As security standards and streaming technologies evolve, local film festivals strive to reinvent themselves

Find an overview of this fall’s local film festival offerings here.

Last year, when COVID-19 made big events almost impossible, the founders of Chapel Hill’s Film Fest 919 were struck with inspiration: While gathering in a theater seemed dangerous, a remote gathering where guests stayed in their vehicles seemed plausible.

“We knew we didn’t want to do a virtual festival because we felt people weren’t getting the full cinema 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 distanced and you are outside, so it gives you that freedom to go to the movies no matter the circumstances.

Emerman and his co-founder, publicist Carol Marshall, created Film Fest 919 from the ground up in 2018 as a pre-Oscars showcase for the hottest feature films of a given year – a way for audiences to “catch the movies before they catch on,” as the event’s tagline teases.

“I’ve been in the movie theater business for almost 30 years — my grandfather even owned movie theaters,” Emerman says. “Carol and I started working together years ago at the Palm Beach International Film Festival and between us we have over 75 years of experience.”

Last year, the couple quickly built The Drive-In in Carraway Village, a 140-car family-friendly outdoor venue showing the first-run movies you’d find in your typical indoor theater, as well as themed laser shows and dogs. . screenings.

This year, the fourth edition of Film Fest 919 will take place October 18-24 and will combine in-car screenings at Carraway Village with in-person screenings at Silverspot Cinema in Chapel Hill.

The change in festival modality in 2020 – and the resulting hybrid format for 2021 – exemplifies many of the larger conversations swirling around film festivals around the world. Even before the pandemic, festival organizers were already negotiating the dawn of projection and a rapidly changing technological landscape. Did guests want to go to the cinema more, especially to see the independent films that are typical festival fare?

But in 2020, the pressure to evolve film festival concepts has worsened with the virus, and organizers have found themselves at a crossroads – canceling events altogether or quickly moving to a safer method of hosting. ?

In the case of Film Fest 919, momentum was on the line. The festival was an almost instant hit after kicking off three years ago, thanks in large part to the expertise of Emerman and Marshall. He screened several Oscar-winning films and graced a star-studded guest list like multiple Oscar winner Chloe Zhao. Additionally, his training filled an important niche in the Carolinas. In the absence of other major film festivals, North Carolina moviegoers, including groups of film students, had already become regulars.

A drive-in seemed like the most efficient way to get things done.

“It was not the easiest thing to do with our own funds. There were a lot of hurdles,” Emerman says. “[But] we’ve been working to find a way to keep the community engaged, and building a drive-in allows us to do that year-round with special events as well.

Other local film festivals also rerouted programming last year, taking chances on new virtual options in hopes filmmakers and festival audiences would do the same. Carrboro Film Fest has found an answer to the pandemic in entirely virtual operations, showing films from the South on Vimeo and organizing events in other disciplines to bolster online screenings.

“To complement our official film selections, we’ve hosted some cool live-streamed events with local artists,” said festival director Bradley Bethel. “Through these events, we were able to connect with the community and provide Carrboro with a festival we can be proud of.

“Yet,” he adds, “virtual events simply cannot build and energize community the way face-to-face interaction does.”

In a typical year, the Carrboro Film Fest offers attendees not only screenings and discussions, but also networking events and lively nights at local bars. This year, Bethel and staff plan to hold an in-person festival Nov. 19-21 and are considering requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test for entry. While Bethel says the team “felt the love” at last year’s festival, he doesn’t plan to launch 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 come through the pandemic with an almost identical approach to the Carrboro festival. In 2020, the event pivoted to fully virtual screenings and workshops, but this year it will screen its selected shorts for the public at the Cary Theatre. The festival will run from October 7-10 with a mask requirement in place and health checks required for staff.

Robbie Stone, artistic programs and operations coordinator for the City of Cary and acting supervisor of the Cary Theater, says the decision to hold in-person events this year was made with the filmmakers in mind.

“The sense of community got lost during our virtual festival, especially for our filmmakers,” says Stone. “We want to bring these filmmakers back and have them interact with our audience. It is so vital for them to get this feedback; otherwise, they feel like they are working in a vacuum. It can be a very dark place for an artist, and we don’t want that for our filmmakers.

However, Stone says last year’s virtual offerings opened BEYOND to a wider audience than ever before. Viewers viewed the festival films from almost every continent, and the accompanying workshops were virtually accessible to attendees from around the world. This year, BEYOND will not be offering any virtual components, but a hybrid modality is in talks for years to come, once event staffing returns to pre-pandemic levels.

As the world of cinema continues to grapple with new boundaries, the questions of how, when and where audiences will engage are being widely probed. For film festivals, in particular, emphasizing hybridity and flexibility — or, as Emerman puts it, getting creative with programming — could help maintain safety, grow audiences, and strengthen local communities. Regardless of new ways of seeing the future, Emerman, Bethel and Stone all agree that movie visits remain fundamental.

“Every movie buff I know prefers watching movies on the big screen and with an audience,” Bethel says. “It is only in this context that we experience the magic of cinema.”

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