Forget most of what you know about the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. When it opens on the evening of Feb. 17, everything from the way you buy tickets, view films, watch guest programming and interact with others is new.
Festival executive director Kenny Blank, who has built the event into one of Atlanta’s cultural crown jewels and one of the largest such events in the world, has – with his professional team – rethought almost every aspect of the popular annual event. As Blank sees it, the AJFF’s 21st edition is about making “everything old, new again.”
He explained, “The most direct answer to what’s new is the way the audiences will experience the film festival. No question about that. That is going to be different. Our focus has been on reimagining the festival experience. How can we make it easy, convenient for people, and most importantly, of course, keep our audience safe.”
This year there are fewer films to choose from. There are 36 in the 2021 festival versus 50 last year, plus four programs of short films. The event this year is what organizers like to call “consolidated,” meaning it will run only 12 days, from Feb. 17 with the opening night romantic comedy “Kiss Me Kosher” to the closing night documentary Feb. 28, “Howie Mandel: But Enough About Me.” Last year it was an 18-day program.
Most of the films will only be shown online, with a 72-hour window to watch a one time showing of a film once it has been downloaded. There’s a slight bump in ticket prices and no option for seniors, but there is a $2-a-ticket discount during the first days after tickets go on sale Feb. 10.
No matter how many tickets you buy, the festival is still one of the year’s best entertainment bargains. You can enjoy what the AJFF is calling its Virtual Lobby, which allows film fans in a free lunchtime event to meet for a hosted discussion every day. Also free is an expanded number of video conversations with a long list of film stars, directors, and other VIPs. Blank believes being virtual has brought new possibilities to the festival.
“With virtual, the whole world can be here at our doorstep. We are able to bring in filmmakers and actors from all around the world to participate in the festival, virtually. So we have a vastly expanded array of curated conversations that will happen after the film this year with some of the top filmmakers and actors from some of these major international releases.”
Moreover, a single ticket purchase allows you to watch the selected film with as many people as you can safely invite to the screening, a big saving for families with children.
For those who still crave the more traditional theater experience, the AJFF is sponsoring three films in a drive-in setting at The Home Depot Backyard, an 11-acre green space adjacent to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta.
The first drive-in film is for Young Professionals Night Feb. 18. It’s the new, edgy comedy “Shiva Baby.” Two motion picture comedy classics follow, with Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs” Feb. 20 and the musical remake of “Little Shop of Horrors” from 1986 on Feb. 21. Food trucks will provide refreshments. There’s a limited number of tickets for each performance, so an early purchase is encouraged.
For Blank, his board of directors and staff, the year of planning that went into all of these changes has been a testing time. The year-round calendar of the AJFF has been filled with monthly events that sought to engage and expand its audience with free or greatly reduced pricing for productions from previous years along with in-depth discussions with creative figures from selected motion pictures.
The successes of the past year and the outpouring of financial support by the festival’s sponsors has been an acknowledgment that, not-withstanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the event is on solid ground, according to Blank.
“I think that’s a real vote of confidence from our community, saying we know you do something great; we know we need the film festival to endure. And so we’re going to continue to support you based on your 20 years of amazing programing that you’ve brought to the community.”
Those who worked so hard to produce such a different kind of festival experience are expected to be watching closely how this year’s program will be received. In a world awash in streaming possibilities from such corporate giants as ATT’s HBO Plus and Disney+, that have premiered in the last year as well as the newly launched Jewzy.com and ChaiFlix Jewish film websites, the AJFF faces some formidable challenges in maintaining its large audience. Still, Blank is confident of the festival’s importance as a cultural institution.
“We have built incredible trust with our audience over the years that we are outstanding curators of not just Jewish cinema, but the best Jewish cinema, the best international cinema. And so you don’t have to do that digging on other streaming sites, we will do it for you. We will discover these great films and bring them to you through whatever platform, whatever venue the AJFF is presenting in.”