Last year, when COVID-19 rendered large events nearly impossible, the founders of Chapel Hill’s Film Fest 919 were struck with inspiration: while assembling in a theater felt unsafe, a distanced gathering where guests remained in their vehicles seemed plausible.
“We knew we didn’t want to do a virtual festival because we felt that people don’t get the full movie-going experience that way,” says Randi Emerman, CEO of The Drive-In at Carraway Village and Film Fest 919 co-founder. “So we built a drive-in. All the parking spaces are socially distant, and you’re outside, so it gives you that freedom to go to the movies regardless of circumstance.”
Emerman and her co-founder, publicist Carol Marshall, created Film Fest 919 from scratch in 2018 as a pre-Oscars showcase for the most buzzed-about feature films of a given year—a way for audiences to “catch the films before they catch on,” as the event tagline teases.
“I’ve been in the movie theater business for nearly 30 years—my grandfather even owned theaters,” Emerman says. “Carol and I started working together years ago at Palm Beach International Film Festival and between the two of us, we have well over 75 years of experience.”
Last year, the pair quickly built The Drive-In at Carraway Village—a 140-car, family-friendly outdoor venue showing the first-run films you’d find at your typical indoor theater, along with themed laser shows and dog-friendly screenings.
This year, Film Fest 919’s fourth edition will run October 18–24 and will mix drive-in screenings at the Carraway Village location with in-person screenings at Chapel Hill’s Silverspot Cinema.
The festival’s 2020 modality switch—and resulting hybrid format for 2021—are illustrative of many bigger conversations swirling around film festivals worldwide. Even before the pandemic, festival organizers were already negotiating the dawn of screening and a rapidly changing technological landscape. Did guests want to go out to movies anymore, especially to see the indie films that are the typical festival fare?
But in 2020, the pressure to evolve film festival concepts compounded with the virus, and organizers found themselves at a crossroads—cancel events altogether or swiftly pivot to a safer hosting method?
In the case of Film Fest 919, momentum was at stake. The festival enjoyed near-instant success after beginning three years ago, thanks in large part to Emerman’s and Marshall’s expertise. It screened several Academy Award-winning films and honored a star-studded roster of guests like Chloe Zhao, a winner of multiple Academy Awards. Plus, its formation filled an important niche in the Carolinas. In the absence of other major film fests, North Carolinian cinephiles, including groups of film students, had already become regulars.
A drive-in seemed to be the strongest way to keep the ball rolling.
“It was not the easiest thing to do with our own funds. There were a lot of hurdles,” Emerman says. “[But] we worked to find a way to keep the community engaged, and building a drive-in enables us to do that year-round with special events, too.”
Other local film festivals also rerouted programming last year, taking chances on new virtual options in the hope that filmmakers and festival audiences would do the same. Carrboro Film Fest found an answer to the pandemic in fully virtual operations, screening Southern films on Vimeo and organizing events in other disciplines to bolster the online screenings.
“To complement our official film selections, we hosted some cool live-streamed events with local performing artists,” festival director Bradley Bethel says. “Through those events, we were able to connect with the community and offer Carrboro a festival to be proud of.”
“Still,” he adds, “virtual events just can’t build and energize community like face-to-face interaction does.”
In a typical year, Carrboro Film Fest offers attendees not only screenings and talkbacks but also networking events and lively after-parties at local bars. This year, Bethel and staff plan to hold an in-person festival November 19–21 and are considering requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test for entry. While Bethel says that the team “felt the love” at last year’s festival, he doesn’t plan to kick a virtual component into permanent gear.
“I suspect some festivals will maintain virtual events, but I don’t expect virtual events to become the focus,” he says.
BEYOND: The Cary Film Festival has navigated the pandemic with a nearly identical approach to that of Carrboro’s fest. In 2020, the event pivoted to entirely virtual showings and workshops but this year will screen its selected shorts for audiences at the Cary Theater. The festival will run October 7–10 with a mask requirement in place and health checks required for staff.
Robbie Stone, the Town of Cary’s arts program and operations coordinator and Cary Theater’s interim supervisor, says that the decision to hold in-person events this year was made with filmmakers in mind.
“The sense of community was lost during our virtual festival, especially for our filmmakers,” Stone says. “We want to have these filmmakers back and have them interact with our audiences. It’s so vital for them to get that feedback; otherwise, they feel as though they are working in a vacuum. That can be a very dark place for an artist to be, and we don’t want that for our filmmakers.”
However, Stone says that last year’s virtual offerings opened BEYOND to a wider audience than ever before. Viewers streamed the festival’s films from nearly every continent, and the accompanying workshops were available virtually to participants everywhere. This year, BEYOND will not offer any virtual components, but a hybrid modality is in talks for future years, once the event’s staffing is back to its pre-pandemic levels.
As the film world continues to grapple with new limitations, the questions of how, when, and where audiences will engage are being widely probed. For film festivals, in particular, an emphasis on hybridity and flexibility—or, as Emerman says, getting creative with programming—could help maintain safety, grow audiences, and bolster local communities. Regardless of what new ways of viewing the future hold, Emerman, Bethel, and Stone all agree that visits to the cinema remain foundational.
“Every film lover I know prefers to watch films on a big screen and with an audience,” Bethel says. “Only in that context do we experience the magic of cinema.”
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