This year’s Atlanta Film Festival + Creative Conference in many ways is a reflection of the COVID-19 pandemic-plagued world we live in.
“It’s almost an interesting snapshot into what we’re thinking as a human race, what we’re thinking and feeling and going through over the recent period and how that’s being translated and reflected in the art that they make,” said Chris Escobar, the festival’s executive director.
The 45th annual event, which runs April 22 to May 2, has 170 creative works, including 25 feature-length films, 119 short films and 26 creative media, and a record 9,400 submissions. The 2020 festival included 148 creative works, feature-length and short films selected from more than 8,500 submissions, a new record, up from about 1,500 in 2011.
This year’s submissions included 2,385 screenplays, nearly double 2020’s 1,300.
“This is the first time we’ve seen a small downtick in the number of films submitted and then a huge explosion in the number of scripts made,” Escobar said. “If you think about it, that makes sense because there was this huge period where people weren’t able to safely get together and make films, so largely what we got submitted were things that had already been filmed but still needed to be edited … (or) films that people could make on their own and not putting a crew together.”
Cameron McAllister, the festival’s associate director, added, “We’ve seen filmmakers are a creative bunch. They’re all right-brained and making films at home. They’re writing more screenplays.”
Last year’s festival was postponed from April until September and then pivoted to a format that included both in-person screenings at three drive-in theaters and other virtual events. In 2021, in addition to its virtual events, the festival is hosting two drive-in screenings (at The Plaza Theatre in Atkins Park and Dad’s Garage in the Old Fourth Ward), plus in-person screenings also the Plaza, which Escobar owns.
He said the festival also just added an April 24 outdoor screening on the lawn of the Carter Presidential Center in Poncey-Highland for the world premiere of “Carterland,” a documentary about Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
In an April 8 news release, the festival announced its key programming, which includes the Opening and Closing Night and Marquee presentations and a total of about 20 more films and creative works. “Socks on Fire,” about an estate battle between a homophobic sister and her drag queen brother in Hokes Bluff, Alabama, will be screened on Opening Night April 23.
“The Dry,” a mystery starring Eric Bana as a federal agent who begins to connect the dots on two crimes that occurred decades apart, will be screened on Closing Night May 1. Ten more Marquee film selections, including some that previously played at the Sundance Film Festival, will also be shown.
McAllister said the experience of pivoting to a hybrid festival in 2020 paid off this year, especially when it came to planning where to screen its films.
“Maybe this film is great for a large audience,” he said. “Maybe that film is great for a smaller audience, and maybe another film is perfect for a virtual audience. We have a better idea of how people are consuming the content we’re creating.”
In addition to “Carterland,” at least two other films have Georgia ties. “Akilla’s Escape,” a narrative feature starring Morehouse College graduate Saul Williams, examines the cycle of generational violence, and “A Fire Within,” a Georgia-filmed documentary, chronicles the true story of three Ethiopian women who immigrate to Atlanta to escape torture.
Diversity in programming remains a top priority for the festival, and this year is no different. About 53% of the selected works being led by women and gender nonconforming directors, and about half are from BIPOC directors. Artists from 122 different countries submitted entries for the 2021 festival, and 52 countries are represented in the selected works.
The pandemic has impacted the festival financially. Escobar said it gets 5 to 10% of its budget from a combination of city, county, state and federal funds, but some state monies have decreased over the years. However, it’s been bolstered by federal COVID-19 relief funds.
“Having these special relief dollars, the percentage of our public support is now is over 35%,” Escobar said. “It is a drastic change. When I say we’d be in a real tough spot if not for those things, it’s significant.”
The good news is the festival’s budget is lower this year than normal years, when it spends more on in-person events and on travel and hotel expenses for its filmmakers and actors who speak at its events.
This year’s Creative Conference, which is normally an in-person affair, may be virtual, but it still has a star-studded lineup. It will include master classes from Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, stars of the film “Blindspotting” and co-creators of its upcoming TV adaptation; Wayne White, a three-time Emmy Award-winning artist; and Ty Franck, executive producer of “The Expanse.”
“It’s all-encompassing,” Escobar said of the conference. “That’s always an exciting part of the festival. We’re lucky to have the time of these incredible film industry experts and artists to be able to share their insights.”
Tickets for individual events are $15 to $50 for drive-in screenings (depending on the number of individuals in the vehicle), $20 for in-person screenings and $9.99 for virtual events. Festival passes are also available. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.atlantafilmfestival.com.