26TH ANNUAL BLACK HARVEST FILM FESTIVAL
IS GENE SISKEL FILM CENTER’S
MOST SUCCESSFUL STREAMING ENGAGEMENT TO DATE
•Attendance, audience engagement, and box office revenue
more than double any month since going virtual
•A “balm” for viewers, boone for Film Center
•BHFF Audience Awards Announced; Chicago filmmaker honored
Chicago—The Gene Siskel Film Center’s 26th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival, presented virtually between November 6 through 30, surpassed the Gene Siskel Film Center’s sales goals for the festival and generated more than double the attendance and box office revenue of any month since the Film Center launched its virtual “Film Center from Your Sofa” platform in April.
The festival, which tells the stories and explores the images, heritage, and history of the full-range of the Black experience, surpassed its box office goal by 61% through sales of individual tickets and festival passes. Festival attendance totalled 1400 people, with 32,950 page views of the Black Harvest Film Festival home page.
In keeping with festival tradition, the Film Center’s Opening Night “Black Harvest Feast,” featuring a “sampling” of several short films--plus video messages from the filmmakers, festival organizers, and honorary co-chairs Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot and First Lady Amy Eshleman--generated the most ticket sales and viewers. The shorts program, “Love African American Style,” featuring tales of the ups-and-downs of Black romantic relationships, was second, followed by Chicago filmmaker (and former Film Center projectionist) Ashley O’Shay’s documentary, UNAPOLOGETIC, which follows two young abolitionist organizers, as they work within the Movement for Black Lives.
The Black Harvest Audience Award, announced on Closing Night, went to the two films that received the highest ratings from viewers, on a one-to-five scale. The feature award winner was THUMBS UP FOR MOTHER UNIVERSE: THE LONNIE HOLLEY STORY by director George King; and the short film recipient was SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING BLUE by Chicago director Stephanie James.
“The Black Harvest Film Festival was the perfect balm to a turbulent year; for a month, festival goers came together in joy to celebrate stories that are seldom seen in the mainstream media,” said Executive Director Jean de St. Aubin, in a letter to email subscribers and sponsors. She also expressed gratitude for “the small but mighty team at the Film Center,” as well as the Black Harvest Community Council--an advocacy group for the festival--for their hard work and commitment to the success of the festival during a pandemic.
Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot, who served as an honorary co-chair of the festival, along with First Lady Amy Eshleman, said in a statement, “If these past seven months have shown us anything, it’s that, during trying times, we can turn to the arts and storytelling to find meaning and understanding. Events such as the Black Harvest Film Festival are what make Chicago a thriving, multicultural city.”
Sergio Mims, Black Harvest Film Festival Consultant and co-founder of the festival noted the desire to see Black life reflected in art. “We’ve been here for 26 years--but now, more than ever, there is a hunger and a need for people to see a full range of Black stories and experiences reflected on the screen. We’d prefer to show them on the big screen--but a TV or computer screen from the comfort of home can suffice.”
Moving the 26-year-old festival to a virtual platform required a buy-in from the filmmakers.
Director of Programming Barbara Scharres said, "Filmmakers were fully onboard with the idea, even very enthusiastic. Being virtual meant that we had greater latitude for planning Q&As, panels and workshops travel and all the related arrangements. Our offerings of admission-free events that provide for viewer participation increased substantially. One bonus was that we were able to offer nearly all of the Black Harvest programs for a two-week streaming period, with the potential to capture more audiences over a period of time. We also benefited from one of the key advantages of streaming: our audience can watch at their convenience on the device of their choice."
Black Harvest Community Council Co-chair Troy Pryor noted that the ease of the virtual connections allowed filmmakers from all over to come together and “meet” in ways that were previously impossible. He said, “I moderated several virtual panels during the festival, including one with three filmmakers who all happened to live in Harlem but didn’t know each other before the Q&A. Now, they’re planning socially distanced walks in the neighborhood and cross promotional posts on social media. Ironically, the fully-online festival brought people--both filmmakers and viewers--together in a time of social distancing.”
The festival streamed the Chicago premieres of 10 feature films and 44 shorts celebrating the Black experience. Other festival highlights included:
Three free panel discussions: Who Tells the Story, How To Get Your Movie Made, and How Culture and Film Move Movements
Acting/monologue workshop by actor/filmmaker/Black Harvest Community Council member Harold Dennis
Virtual industry networking event
Twelve virtual Q&As with over 30 filmmakers
An Opening Night welcome video from honorary festival co-chairs Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot and First Lady Amy Eshelman
Presentation of the Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Black Harvest Film Festival Prize to Nelson Foix for his short film, YOUR KID
The inaugural Fresh Perspectives, a free program highlighting works from Chicago youth, including a conversation with the young filmmakers
Presentation of the Gene Siskel Film Center Legacy Award to Jacqueline Stewart
Virtual gallery tour highlighting Chicago’s visual artists
Closing Night tribute to Chadwick Boseman
New this year: sale of Black Harvest Film Festival merchandise, designed by Black artist Rachel S. Gadson, founder of ILA Creative Studio, LLC, with 100% of the proceeds benefiting Sista Afya Community Mental Wellness
About the Black Harvest Film Festival
Each year since 1994, the Gene Siskel Film Center has presented the annual Black Harvest Film Festival, the midwest’s largest- and longest-running Black film festival. Celebrated as one of the largest Black festivals in the world, and the only month-long Black film festival in the midwest, the Black Harvest Film Festival is a celebration of independent films that tell the stories and explore the images, heritage, and history of the full-range of Black experience. The Black Harvest Film Festival features Chicago premieres of features, documentaries, and shorts; filmmaker appearances; panel discussions; and special events. The Black Harvest Film Festival supports the Gene Siskel Film Center’s ongoing mission to present inclusive and insightful programming.
“The Black Harvest Film Festival not only nurtures and showcases the talent of Black filmmakers and actors in Chicago and around the world but also presents a diversity of stories and perspectives on the Black experience. We believe film is a powerful catalyst for dialogue, empathy and growth and that this spotlight on and amplification of Black voices has never been more important,” said Jean de St. Aubin, Executive Director of the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Allstate, BMO Harris, ComEd, Gilead Sciences Inc., Locke Lord LLC, The Richard and Ellen Sandor Family Foundation, Felicia Middlebrooks, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, the CityArts Grant, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, NBC 5 Chicago, and the Chicago Reader generously provided funding for this year’s festival.
About the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Since 1972, the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has presented cutting edge cinema to an annual audience of 85,000. The Film Center’s programming includes annual film festivals that celebrate diverse voices and international cultures, premieres of trailblazing work by today’s independent filmmakers, restorations and revivals of essential films from cinema history, and insightful provocative discussions with filmmakers and media artists. Altogether, the Film Center hosts over 1,500 screenings and 200 filmmaker appearances every year. The Film Center was renamed the Gene Siskel Film Center in 2000 after the late, nationally celebrated film critic, Gene Siskel. Visit www.siskelfilmcenter.org to learn more and find out what’s playing today.
About the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
For more than 150 years, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) has been a leader in educating the world’s most influential artists, designers, and scholars. Located in downtown Chicago with a fine arts graduate program ranked number two by U.S. News and World Report, SAIC provides an interdisciplinary approach to art and design as well as world-class resources, including the Art Institute of Chicago museum, on-campus galleries, and state-of-the-art facilities. SAIC’s undergraduate, graduate, and post-baccalaureate students have the freedom to take risks and create the bold ideas that transform Chicago and the world—as seen through notable alumni and faculty such as Michelle Grabner, David Sedaris, Elizabeth Murray, Richard Hunt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Cynthia Rowley, Nick Cave, and LeRoy Neiman. Learn more at saic.edu.