In addition to going through the SMART Growth program, Chicago Filmmakers had hoped to rewrite their strategic plans in February of 2020. With the pandemic on the horizon, their strategic planning session with consultants morphed into consulting on how to get through the pandemic. The aspirational aspect of their 3-5 year strategic plan had to be changed to short-term plans to ensure 2020 and 2021 were as stable as possible.
Like many other nonprofits, CF had their regular programming disrupted by COVID-19. In March 2020, The Onion City Film Festival was cancelled to put on at a later date, and summer camps were also cancelled.. Shortly after, ticket sales for scheduled screenings and film classes were all refunded. Though several classes continued online, general revenue was reduced, as CF expected much of its revenue to come from youth summer film camps.
Since the pandemic, capacity building has taken a backseat to audience engagement. Like other organizations, CF wanted to engage their core audience and produce free programs, yet also had to consider their own bottom-line in a dire time. Even though CF was in “survival mode”, accessible programing was decided as the best method at the beginning of the pandemic, as supporting the community is one of CF’s main values. Since the pandemic, all of CF’s programing has been virtual. After being postponed earlier, the Onion City Film Festival was eventually produced for free online, allowing for a larger and international audience. Online classes have opened doors to a wider audience as well.
The pandemic caused a lot of filmmakers to lose work, and their less busy schedule meant they were more available for interviews/conversations for programs about their art. Because the events were all virtual, the costs of having a writer or director attend a Q&A was much lower than with standard in-person programing. Because of some of the benefits CF has encountered from virtual programing, some programs will remain either online or in a hybrid model going forward.
Before the pandemic, CF would commonly partner with the Chicago Film Archive, the Chicago Film Society, and the Chicago Cinema Society. Unfortunately, there have been fewer partnerships with other organizations because of the pandemic. Much of CF’s programing is space dependent, and collaborations have been substantially harder to organize.
All told, CF was able to weather the storm and effectively repurposed itself as an almost entirely digital organization. CF eventually benefited from digital programming tremendously, as they cultivated a national and international audience because of how accessible their digital programs were. Importantly, The Reeling Festival was repurposed to be fully virtual, allowing for program continuity in spite of a thoroughly difficult year.