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2021 Film Festival Alliance, Day Two: Dr. Larry Brilliant, Contagion & Covid-proofing Theaters

(The annual Film Festival Alliance gathering usually takes place in Midway, Ut. pre-Sundance. However, this year’s edition is all virtual and Melanie Addington, HtN contributor/Executive Director of the Oxford Film Festival is in attendance. She brings us this report…)

Kicking off day two of the Film Festival Alliance was world-renowned epidemiologist, Dr. Larry Brilliant, to share COVID-19 updates, what it means for the theatrical and festival world and what he got right as the science advisor in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film, Contagion.

In conversation with FFA Board Member and Executive Director/Founder of California Film Institute Mark Fishkin, Brilliant shared that right now, being safe means extra expense for theaters and for film festivals.

“Inside any closed space is one of the least safe places in regards to COVID, Brilliant shared. “Being in a common gathering area with people you do not know their viral exposure history is one of the riskiest things to do.”

But the current ventilation renovations, portable HEPA filters, lower occupancy, and requiring masks and social distancing all help.

“It is harder for theaters than it is festivals,” Brilliant said. “We are standing at the gates of hell but it will get better.”

Brilliant said while this is a horrific moment in time, the estimates are that things will plateau and go down once past the holiday COVID spread. Once the temperatures rise, more outdoor activities, more people become vaccinated and it will become less expensive for cleaning for theaters and testing for sets and staff, the industry will be safer.

“These are very expensive protocols to implement,” Brilliant said. “Trying to make a Hollywood set safe to make a movie theater safe, there are protocols and there are ways to make places safe but we are three to six months before the price tag comes down.”

But Briliant said the same risk is in music venues, churches, any gathering that spreads the virus indoors. And with the new mutant virus strains, Brilliant said it is all so new and everyone is just learning now what it may do.

“We haven’t learned enough and we don’t know if it will cause more damage but it is much more transmissible.”

The new strains appear to be 50-70% more transmissible despite not increasing the death rate yet. But the possibility of overwhelming the hospital systems is real.

Brilliant has helped stamp out pandemics before (he helped beat smallpox) and has a love for the film industry, having worked on sets. One such set, Contagion, felt like a fantasy until now.

“While the science was impeccable in Contagion, many thought the story would never be plausible. That turned out to not be the case,” Brilliant said, speaking frankly about the current real-life situation.

Dr. Larry Brilliant

“No one predicted an incompetent United States federal response, “ Brilliant said. “The states are doing as well as they can but every pandemic in history has been led by the US and especially the CDC. An essential element has been a functioning strong and funded CDC and a U.S. government that makes national plans. Perhaps if we now move into a more rational government…”

Brilliant said that other countries who have handled the pandemic will look at the US with pity.

“If we import, with humility, the best practices in science, I am confident we can kick this disease. But we’ve given it a huge head start.”

While we may begin to see improvements in the fall in the U.S., the guess of how long the recovery looks like is anyone’s.

“As long as it is anywhere it is potentially everywhere,” Brilliant said, before ending the discussion on a positive note. “I can’t wait to get back into the theater.”

Other discussions on day two included how Belcourt Theatre of Nashville and The Texas Theater in Dallas handled their PPE needs for their theaters,  how to humanely improve staff relations and work ethics, better queer cinema programming, and a meet the distributor’s session the most popular event at the annual conference. Learn more at

– Melanie Addington (@MelAddington)


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Melanie Addington is the Executive Director of Tallgrass Film Association as of 2021. She has worked in the film festival world since 2006, first as a volunteer, and then eventually becoming the Oxford Film Festival Executive Director in August 2015. She used to be a reporter for the Oxford Eagle (a community newspaper) and then Pizza Magazine Quarterly (a global trade magazine). She still loves pizza. And she still writes for Hammer to Nail and Film Festival Today about her other great love: movies. She is from Southern California originally but lived in the South for 20 years. She now resides in Wichita, KS, and has one son.

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