to express the political chaos that has erupted there recently, but it could also clearly been seen as a metaphor for the ways contagion can get into our public mind and wreak havoc in more ways than just illness. I hope I can share them soon!"

Diana Agostini (left), current San Diego Italian Film Festival president  with former president Victor Laruccia and artistic director Antonio Iannotta. Agostini is self-isolating after a trip to Europe. Photo is from a previous SDIFF event.
Lamia Khorshid
Diana Agostini (left), current San Diego Italian Film Festival president with former president Victor Laruccia and artistic director Antonio Iannotta. Agostini is self-isolating after a trip to Europe. Photo is from a previous SDIFF event.

San Diego Italian Film Festival

SDIFF has cancelled its two monthly film screenings. Diana Agostini, Italian Film Festival president, is currently self-quarantined after coming back from a recent trip to Europe and following the latest CDC regulations.

"Canceling our monthly series was not an easy decision to take," she said via email. "While now the governor and the California Arts Council have asked to cancel large events, we had been talking about this since days before this measure was taken statewide, I believe because of our closeness to the Italian situation. For a small organization like ours, this has quite a significant financial impact on our overall operational budget. These monthly screenings account for almost 40% of our annual income and revenue from the first three quarters allows us to cover expenses for our annual festival that are due by early summer usually. Not to mention how they support and cover our staff's compensation. We have an incredibly strong arts and culture community here in San Diego and regardless of the size of the organization, everyone is going to be impacted heavily. But we're in this together and I am sure we'll come up with creative ways to cope with this situation; at SDIFF we are already talking about ways to keep our audience engaged and to still provide them with that monthly recurring Italian get together, even if we'll have to meet in our 'piazza' remotely potentially for a while."

For an Italian film festival, COVID-19 also carries the extra weight since Italy is one of the hardest-hit countries by the virus. So for the festival and some of its attendees, there may be personal connections to people enduring a lockdown in Italy.

"Our families and friends in Italy are all affected by the lockdown that was imposed on the nation last weekend to stop the spreading of the virus, and the good news is that for the first time in weeks the town of Codogno (where it all started for northern Italy) registered no new cases of COVID-19," Agostini said. "So hopefully this means that self-isolation works. Italy is based on community, it's at the heart of our culture so these measures represent a totally new way of living, not only obviously dictated by confinement of spaces, but also interactions with others, even simply the barista that makes your espresso every day. And while families are all together, I cannot help but think about all the elderly people who live by themselves, like my dad for example, who are the ones more at risk of falling severely ill, and who are also by themselves not necessarily able to reunite with their families (if they have one) also for their own safety. However, I am extremely proud of my home country right now as it is showing its ability to get together and to be united putting aside various internal divisions. And when it comes to the arts it is showing us how to get creative and to use the arts as a means for the community to get together. From improvised 'concerts' from window to window to dedicated numbers where someone will read a tale to you or your kids over the phone, or virtual tours of museums, and literature festivals over social media with hashtags saying #culturedoesntstop #istayhomeandread next to the most popular one #iorestoacasa (I stay home)."

PacArts is the sponsor and presenter of San Diego Asian Film Festival and Spring Showcase.
PacArts is the sponsor and presenter of San Diego Asian Film Festival and Spring Showcase.

PacArts and Spring Showcase

PacArts, the sponsor and presenter of the San Diego Asian Film Festival in the fall and Spring Showcase in April, announced Friday, "In light of the latest local and statewide guidance in response to COVID-19, Pacific Arts Movement has decided to postpone the upcoming 10th annual SDAFF Spring Showcase, originally scheduled from April 16 to April 23, 2020 — to take place later this year."

As with the Latino Film Festival, PacArts is avoiding the word canceled in favor of postponing.

"Spring Showcase will happen, but not during our originally-scheduled April dates," explained artistic director Brian Hu. "We've already invested much time and work into it, but most of all, we can't bear to let it go because this is one of our best slates ever and we can't wait to get the films out there. There is a financial impact in that the Spring Showcase revenue is part of our annual budget, and so we're hoping that by postponing to another date, we'll still be able to recoup. If we canceled, not only would there be revenue loss for us, but that's also revenue loss for hotels, restaurants, and airlines that benefit from us bringing filmmakers to town. We're also aware that we have members and audiences who take vacation from work to attend our festival, so there may be impact on them as well. There are also community groups and universities who rely on our Spring Showcase as part of their programming. There may be a cost to them to find other options."

As with the Italian Film Festival, PacArts feels a personal stake in the current coronavirus pandemic because of people linking the virus to China, the country where the outbreak was first recorded.

The press release for the postponement of the Spring Showcase included this statement: "Especially at a time when Asian American communities and individuals are experiencing increased racism and xenophobia in addition to the viral threat, we believe our work in sharing stories that inspire compassion and understanding is more important than ever."

"Because the mainstream media provides such a slight sliver of visibility to Asian stories, negative or one-dimensional stereotypes persist," Hu said. "Our festivals exist to expand the public's notions of what the Asian experience might be, as well as how those experiences are intricately, irreversibly, and positively tied to the very fabric of America. We can't tell people not to be afraid. But we can at least show that we are more than the stereotypes of backward Orientals that have persisted since the 19th century. And we can show that Asians in the United States are as American as anybody else and thus othering us as a racial group eats into the very soul of our country."

As health organizations work to fight the virus, arts organizations are working together to deal with how it is impacting their ability to bring art and culture to a wider community.

"The arts community has been realigned anew," Hu said. "We know that any changes in our plans affect us all, and so we've been chatting, formally and informally. We've been reading each others' public statements with so much empathy and well wishes. We know that the audience for Asian cinema might also be the audience for Latino cinema, or theater, or museums. And we know that in times of fear, experiences that offer opportunities to feel and dream the world anew have that much more impact and take on a sharpened responsibility in our community. Lastly, the moratoriums on gatherings remind us that we can never take for granted the forum to congregate — to see a film in a theater, next to another person who shares in your tears or laughter. That, I believe more than ever, must never go away."

Max Brooks' 2006 novel "World War Z" is about a virus that starts in China and spreads globally to devastating effect.
Three Rivers Press
Max Brooks' 2006 novel "World War Z" is about a virus that starts in China and spreads globally to devastating effect.

Suggested viewing and reading

Art has the ability to help us through difficult times, to provide diverse perspectives, offer catharsis for our fears, and enlighten us with other points of view. As a horror fan, I have witnessed many cinematic end of world and infection scenarios play out. A couple of thoughtful films to consider watching are the recent "Contagion" and "The Andromeda Strain" by Michael Crichton.

But perhaps the best, most prescient work is Max Brooks' book "World War Z" (please do not watch the film but go directly to the book). Brooks, who is a senior, nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Modern War Institute at West Point, is a history buff who researched his book about a zombie infection by looking through history for examples of how countries dealt with wars, plagues and assorted other disasters.

In a Washington Post article from Feb. 27, Brooks pointed out how his 2006 book used a virus breaking out in China because the Chinese government would be likely to suppress information about such a virus and prevent doctors from sounding an early alarm.

He also stated: "In the United States, we have a free and open society that lets us protect ourselves. But that freedom doesn't mean freedom from responsibility. In 'World War Z,' the zombie plague infects America because Americans are too distracted by greed, apathy, gullibility; they reject science and willfully embrace an incompetent president. Does that sound familiar? On his trip to India this past week, President Trump called the coronavirus 'a problem that's going to go away,' and at a news conference back in Washington, he claimed that 'the risk to the American people remains very low.' The good news is that he's not the only one with a voice. We can turn to more qualified sources, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which warns that "disruption to everyday life may be severe." But whose word will we heed? In China, it's difficult for citizens to access the truth. In America, we might not care."

If you want to see how a pandemic could play out or how the very nature of a particular country could impact how decisions are made, then I cannot recommend this book highly enough.