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Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper appear in Ma Belle, My Beauty, directed by Marion Hill, which will have its Canadian premiere at Inside Out 2021.

Lauren Guiteras

As the Canadian film festival circuit prepares for another season of online-only affairs, the organizers behind Inside Out are doubling, or maybe tripling, down on the number of challenges to overcome. Not only is Canada’s largest celebration of LGTBQ cinema turning around a new festival in half the time it usually takes (its 2020 edition ran this past October, after delaying its typical May run), it is doing so with a new leader, who joined while preparations for 2021 were well under way.

Executive director Lauren Howes, who takes over from Andria Wilson, joined Inside Out in March – just two and a half months ahead of this year’s event, which will attempt to once again deliver the buzz of a film festival without anyone setting foot inside a movie theatre. Or even a drive-in, a feature that the 2020 edition of Inside Out managed to utilize before Ontario shut them down.

Ahead of Inside Out’s 2021 launch this week, which includes the Canadian premieres of the polyamory drama Ma Belle, My Beauty, the dramedy Language Lessons and the Charli XCX documentary Alone Together, Howes talked with The Globe about pulling off an unprecedented-in-every-way festival.

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It’s challenging co-ordinating a film festival at the best of times. But Inside Out is doing so in the midst of a pandemic, for the second year running, and you’re joining in the middle.

It’s surreal to say out loud. But my previous job at the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre had a huge roster of queer filmmakers, and we have a long, strong relationship to Inside Out. So for me as a queer, non-binary-identifying person, I’ve landed my dream job. But the relentlessness of lockdown, in Toronto specifically, has been intense. We were hoping to have a hybrid festival like last year, and were optimistic we’d be able to do so, but obviously now ... But we’re still here, and we’re certain there will be films that resonate with people.

Was there ever any thought as to pushing the festival to the fall again, when theatres will hopefully be open?

We gave that some consideration, but traditionally Inside Out has happened in May and we’re one of the big fests right out of the gate early in the film festival calendar. We collectively felt it was important to come back to this May sweet spot. And we didn’t want to do that crystal-ball thing and hope for the best in October, and then find ourselves in the spot we’re in now. Even two months ago we didn’t have the insight into the vaccination rollout that we have now.

Inside Out launched its own year-round digital cinema platform last year. How is that performing, when there are so many competing niche-targeted services?

We’ve had fairly good numbers consistently over the few months that I’ve been here, and our membership is still hungry for content, either releases that played with us or at TIFF or just new releases. The silver lining of all this is knowing that we have a role to play and can be present year-round. And that digital side will stay with the festival to create an extra layer of accessibility.

This year’s program is about the same size as last year’s: 33 feature-length movies, five television series, more than 100 short films. Is that the sweet spot size for a 10-day digital festival?

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It’s a combination of modelling what we would do in-person over the course of 10 days, and also being mindful that despite being in lockdown and the politics of pandemic management, we want artists to get paid and get their work programmed. That means not scaling back. Our ticket sales are pretty good right now. But to me, programming is supporting artists and getting their screening fees out the door. And the content is there. Even coming off a festival just in October, there isn’t by any stretch a dearth of material to choose from.

Is there any tension surfacing as to whether distributors want their films to premiere online-only? With the U.S. opening up, I imagine producers who were just getting used to going virtual are now back to holding out for real-deal releases.

Once they see there’s potential for in-person screenings, it does change the distribution strategies. Given that we knew that we’d still be in lockdown throughout the festival, it did change some negotiations a bit, but it’s totally beyond our control. We just have to roll with it.

One of Andria Wilson’s big initiatives was strengthening the industry side of things, including the RE:Focus Fund, which offers financial support to LGBTQ women and non-binary filmmakers. What would you like to do on that side?

RE:Focus is getting ready in June for another round of submissions for grants, and it’s so nice to see the trajectory over the years of watching films go into production thanks to that and then having them come back as part of the program. On the industry side, there’s the opportunity to do more professional development and build the talent pool through networking, because no one makes a film in a vacuum. Well, maybe right now on Zoom. But it’s important to bring the communities together, hopefully in-person, to create meaningful connections.

Inside Out runs May 27 through June 6 (insideout.ca), with titles geo-blocked to Ontario audiences.

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