What It’s Like to Experience the Sundance Film Festival Live From Birmingham, Alabama

For more than two decades, Gareth Jones had spent late January and early February in snowy Park City, Utah at the Sundance Film Festival. But on Thursday night, Jones didn’t have to get on a plane to attend the annual film festival. Instead, he drove to the Sidewalk Film Fest and Cinema in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, as the local theater began its run as a Sundance Satellite Screen location, one of the outdoor, drive-in and arthouse theaters used as the fest has shifted to a virtual model amid the ongoing pandemic.

“The film community here is very supportive. It’s a small town and a big city,” Jones tells Variety. “And I decided, ‘Hey, I’m going to attend the in-person screenings are here at Sidewalk,’ because they do an amazing job with keeping things safe. I’ve attended some other screenings there [after theaters in Alabama reopened], so I’ve seen firsthand how well they keep things under control.”

On Thursday night, Jones attended the world premiere screening of “Censor,” tweeting his reaction after the film, instead of buzzing about the premiere of “Minari” and celebrating with fellow film fans late in the night, like he did at last year’s festival, before whispered concerns about coronavirus began to spread around Park City.

“You’re in that Sundance bubble, but I still remember thinking, ‘COVID is sounding really serious.’ And I’m like, we have so many people here internationally, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘I wonder if it’s here already? As I’m sitting in a waiting list tent with 400 people at Eccles or inside a theater with 1200,” Jones recalls. “And then, of course, everything kind of cascaded after that. And I remember, in March, thinking, ‘Surely by next January things are going to be under control, Sundance will be fine.’ But by June, I could already see the signs on the wall that Sundance is not going to have the same operation.”

So when he heard about the festival’s Satellite Screen partnerships, he was first relieved and then excited to see that the Sidewalk Film Festival team had been selected to host the Alabama events. Jones, who hosts a radio show called “Sleep in Cinema,” has been a longtime supporter of the nonprofit film fest and cinema, which works to bring more access to independent film and to support the local Alabama film industry.

Jones is a film studies professor at UAB Birmingham. But, each year, he saves up his vacation days and takes about three weeks off from his day job to work at the festival, where he is a contractor hired to manage parking and transportation. The work is good, but Jones really attends the fest to “rejuvenate his cinephile battery.”

“I started attending as an undergraduate at the University of Utah; you could get a student pass back in that day for like $50 and watch 40 films. It was just pure heaven for a cinephile,” he recalls.

“Seeing it from those early years, all the way up into the 2000s where it really became this huge industry, the beautiful thing about Sundance is it still retains that amazing ability to find filmmakers that need a spotlight, to give them a venue to launch their careers and that has never changed,” he adds. “You still every year have a film like ‘Minari’ that comes in and that’s gonna just explode those stars’ careers.”

The “time off” also has benefits for his film students, informing the curriculum for his classes. For example, Jones says that screening Garrett Bradley’s “Time” at the 2020 fest led him to add the film to his “Prison in Film” course. This year, amid the pandemic, Jones’ students have been learning the ins and outs of virtual film festivals, adapting their own annual student fest to a digital model, similarly to the way Sidewalk adapted its annual fest over the summer.

The Sidewalk team first heard it was in contention to be one of Sundance’s Satellite Screens just ahead of their 22nd annual film fest. The event ran from August 24-30 as a drive-in series, in lieu of the traditional model, where screenings take place at multiple venues in the downtown district within walking distance of each other.

“We were very thrilled that we were on the list, and conversations began almost immediately, about how this was gonna look how it was gonna work and how things are going to function, with the acknowledgement that a lot of this is new for them, and clearly new for us,” Morgan recalls. “And, of course, a global pandemic is new for everyone. We knew things were ever-changing and we’d move forward rolling with the punches.”

Building on the COVID safety precautions learned from the summer festival, Sidewalk is hosting simultaneous screenings in two locations — inside the theater with a 38-person capacity (hosting 12 people per screen, “That is about 20% capacity,” Morgan says. “We’re just being hyper-careful.”) and an outdoor drive-in, with a capacity of 40 cars.

“One thing that pandemic’s taken away from all of us is things to look forward to, a feeling of connection and community, and a feeling of hopefulness and of being excited about things,” Morgan adds. “From the very start, whether it was our pop up drive-ins, or trying to open the cinema back up, or just our Netflix film recommendations, our hope was to give people something to be excited about. Especially now, that’s really needed, and to join with Sundance to be able to know, is just amazing. The excitement seems to be there from the community.”

An added benefit from being chosen for the festival, Morgan notes, is that “Sundance is being very generous and has helped us to offset the cost, because there is a big cost in screening in the proper format and setting up a pop up drive-in.”

Plus, Sundance is allowing Sidewalk to keep 100% of the ticket sales, providing an economic boon for the small theater and nonprofit, that has been operating at reduced capacity (or closed) for nearly a year.

“We’re more fortunate than some, since we’re a nonprofit and can and can go out and ask people for help and people have been fairly generous, but it’s a constant ask,” Morgan says. “Every day that comes by is another day that we’re either at a reduced income so we’re struggling. It’s such a tough time for everyone. So, we really appreciate the partnership that’s being brought to us, to help us through.”

And for Jones, who plans to see three more films in the theater and one at the drive -in, the opportunity to watch films in Alabama means he’ll get to bring a special plus one.

“I get to go with my wife, which I haven’t been able to do for a long time,” Jones says. “She used to attend a few screenings with me, but she hasn’t attended one for past 13 years.”

And he is hopeful that some of the changes are here to stay, suggesting that this hybrid model could change festivals forever, by making them accessible to everyone with an internet connection.

“Sundance is so exclusive, and I love it but it’s expensive to go there,” he adds. “This allows Sundance to get to more people. The same way my students were able to interview filmmakers from France to New York; they never would have had that if we had just had local filmmakers in Birmingham participate but because we opened it up to online and virtual we could suddenly bring in all these other things.”

Even so, Jones admits there’s nothing quite like the communal experience of watching a movie in a crowded theater.

“You can’t replace that to be in the room when Nicolas Cage walks in at 2 a.m. after ‘Mandy,’ and you’re all adrenaline and coffee,” Jones concludes. “Or you’re at the very first screening of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and people are passing out. ‘Hereditary’ was the same thing; you can’t replicate that. So I’m hoping going forward that they will enhance their online presence and make it more accessible, while at the same time, keeping that in-person component because you just can’t replace that.”

Courtesy of Gareth Jones

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