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The last time I was in a movie theater was March 13, 2020. COVID-19 had finally arrived on the U.S. shores and we weren’t quite sure what it would mean, but everything was starting to shut down. I figured it would probably be one of my last opportunities to visit the cinema for a couple of months, so I chose the earliest screening of Valiant’s Bloodshot.

It was an uncomfortable experience. The theater was mostly empty but one of the few other attendees chose to sit two seats away from me. He spent the film coughing, snorting, and, at least twice, spitting. I was pretty sure that was going to be it. My zeal to get one last film in would result in hospitalization from this virus we were still trying to understand.

Bloodshot coronavirus

Thankfully, Bloodshot didn’t give me COVID.

So we shelter-in-place.

Three days later six Bay Area counties would issue a “shelter-in-place” order closing everything from bars to movie theaters. Six days later that order would extend to the entire state. There was an attempt to reopen some business, including movie theaters at 25 percent capacity, in mid-June. A spike after the 4th of July quickly put the kibosh on those plans.

It has been more than six months since I’ve set foot in a movie theater. Typically, I’ll see more than 50 films in a darkened theater every year. The cinema is my quick escape from reality. It’s where I go if I need to disconnect. A moment of freedom when the weather turns bad – either too hot during our very brief Bay Area summers or too wet during the rainy season. More often than I like, a retreat when the air quality gets bad from annual wildfires.

Fifty might seem like a lot of films to see in a theater during a year, but it isn’t that I go to the movies every week. That number’s inflated thanks to a passion for film festivals. Every year for the last 15 years I’ve attended at least one film festival. In a handful of very good years, I’ve made it to more than three. My streak of attending film festivals in a theater will break this year. It was a good run.

And now we stay away.

Back on March 13, I foolishly thought the United States would be able to get things under control for summer. Maybe we could have of films before winter’s wave hit. Nope. We appear to be heading in the wrong direction. Even as some theaters start to reopen in California I’ve decided to not go back. I need to be confident I won’t inadvertently contribute to the continued spread.

(Qualification: I have started putting money into a fund in the event Denis Villeneuve’s Dune does somehow get released on December 18, 2020. I’m willing to put down the money to rent a private Alamo Drafthouse screen for myself and those in my trusted quarantine bubble.)

I understand this decision to not roll the dice and pay for a seat to see a film will detrimentally impact cinemas. I have no doubt there will be fewer screens whenever we do come out on the other side of this. However, as much as my heart breaks for what we’re losing as a culture it really is a failure of the federal government and the Senate led by Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. This summer, Congress went home instead of staying to do the important work of supporting citizens, businesses, and the arts.

Congress is back in session and House Democrats are putting forth a comprehensive COVID stimulus bill. Senate Republicans continue to balk at the price tag and passing legislation before the election. The best way to support the arts is through state and local governments. Unfortunately, without a federal lifeline, those governments have been watching their budgets explode.

Indie distributors support indie theaters.

Meanwhile, indie distributors like Greenwich Entertainment and Film Movement have been doing what they can to support small theaters. Since March, Greenwich has been making films available for video on demand that would normally be in theaters. For example, if someone clicks “get tickets” for the documentary Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine it brings them to a page where they can search for a nearby theater. If you’re in the Bay Area your choices are Roxie, Vogue, Balboa, and Smith Rafael Film Center. Select one for a “Virtual Cinema” screening and a portion of the $4.99 will go to support that cinema.

Greenwich Entertainment's search screen for Creem: American's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine
Greenwich Entertainment’s search screen for Creem: American’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine

I don’t know how successful those programs have been but it’s a clever plan. I hope it can continue after we’re out of the pandemic. I’m lucky. My metro area that has multiple theaters screening indie films. How great would it be if cinephiles in theater starved markets could access these films while sustaining existing brick-and-mortar theaters in other cities?

The innovation by indie distributors to support indie theaters through “virtual cinemas” has created unique opportunities for film festivals.

Festivals innovate.

The 58th New York Film Festival, happening now through October 11, has negotiated capacity limits with film distributors that are similar to seating capacity in a typical theater. All of the films have set viewing windows. Most appear to be five days to start after renting and 24 hours to finish once you start. A handful of premieres, like international festival darling Nomadland, have extremely tight viewing windows. Let’s say a viewer wanted to watch that film at home. They’ would have needed to watch it on September 26 between 8 p.m. and 11:59 p.m. EDT. That’s a hard stop time and I believe the film would terminate even if not finished. Therefore, the viewer should have started the two-hour film by 10 p.m. and planned to not pause.

Nomadland publicity shot.

It’s impossible to replicate the excitement of a film festival at home but I love this experimental system. The key to a true film festival experience is strategic planning. This system somewhat contributes to recreating that experience. It requires planning ahead. Those films are only available to rent for a limited time and once that purchase is made the window to watch is brief.

If I was lucky enough to snag one of the fewer than 300 Nomadland tickets it would have required being in a specific place (my couch) at a specific time. That creates a sense of urgency I don’t get from other VOD opportunities. Yes, I watched Bill and Ted Face the Music the day it dropped on VOD. However, I could have put it off for days or paused in the middle of it to do the dishes. There wasn’t a sense of urgency to finish in one sitting.

The virtual festival premiere is exciting because it means if I hesitate too long I might not get into the screening (and there isn’t a rush line!). If I do get a ticket I’m a captive audience member. The longest I could pause is for a bathroom break.

I have a soft spot for genre film festivals. If 2020 hadn’t taken the unwelcome initiative of immersing everyone in a globally shared horror film experience, it’s possible this would have been the year I returned to Overlook Film Festival and for the first time made it to Telluride Horror Show. When Overlook’s postponement email arrived in late-March it was heartbreaking but understandable.

Over the next few weeks, I came to accept the reality that film festivals weren’t going to happen in the United States. I attempted to compensate by making a “Film Fest at Home” list. I scrolled through various streaming services and VOD websites. The intention was to take a couple of days off from work and binge newer films mixed with classics. Planning it lacked the urgency I described above. I could schedule 1977’s Sorcerer at a certain time on a certain day, but there wasn’t anything holding me to that commitment.

Additionally, it lacked the communal experience of a film festival. Sure I could put my list online but I was pulling films from multiple sources. My list included VOD services supporting indie theaters, Shudder, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Not only would people need to watch at the same time, but they’d need to have the service or be willing to buy the VOD film. It was a big ask. My enthusiasm for the project waned.

Enter Nightstream.

By time August rolled around I’d stopped thinking about film festivals (and concerts, RIP). Even if a festival did plan to move forward they were mostly international and the US response to the pandemic had assured I wouldn’t be traveling anywhere in 2020. And then, on August 13, I received the email from Overlook about Nightstream.

Nightstream film festival

Nightstream is a collaboration between Boston Underground Film Festival, Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, North Bend Film Festival, The Overlook Film Festival, and Popcorn Frights Film Festival. The email promised “a full slate of feature and short film programming along with unique live events, panels, conversations, masterclasses, and more, all tailored to each festival’s unique flavor.”

Although I wasn’t completely certain about what I’d get from the experience this was an opportunity to support not one, but five film festivals. It was an easy sell. I bought my early bird ticket and took the time off from work. Finally, on September 24, the lineup arrived and I was impressed.

The lineup includes nearly 40 feature films, two dozen special events, and 20 short film programs curated by the participating film festivals. As of this writing the option to reserve virtual seats hasn’t been activated. Therefore, I’m not completely certain how the festival will run. What we do know:

  • A limited number of seats will be available. It’ll be comparable to what NYFF is doing where capacity will be set to a typical theater.
  • “Attendees will continue to have access to select films and events through October 14th.” This phrasing makes me wonder if some of the premieres, like Quentin Dupieux’s Mandibles, might have a tighter viewing window than other films.

Excited about Overlook I decided to start researching how other film festivals are responding to pandemic limitations. Screamfest LA (Oct. 6-15) and Beyond Fest (Oct. 2-8) are cleverly taking advantage of the drive-in theater boom. Fantastic Fest (wrapping up on October 1) is hosting nightly watch parties for members of Alamo-on-Demand. Telluride Horror Show (Oct. 15-18) is employing a tactic similar to Nightstream. The festival plans to have 10-15 feature films and more than 40 shorts.

It dawned on me that there’s a rare opportunity to combine Nightstream with Telluride. Currently, there isn’t any overlap between the films being screened at the two festivals, so the result could be a near monthlong quarantined horror film festival. All it takes is a little bit of film festival Frankensteining.

So that’s what I’m planning to do.

Frankensteining a Pandemic Panic Film Festival 2020

Pandemic Panic Film Festival
Pandemic Panic Film Festival: Please wear a mask.

I won’t know the exact shape of the Pandemic Panic Film Festival until after Telluride and Nightstream release times for their films. However, here’s the current rough calendar based on what I do know.

September 29: 12 Hour Shift

Telluride Horror Show is starting things early with an advance screening of 12 Hour Shift. The film drops at 11 p.m. PDT and will be available until October 1 at 10:45 p.m. PDT. The festival is hosting a Q&A with the film’s writer and director Brea Grant. I believe this is the feature film directorial debut for the actress. The film will act as the unofficial kick-off for my personal film festival. Reserve your ticket here.

October 6: Save Yourselves!

Legion M’s Save Yourselves! isn’t playing at any of the above film festivals and it technically debuts in theaters on October 2. However, as mentioned above, I’m not going to theaters but I still want to support and see this quirky sci-fi film about giant furballs taking over the Earth. It drops on VOD on October 6, so it’s a natural addition to the Pandemic Panic Film Festival. You can pre-order it and get some sweet Legion M swag here. Full disclosure: I am a Legion M investor.

October 7: Books of Blood

Books of Blood is the opening night film for LA’s Screamfest which kicks off October 6 at the Calamigos Ranch Pop-Up Drive-In. The next night the film officially debuts on Hulu, so it fits perfectly into my film festival. According to Bleeding Cool, the film will be one story from the series and two new stories developed by Barker with Brannon Barga (The Orville) and Adam Simon (The Haunting in Connecticut).

Oct. 8-14: Nightstream

Nightstream runs from October 8-11 but some of the films will be available through the 14. Once I know the release schedule I’ll start spreading movies out over these seven days.

Oct. 15-18: Telluride Horror Show

Like Nightstream, I’m not currently sure how long each film will be available. Once I have more information I’ll spread those films out over these three dates and, if possible, beyond.

That’s it for now. I’ll be updating the calendar once times are announced.

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