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A Hybrid, Mostly Online Cucalorus Festival Seeks To Survive Creatively

By Jenny Callison, posted Oct 15, 2020
It’s no surprise that Cucalorus Film Festival is taking a very different approach this year.

Even with the easing of coronavirus-related restrictions on indoor events, organizers want to take no chances on exposing their audiences to COVID-19. So most films and events will appear online over an extended 15-day period.
 
There will also be some drive-in film screenings, building on the success Cucalorus has enjoyed with its collaborative Curbside Cinema series on the University of North Carolina Wilmington campus, Cape Fear Academy, Tarboro and the Outer Banks area.
 
“This is still so new to us,” Dan Brawley, the festival’s chief instigating officer, said Tuesday of the shift in formats. “In addition to the drive-ins and the streaming library [of festival films], there will be a select group of about 20 films that will be live online.”
 
Reimagining the festival may be a new experience, but Brawley and his team have dipped their toes into new approaches earlier this year – not only with Curbside Cinema but at more complex events: the festival’s third annual Lumbee Film Festival in July, held in Pembroke; its Tarheel Shorties festival of independent North Carolina films, held in August in Wilson; and its Outer Banks-sited Surfalorus in September.
 
“We feel comfortable with [the drive-in concept],” Brawley said. “The filmmakers are very excited about drive-in screenings. It’s a safe way for people to get together.”
 
Brawley said what’s important to filmmakers is not the numbers of people viewing their creations, but the chance to connect with people. Film festivals can make that connection.
 
“In times like this, that human connection is so much more important,” Brawley said. “So we have a whole schedule of live Q&As.”
 
After watching a block of movie shorts and sampling films from the festival’s streaming library, an attendee can join a live question-and-answer session about those selections.
 
“In the past, people were rushing to go to dinner, or to the next event, so we had shorter Q&As. Now they will be longer, and dig a little deeper,” Brawley said. “That’s what we’re hearing people are missing. That’s what we found at our festivals earlier in the year.” 
 
The live-streamed events will include Cucalorus’ opening-night film and some stage performances, which may actually be enhanced by this year’s high-tech, no-travel festival.
 
“Our keynoter is Kristina Wong, the comedian,” Brawley said. “And we’re about to announce we’ll also have [writer and satirist] Damon Young as one of our special guests.

"We might not have been able to afford someone like Wong or Young in our traditional format. We also have this wild band from the UK for our Visual/Sound/Walls party. We would not even have thought to reach out to them.”
 
Brawley also hopes that an online Cucalorus will see increased attendance from out-of-towners. That happened for Tarheel Shorties and Surfalorus.
 
“The long view is that we’re hoping we’ll be building an audience for these virtual events that will fall in love with Cucalorus, and when we [again] have our five-day [in-person] festival, they will travel to Wilmington.”
 
Knowing that this year the festival will not see its average 9% gross revenue increase, a big part of Cucalorus’ operating strategy right now is to survive, Brawley added.

“We’re happy with the innovations for this year’s festival, but our top priority is staying healthy and successful so Cucalorus Festival goes another 25 years at least. On sponsorships, we landed about where we need to be: at least 50 of our core sponsors are staying with us.
 
“We adapted so we could do things with a smaller team and we hired less [seasonal] staff. Our most difficult year might be next year; some businesses continued on a pattern for 2020 that they might re-evaluate in 2021.”
 
One piece of good news: the festival learned earlier this month it is among five North Carolina arts organizations to receive a grant from the South Arts Resilience Fund. That award of $30,000 comes on top of a grant of $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts the festival received last year.
 
“It’s one of the biggest grants we’ve received; a significant grant for us,” Brawley said. “Cucalorus has a very diversified income profile that puts us in a very strong position. When one source diminishes, we can focus our efforts in another direction. It has always been one of our strengths, and it’s so essential now.”
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