The common ground between American film consumers and critics is when the two get to converge at a film festival. Equally measured in their “first look” at a film that has yet to open in a theater near you, the two get to take in the spectacle of a movie, sharing in those experiences and reacting to it on Film Twitter or with one another outside a theater. With the COVID-19 pandemic, that loss has yet to be quantified. It’s hard to execute a plan of “word of mouth” when no mouths are present. The Toronto, Telluride and New York film festivals all did their best with their combined effort to go virtual (and in some cases, still host in-person screenings at drive-in theaters).
The regional festival circuit doesn’t usually get the glitz of world premieres for awards season kickoffs, and has tried to navigate the pandemic with the new virtual screenings setting. While this opens their market up to many different consumers wanting to experience their festival, but is not regionally located around them, they’re hoping to survive to fight another day. This weekend saw the Hamptons, Mill Valley and Middleburg Film festivals’ conclusions; three of the more prestigious and credible voices in the awards stops. AFI Film Fest is underway with Amazon Studios’ “I’m Your Woman” kicking things off for them. This all continues with Savannah and DOC NYC next on the docket.
For the first time in eight months, I saw a film on a big screen this weekend. In early September, I was fortunate enough to see Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” on my 59-inch television screen, utilizing screencasting. Quickly falling for its charm and vibrant narrative beats, it shot up to not just my favorite film of the year thus far, but one of the frontrunners for the best picture Oscar. On Thursday evening, I was lucky enough to watch it from a balcony at the Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Va., with a sprawling view of about nearly 50 patrons on the green lawn made up of critics, film enthusiasts and even a few awards and guild voters. Right behind them, perched on 30 balconies, were another group of guests taking in the ambiance of the evening. On the other side of the large property, Middleburg set up a drive-in screening of the film, with a maximum capacity of 50 cars sold out. Not available for virtual screenings, the film was a must-see, and the attendance proved that.
The beauty and importance of the movie theater experience are being threatened by the coronavirus pandemic. While many are using clickbait headlines to decry the “end of movie theaters” and calling for the “canceling of the Oscars,” a four-day weekend getaway to a place where the love of movies is felt in every corner was a retreat away from our toxic climate and a reminder of the simpler times we miss. The same feeling was echoed in the Saturday night screening of Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” which takes on newer and more profound meanings with each watch.
Being from New York City, I’ve never had the chance to attend a drive-in movie, and that was changed by “The Last Shift” from first-time director Andrew Dunn and producer Ron Yerxa (“Little Miss Sunshine”), boasting another strong performance from two-time Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins. Also on a big screen, we got to take in Francis Lee’s “Ammonite,” Ricky Staub’s “Concrete Cowboy” and Edward Hall’s “Blithe Spirit.”
Many might remember the last film they saw on the big screen before the lockdowns began. Mine was Pixar’s “Onward,” with my 9-year-old daughter Sophia. I can also recall the last two films I was invited to see before everything shut down, with “Promising Young Woman” and “A Quiet Place Part II,” which has been moved to late 2021. Some of you may have ventured out since then to take in Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” or other films, but there’s been a real reluctance to venture into a theater, especially on the East Coast.
In addition to the screenings, patrons were able to take in the virtual tributes that included Zhao receiving the Agnès Varda Trailblazing Filmmaker award, which will just add to the many accolades she will likely receive this year for her work on the film in which she produces, directs, writes and edits. Also receiving tributes were Aaron Sorkin, who received the screenwriter award, and Sophia Loren, who picked up the legacy tribute prize. No stranger to Middleburg, composer Kris Bowers performed a concert along with his distinguished film composer prize. Simultaneously, the director spotlight award went to George C. Wolfe, prepping his launch for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Aldis Hodge received the actor spotlight award in a year where he’s delivered top-notch work in “One Night in Miami” and “The Invisible Man” while the cast of “Minari” took in the ensemble cast prize, hoping to bleed over to the SAG Awards.
We don’t know when this pandemic will end, but the movie theaters and film festivals need to have an avenue to remind us why art is so crucial.