Binge-watching film and television shows has become a common activity in the past year. With far fewer opportunities to attend events and gatherings, we’ve been spending more time than usual streaming arts and entertainment content from home. It’s a predictable response to challenging times—during periods of economic distress, Americans turn to the movies as a mental and emotional oasis. Look no further than the Great Depression, when Hollywood launched its iconic Golden Age.
For Allyson West, founder and executive director of Cindependent Film Festival (CIFF) and last summer’s Reels on Wheels, the pandemic’s challenges inspired her to take binge-watching to a new level. In March, she launched Cindependent and Chill, an online independent film subscription that features 70–85 minutes of short films each month from filmmakers around the world, along with exclusive behind-the-scenes content and filmmaker insights.
Subscribers receive a preview e-mail of upcoming films on the 25th of each month, followed on the first of the month by a URL link and password to view the content on CIFF’s Vimeo showcase. It’s similar to attending a film festival block, except you’re viewing from the comfort of your home.
Cindependent and Chill is also designed to provide financial support for independent artists and storytellers. The filmmakers whose movies are featured each month enjoy a flat stipend rate that’s influenced directly by the number of subscriptions CIFF sells.
“We brainstormed for months to figure out the best way to support artists right now,” says West. “Many of our filmmakers take second jobs to have the type of income it takes to create their stories and see their visions come to life. At the end of the day, we decided the best thing we could do—for right now—was to stem the overwhelming tide and pressures of day-to-day life for our artists so that they can continue to create.”
The objectives of Cindependent and Chill coincide with CIFF’s core mission to support artists and to bolster the local community of independent filmmakers and cinephiles. CIFF premiered its first annual event in 2018, when filmmakers and audiences gathered for screenings, networking, educational opportunities, and other forms of engagement over the course of five days. The 2020 and 2021 festivals were cancelled due to the pandemic, so Cindependent and Chill is rendering those screenings and events in a digital space.
“Each artist, as part of their license for the month, agrees to create and share an exclusive video that provides direct access to their creative process or the production itself,” West says. “We program thematically, the same way we do at the festival, with the best content we receive from our 600-plus submissions.”
One of the folks behind the scenes who sifts through those submissions and prepares them for streaming is CIFF Technical Manager Kristen Helmberger. She builds the film blocks, ensures that they’re played as the filmmaker intends, and creates monthly teaser trailers for Cindependent and Chill’s social media channels. “I love that with our film blocks you get to experience real and varied stories,” she says. “From minority voices to LGBTQ+ to animation, each viewer will be able to watch something that they normally wouldn’t seek out as part of their niche interest.”
Helmberger says the behind-the-scenes content reflects the supportive relationship CIFF has with independent filmmakers, and it makes her proud to provide for them a service of this kind. “I’m most excited for audiences to experience the passion and heart that these storytellers put into their films,” she says. “You can literally see all of the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into these projects and all of the stories. Hopefully these films inspire others to go out and create their own projects. It’s something amazing to be a part of.”
Brooklyn-based filmmaker Sophia Conger had her short film To Us featured on the platform in March. The drama-comedy follows a famous news anchor who is accused of sexual assault in the workplace, and his wife and daughter must reconcile their feelings toward him as well as their own perspectives on the subject. She says that, in light of COVID-19 and the challenges of seeing movies in person, having her work on Cindependent and Chill is an honor.
“My craft as an independent filmmaker feels valued,” she says. “I’m not sure my work would be seen if it were not for platforms like Cindependent and Chill that allow films from all over to be watched by someone sitting in their house who may be simply curious to see what’s out there.”
Conger credits her Cindependent and Chill experience to West and her ongoing initiatives to support independent film. “Allyson is always coming up with innovative ways to bring content to cinephiles, and she puts so much thought and effort into making every event or screening special. When I heard that Cindependent and Chill was happening, I told myself, I’ve got to be a part of it.”