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Blythe Frank Steps in to Lead the Provincetown Film Society

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by Rebecca M. Alvin

Blythe Frank is the new executive director of the Provincetown Film Society.

The  movie theater business has struggled more or less constantly for the past three decades. Cable television and HBO, home video, YouTube, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, changing patterns of entertainment and ever-multiplying options, the phenomenon of audience fragmentation—all have played a role in sluggish box office receipts for the average, non-blockbuster film playing at the average theater. But the sudden and dramatic halt in theatrical exhibition that occurred in response to the pandemic did something both more devastating and more inspiring than any of these other factors. The pandemic inspired reinvention, creative partnerships and innovative solutions, even prompting a return to methods of delivery previously considered outdated, such as the drive-in movie theater.

Film festivals have been at the forefront of creative solutions as they often cannot survive without their annual events taking place in at least some form. While a year of cancellations may have been tolerable, more than that could have put an end to even some of the more well-established festivals, and so most chose to do what the Provincetown International Film Festival (PIFF) did last year: reimagine their festivals.

In 2020 it was quickly made apparent that PIFF could not go on as usual, but through some out-of-the-box thinking, they were able to pull off a mini version of the festival at the Wellfleet Drive-in in July, along with some virtual screenings and a virtual talk with that year’s Next Wave Award winner, actress Mya Taylor (Tangerine). This year, PIFF is in a better position to offer another hybrid version of the festival, with built-in plans to pivot if the response to COVID-19 changes unexpectedly, yet again.

“It is a challenging time, but I also think that what we’ve all been going through has allowed us to look at everything differently. So I think that we’re also at this really exciting moment of reinvention for the organization,” says Blythe Frank, the Provincetown Film Society’s new executive director. “For us this year is about sustainability, about reconnecting with community, and then looking at the places where we can evolve and grow. And you know, I’m really interested in kind of expanding the reach of our community and the impact of our overall mission and message and finding ways to align more opportunities for filmmakers in regards to the industry and educational opportunities as well.”

The Film Society, which is the umbrella organization to PIFF, the Waters Edge Cinema, and a variety of film programs and initiatives such as the Women’s Media Summit, hired Frank as interim executive director in December, but as of April, she took on the role permanently. She comes to the organization with 15 years experience producing independent feature films, an M.F.A. in film from Columbia University (where she also teaches film), and a lifelong affiliation with the Outer Cape.

“I love Provincetown. I’ve always loved the town. It’s been a part of my community for most of my life, so it’s a real gift to be able to have this opportunity to work in this capacity here in town,” Frank says, adding that she’s spent summers on Cape Cod since childhood. “I’m really looking forward to getting to know even more people within the community and finding ways to support one another and create fun stuff,” she says.

Her producing background is a natural fit for the job as there are many similarities in both roles. “Being a producer, you have to have vision and come up with ideas, recognize what’s the conversation of the moment, what’s important. But it’s also about leading and a lot of  fundraising, also it’s working with a great number of people, whether that be investors, or in this case stakeholders and sponsors, or with staff and talent, and you know, there’s a lot of great big creative personalities,” she says. “Being a producer is really about bringing people together to create something and I think that has a direct relationship to being an executive director, especially for a nonprofit film society and a film festival.”

For 2021, the Festival (June 16 – 25, this year) is expanded to 10 days instead of its usual five, including three nights at the Wellfleet Drive-in, picking up on a trend that’s happened in many communities since the pandemic took hold last year. No one could have anticipated an increase in drive-in movie attendance, but with indoor theaters facing difficult protocols in order to open and a dearth of new films to show, this uniquely American tradition that began in the 1950s and all but disappeared by the 1980s, has had something of a revival. PIFF has done at least one screening at the drive-in for many years now, so this isn’t entirely COVID-19-related, but this year they are hoping to offer outdoor screenings in additional spaces if it can be worked out safely and in accordance with state and town regulations. There will also be indoor screenings at the movie theater and PIFF is hiring a COVID Compliance Officer to make sure everything is done with safety as a top priority. Frank emphasizes the vast majority of screenings and events will be either virtual or outside, though.

“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way film festivals operated in the past. I think that we are heading into this new iteration of  hybrid festival and that, you know like Sundance this year, like [Toronto International Film Festival], like Cannes, you know all these festivals, people are able to attend from all over the world without having to be there in person. And, I find that to be actually exciting,” Frank says, pointing out that it brings people to PIFF who couldn’t financially afford to come or who have time restrictions and obligations that would make it impossible in the past.

“I’m excited about that piece, and I think that we will continue to have a virtual component going forward, but we’re also leaning into having more virtual opportunities year-round,” she says. The cinema will offer a “Waters Edge Plus” program that features streaming of new release films, as well as Q&As with local filmmakers and new and emerging voices, and other unique programming.

But let’s face it, when it comes to film festivals, they are fundamentally about coming to a place and sharing in the cinematic experience with like-minded people. Asked if there will be any parties, which has always been a big part of PIFF, Frank explains, “We’re doing very small things. So, we’re looking at doing a very small kind of filmmakers’ cocktail party, outdoors, during the Festival. We’re doing an event at Truro Vineyards that’s all going to be outdoors, and we’re doing the Evan Lawson Brunch, which will be held at Bubala’s this year, outdoors… We’re trying to be a little cautious, but we want to have the opportunity to bring people together in a safe way. And again, I think it’s just the first step is people getting vaccinated, and people becoming more comfortable.”

Frank sees Waters Edge reopening in July if all goes well, but of course, there are no certainties at this point. “We are planning for additional in-person events kind of ramping up over the summer and into the fall,” she says.

Right now the Film Society is planning a virtual version of their Women’s Media Summit for May of this year and then, of course, the Festival.

“I think we’re going to have some fun titles this year. And again, it’s a little bit of a different year— not as big, but we wanted to do something that’s substantial enough, and we’re just hoping and praying that 2022 is the year we’re back 100% to where we were.”

The Provincetown International Film Festival happens June 16 – 25; Waters Edge Cinema is currently closed but offering films in their virtual screening room at watersedgecinema.org. For more information about the Provincetown Film Society and its many offerings, visit provincetownfilm.org.

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