Pivot Point: The Mill Valley Film Festival Is Reimagined in Light of Covid-19


Thank God for Mark Fishkin’s and Zoe Elton’s passion for film, their belief in the medium’s power and their strategic vision. Without them, the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) wouldn’t have become an internationally acclaimed event with a 43 year history. Now, during this challenging pandemic and fire season, Black Lives Matter protests, a challenging election and insecure times — when so many other festivals have been cancelled, MVFF went ahead. Fishkin, MVFF Founder and Executive Director, and Elton, Director of Programming, are not only keeping MVFF going, they’re using this powerful platform to create solutions, foster important conversations and grow opportunities for filmmakers around the world. Furthermore, they’re strengthening other film festivals through greater collaboration.

MVFF’s reputation and impact can best be understood from past participants. John Malkovich, Forest Whitaker, Laura Dern, Woody Harrelson, Uma Thurman, Emma Stone, Peter Fonda, Robin Williams, Sydney Pollack, Julie Taymor and Dame Helen Mirin are but a few of the industry greats who have walked their red carpet or received an award. Films have debuted at MVFF which went on to win Oscars – like La La Land, Spotlight and Green Book among others. Fiskin and Elton have leveraged their MVFF success to found many other organizations that create tremendous impact for others through film, including Mind The Gap — a highly successful gender equity in filmmaking initiative — the California Film Institute, filmmaking education opportunities for students and schools, and DocLands, a documentaries only festival. Moreover, Fishkin has served as a San Francisco Film Commissioner, and he and Elton are sought-after internationally as thought leaders in film.

When Covid-19 hit and so many others shut down, these two leaned in. They’re bringing better to so many others during this troubling time because of this too. In a Zoom interview, Fishkin and Elton discussed the challenges of producing this year’s MVFF, celebrated the opportunities being fostered, and offered a sneak peek into the highlights of the October event, soon to be streaming across the county and around the world. “Besides family, film is where I get my values and my lessons,” Fishkin declares, as he sits in the MVFF office with his ever present, beloved dog at his side. He’s determined to help others who feel this way too and foster greater empathy, as only film can do, too.

An erudite Brit, with the charming accent and fashion statement big glasses you would expect, Elton effuses, “This is a really exciting time! We’re planting the seeds of the future of film this year. We’ve launched 20 years of evolution in what is likely to be only two years time.” Thinking about their goals and how to work in a virtual space, “opened the door for us to be able to work with people in ways that we might never have imagined otherwise,” she continues. The festival is making panel discussions with industry and other thought leaders available worldwide. It’s easy to imagine what an inspiring and outstanding education this will be for aspiring filmmakers and passionate film buffs everywhere. “We remain dedicated to content as education and inspiration — as well as to the big theatre experience,” Fishkin also declares. As proof, the festival is creating their own drive-in theatre. “Of course,” he adds as a wry aside, “this will only work as long as the electricity stays on.” Let’s hope the California grid does not become overtaxed during the festival.

The pair have created substantial MVFF content in response to the challenges of our times. “Because of Black Lives Matter, we embraced the notion of intersectionality at its deepest meaning,” Elton explains. “We asked ourselves, how can we start to be a place for communities of black, brown, nonbinary and queer, as well as female? How can we do more to heal through film?” Their answer includes expanding the Mind The Gap initiative beyond simply being a gender lens. Panel discussions will also showcase, as well as a political tract of the festival designed to foster live dialogue and connection building.

MVFF also jumped on opportunities to bring exciting new films to the broadest possible audience. Many of these will be shared with other film festivals too, like Chicago. Thanks to the MVFF pivot, award-winning films will be available to anyone in the country who buys a ticket and wants to view it from the comfort of their favorite location and device.

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Susan B. Noyes is the Founder & Chief Visionary Officer of Make It Better Media Group, as well as the Founder of Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy AwardsA mother of six, former Sidley Austin labor lawyer and U.S. Congressional Aide, passionate philanthropist, and intuitive connector, she has served on boards for the Poetry FoundationHarvard University Graduate School of Education Visiting Committee, American Red CrossLurie Children’s HospitalAnnenberg ChallengeChicago Public Education FundLyric Opera of ChicagoChicago Symphony OrchestraNew Trier High School District 203, and her beloved Kenilworth Union Church. But most of all, she enjoys writing and serving others by creating virtuous circles that amplify social impact.