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It is difficult enough planning a film festival during this pandemic grey-zone era – doubly so when your organization’s leader departs just a few months before the event kicks off. Such is the challenge facing Andrew Murphy and Elie Chivi, the new interim co-heads of Toronto’s Inside Out film festival, one of the world’s biggest and buzziest celebrations of LGBTQ cinema.

Taking control of Inside Out after executive director Lauren Howes left this past February, Murphy and Chivi are charged with delivering the organization’s first in-person festival in three years, plus ensuring that the myriad digital initiatives rolled out in 2020 and 2021 fulfill Inside Out’s promise of full audience accessibility.

Ahead of the 32nd annual festival’s launch Thursday with the Brazilian political documentary Mars One – plus screenings of such buzzy projects as the Sundance-certified doc Framing Agnes, the Jane Austen-y rom-com Fire Island, and the new Canadian Prime Video series The Lake – Murphy (Inside Out’s long-time director of programming) and Chivi (Inside Out’s director of development) spoke with The Globe and Mail about the pleasures and migraines of staging a film fest’s comeback year.

I have to start by asking about the departure of Lauren Howes, which was unannounced at the time, and comes with only one edition of the festival under their watch.

Elie Chivi: Honestly, it was a personal decision. Lauren wanted to step back and focus on other things that didn’t involve Inside Out. When the board asked Andrew and I to take on the role, we understood it was a big responsibility, but we looked at our team and were confident we could achieve the goals of the festival.

How challenging has the interim period been for the both of you?

Andrew Murphy: In the non-profit world, when you have one job it’s actually one and a half jobs, so then you add new duties to that. It’s been a hard couple of years, but we made it to the finish line. Having that connection in cinemas is crucial, especially for a specialty festival like ours.

Was there ever any thought about either abandoning or paring down the virtual elements of this year’s festival?

Murphy: Our commitment is to accessibility across the board. It was never a question to take away the online pieces. It was born out of necessity, but going back to cinemas was always a, “Yes, and …?” situation rather than one or the other. We’ve tried to be thoughtful about ensuring that most of our programming that’s in cinemas is online as well. Plus we have a whole chunk of digital-only exclusives.

Chivi: It also made sense from a business perspective. We’ve seen viewership be consistent over the past few years, with us capturing audiences who we’ve been unable to service in the past.

With other film festivals either moving back strictly to in-person screenings or diminishing their virtual footprints, was it difficult to convince distributors to play a festival that is fully hybrid?

Chivi: [Laughs] I’m triggered …

Murphy: In the early days of the pandemic we saw a lot of sales agents and producers holding their cards close to their chests. There was short-sightedness – people were prioritizing festivals that could still do in-person editions. But people started to come around to the idea that they could broaden their reach of audience. Distributors are more open to adjusting a business model that maybe doesn’t work any more in the new world.

What is the current state of Inside Out’s RE:Focus film fund?

Murphy: It started as a travel grant for women, trans and non-binary filmmakers to come to the festival to get their projects going, but during the pandemic we shifted focus to emergency relief support. We’re going to be opening the call for the next round of submissions in the next month or two.

Chivi: The amount of applications that we get is fairly high, and we want to make sure that we can service more and more people. It’s one of two film funds we’ve launched over the past few years [along with the OUTtv Outspoken Documentary Fund] and we really believe in it.

What is the organization’s timeline for naming a new, permanent executive director?

Chivi: Over the next few months, we’ll be finessing our strategic plan. Once that is done, we’ll be working through the fall with the board to look at what leadership will look like.

Inside Out runs May 26 through June 5 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and online (insideout.ca)

This interview has been condensed and edited

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