“You know how it sometimes feels like things are growing under your feet?” asks Meira Blaustein, co-founder, artistic and executive director of the Woodstock Film Festival (WFF). “That’s what’s happening now…We’re on a growth trajectory in so many directions.”
These aren’t the sort of words one expects to hear these days from the leader of a not-for-profit arts venue, most of which have been hard-pressed indeed to stay afloat under COVID conditions, with minimal cash flow from ticket sales. Indeed, WFF came close to losing its Rock City Road home in 2020, unable to keep up with payments on a six-figure mortgage balance.
But then a miracle happened — or one might say that the organization was able to collect on some positive karmic debt. “The Board considered selling the building. Then someone came forward and paid off our mortgage.” The major donor doesn’t want his or her identity disclosed, according to Blaustein; but this act of generosity enabled the organization to keep on keeping on.
Even during the worst of the pandemic shutdowns, in the autumn of 2020, a Festival happened. It was mainly virtual, true; but selling tickets to view the movies online served to expand WFF’s audience to people who never could attend in prior years because they live too far away or have mobility issues. Some of those new people have become repeat customers.
What’s more, 30 full-length films in the 2020 Festival were screened at the only places where audiences could then safely view them in person: at drive-in theaters. The Hudson Valley was already earning a reputation as a hotbed of the drive-in movie revival, and hosting Festival entries provided a boost in prestige for several existing area outdoor screens, even while it set WFF on a path that enthusiastically embraces this mode of exhibition associated more with pop culture than with high art. “Drive-ins are something we’re going to continue doing. It’s so fun for everybody,” Blaustein says.
The “hybrid” 2021 Festival saw a partial return to indoor screenings — at a smaller number of venues than in a normal year — plus a pop-up drive-in and plenty of films viewable virtually. It’s a mix that organizers expect to persist in future years, even post-COVID. Plans for this coming autumn include reintroducing live screenings at some of the venues that were not yet able to play host last year, such as the Rosendale Theatre and the Orpheum Theatre in Saugerties — the latter recently reopened by new owner Upstate Films. While the future operation of Upstate’s former Woodstock outpost is as yet unclear, Blaustein says, “We plan to be at Tinker Street” when the Festival returns this fall. “There’s nothing like sitting inside a movie theater with friends and neighbors and strangers, meeting the filmmaker after and talking about the film.”
WFF has already co-presented a couple of events at the Rosendale Theatre since that venue’s recent ventilation system upgrade (the stumbling block for its participation in the 2021 Festival), including a screening in December of Drive My Car, which has since been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It’s part of a new focus on spreading the cinema joy more broadly around the mid-Hudson. “We want to venture outside our regular comfort zone and be more inclusive,” Blaustein explains. An event, as yet unspecified, at Shadowland Stages in Ellenville is “penciled in for April. We wanted to bring our film presence to that community more than ten years ago, but we didn’t have the bandwidth.”
Another new venue for WFF is the Hutton Brickyards resort, whose Winter Pavilion is set to host “An Evening with Mary Stuart Masterson” on Monday, February 28 at 6 p.m. Masterson will give a talk and screen The Cake Eaters, her 2007 feature directorial debut that starred Kristen Stewart and Bruce Dern and was shot in the Hudson Valley. It was making that movie that enticed Masterson to relocate to our area. Attendees can probably expect to hear what’s going on at her two local production ventures, Stockade Works and Upriver Studios, and the new rom/com she’s working on, Press the Heart.
“We’ll be doing more events with Hutton Brickyards,” promises Blaustein. “In fact, we’ll be doing more events year-round.”
Besides being a presenting organization, WFF has seriously expanded its educational role, attracting grant funding to keep it going strong. Virtual master classes with filmmaking professionals are reaching students across the country and in Europe: “They wake up in the middle of the night to do this.”
Closer to home, WFF has been offering a free three-week Youth Film Lab for high schoolers since 2018; it was expanded in 2021 to cover the entire academic year, followed by a three-week intensive in July. Among this year’s “long list of mentors” is Karen Allen, whom the kids will know from her role as Marian in the Indiana Jones movies.
Celebrity mentors — including legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA) and Colombian director Rodrigo García (Albert Nobbs), the son of novelist Gabriel García Marquez — are also lining up to coach the four young filmmakers who will be participating in this year’s residency/incubator at White Feather Farm in May. Last year’s inaugural residency program (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2021/05/21/white-feather-farm-is-incubator-for-woodstock-film-festivals-first-residency-program) was a resounding success, with the participants subsequently being offered grant funding and other professional opportunities. “The process of deciding on this year’s four mentees is going on now,” Blaustein reports. “Last year we interviewed about 20.”
The 2022 Woodstock Film Festival is also shaping up, due to happen September 28 to October 2, though nothing of the content, participants or award recipients can yet be divulged. Meanwhile, home base has been getting a facelift: The once-potholed gravel driveway and parking lot of WFF headquarters have been newly paved with asphalt. A capital campaign is planned to fix up the building itself and transform its garage into an event venue. “We’re embarking on a major renovation, but we haven’t raised the money yet,” Blaustein says. “We want to redo the whole main building and the four-car garage, inside and out.”
To help make these radical changes happen, WFF has taken on a grantwriting consultant, expanded its Board of Directors from six to 12 members and even hired new staff. Blaustein’s former assistant is now the office and community relations manager. “We’ve been having growth across the board, but not so much in the budget,” the director says.
Can WFF sustain the expansion momentum in 2022 and beyond? “We plan to keep things fresh, and continue to come up with new programs and have more people benefit. I’m excited about the trajectory of the organization,” says Blaustein optimistically. “I just want to raise more money.”
To make a donation in support of WFF’s activities, purchase tickets to the Mary Stuart Masterson event at Hutton Brickyards on February 28 or just stay updated on the organization’s whirlwind of cinematic activities, visit https://woodstockfilmfestival.org.