Sandra Gibson was in the midst of planning the 2020 Maryland Film Festival when the pandemic hit. Her team ultimately moved the whole thing online, but at the time, she had no idea that the 2021 festival (from May 19-27) would also have to go virtual. On the plus side, this unusual year has given her lots of time to reimagine the Parkway Theatre and its role in both the Station North community and all of Baltimore.
First of all, how did last year’s virtual fest go?
For a bootstrap thing, we think it went extraordinarily well. It was a brand-new platform. We were inventing as we went. We had 17 feature films. 150 filmmakers. 15 blocks of shorts. [We had] world, North American, and Baltimore premieres. We had a few thousand people participate. All 50 states. We hadn’t had that kind of participation before, so the reach was greatly expanded.
What made you decide to go virtual again this year?
It was an agonizing decision. We just didn’t believe it would be safe enough, that audiences would be comfortable enough, or that we’d actually be able to open at enough of a capacity to have the festival in-person. Plus, the Maryland Institute College of Art told us they weren’t inviting anyone onto their campus, and we use their facilities, so that sort of made the decision for us.
But it will still be a great festival. You have to create the excitement differently. We’re adding family programming. We’re looking for spaces to do drive-in screenings. There will be more in-depth conversations. There will be surprises. I don’t have the [full] lineup yet, but we’ll probably have 32 events like we did last year, and we’ve extended it through the 27th for extra viewing time. It’s a lot to go through. But you can actually watch everything in nine days, if you’re truly committed.
You’re in the midst of making a lot of changes to the Parkway, too.
The plan is to fully activate the entire building—really set it up to do exhibitions, installations, small public art pieces. Things that provide extra context and give people a reason to drop by. We’re trying to be more community responsive, more socially engaged. We’ve sort of coined this as “art house plus”—the best of art house, the best of a contemporary art museum. We’re going to be launching a center for moving image. We’ll still have our theatrical releases, but it’s going to be plussed up in a way that is not only inviting but fits our community.
How do you make the Parkway a place where everyone feels at home year-round?
It all comes down to community programming. How do we build programs that feature the themes and ideas that matter to the people that live in our area? You have to be in the community. You have to be conversant and interested in where the community’s at, and support the community in its effort, its demands, its needs, and its growth and evolution. That work takes time. We’re starting to get on that path. We’re building a community advisory panel. [Filmmaker] Radha Blank said it best—we were premiering an episode of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It that hadn’t been released yet, and she got up and said, “The Parkway is my birthright.” If you don’t feel comfortable here, make it your own. You have to do that. This place belongs to you.