Michael Clark from GRFF explained that the festival be online exclusively this year, with selections from the cancelled 2020 festival as well. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Grand River Film Festival kicks off after a year of delays and uncertainty

Screenwriting classes and author workshops often limit stories to seven plots. From Star Wars and its use of the “overcoming the monster” plot to the “voyage and return” story of Back to the Future, these plots are considered the basis for almost all the books and movies we consume. 

But in this new normal of COVID-19, we can add an eighth plot—the COVID-19 pivot story.

It’s a well-known story now: a group of passionate volunteers works to build something great in our community. COVID-19 shows up and throws the plan into chaos. The group pivots to online, and the community rejoices. At least, that was what Michael Clark and the Grand River Film Festival (GRFF) team hoped.

“It’s the same story. Pretty much every town you know, any city of a decent size across Canada, has a film festival like GRFF. And last year, they all got cancelled,” Clark, vice chair of Programming, said. 

After a year of turmoil, the GRFF is back. Cinephiles can experience this year’s GRFF starting Monday, May 3, with a curated selection of eight feature-length films and three programs of short films. The festival offers individual screenings along with five and ten film packages, as well as featuring, A Beautiful Death by Brian Douglas, the winning short film of a joint project with Hospice Waterloo Region. The contest asked for short films on the subject of death and dying viewed in a positive manner. 

After canceling last year’s festival, the GRFF team regrouped in September to plan out the 2021 festival. At that time, the second wave was ending, and the team was starting to look at potential venues for a hybrid in-person and online event. GRFF even reached out to other festival organizers in Kingston, London, and other cities to learn what platforms and technologies they used for their online festivals. 

“The news never got any better and we said, ‘if we’re going to do anything, we have to go completely online’,” Clark said. “We did maybe three or four months of solid due diligence before we decided: yes, let’s do this.”

A year’s worth of COVID-19’s impact on film production, cinema openings, and the festival circuit have created new challenges and opportunities. There were delays and shutdowns in everything from Hollywood mega-production to small, independent films. 

He used this year’s Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay, Promising Young Woman, as an example. Clark saw the trailer for the film at the Princess Cinema in December  2019 and it was scheduled to come in Spring 2020. He reached out to the distributor who refused collaboration because it was slotted for release before the Festival. Then, it never came out. 

“It finally got released in a handful of theaters, and that was enough to qualify for the Oscars this year. But technically, that movie is two years old,” Clark said. 

He also said this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Nomadland, went onto the US streaming platform Hulu almost immediately after being released. “TIFF is usually the unofficial start of the movie season. Movies get their premieres at TIFF, and then they’ll do the circuit for about a year,” said Clark. “This year, some movies were at TIFF, and then within a month, were on Netflix. They’re just burned off and they get no exposure.”

This year, the festival had more movies available to choose from than in previous years, especially as they have not had a regular distribution plan. 

“They haven’t had a chance to play and do their two weeks in art house theatres. A lot of movies are still sitting with the distributors. When I reached out to them now, they’re like, yeah, you know what? Sure!”

Although it is a different format, the GRFF is continuing to bring quality cinema to Waterloo Region. For more information and tickets, visit the GRFF website.


Alex Kinsella is a freelance content marketer and writer based in Waterloo Region, Ontario. He's behind the TL;WR newsletter–Waterloo Region's weekly events newsletter. He's worked with some of Canada's most well known tech companies in roles including customer success, development, product management, PR, social media and marketing. Alex has contributed to publications including BetaKit, Grand Magazine and more.