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How to Host a Shelter-in-Place Film Festival

| Essays, Movies

Note: This guide was the basis of an episode of the podcast Deviate w/ Rolf Potts which aired on May 6, 2020. 

While we’re all on lockdown and not working or home schooling around a kitchen table, perhaps in the off hours, you’re looking to catch up on some movie watching. A bender with the queue of your choice, perhaps? Hold on, now. We don’t know when we’re getting unlocked down here. Think longer.

Something like your own Shelter in Place film festival.

Designing a film festival for family and friends or just yourself enables a lot of great time with movies plus the added pleasure of how they all hang together. It’s not the same as “Binge watching’ an endurance event designed to complete a long narrative and lose track of time. But you could binge watch the year 1997 and we STILL might not be out of the woods with this thing. Your Shelter in Place Film Festival still has a lot of sitting and watching and snacking to it but with more reasonable expectations.

It ain’t hard to do, so long as take a few pre-emptive steps which make building your own film festival fun instead of a multi hour wander ending in a shrug. Here’s how

1. How much time do you have for this?

An afternoon? A day? A weekend? Film Festivals are inherently a time-bound activity.

It may seem counterintuitive to begin planning with how much time you wish to spend watching movies than how many or what movies you wish to see. But you can always add movies if everyone’s having a great or cut the lineup short if everyone’s drifting off to the kitchen or falling asleep.

You cant add another Friday.

Setting a time limit also creates reasonable expectations. Watching 11 movies in a day is not going to happen. Watching 3 over a week might seem anti-climactic, something you’d do anyway instead of an event. Since film festivals are about maximizing quality for each hour spent watching, not about watching until you or your guest physically can’t anymore.

Wait, guests?

2. Who all is invited?

A film festival for just you and your loved ones at home is the easiest way to do this. Level up by inviting friends or another family to join: Everyone watches the movies in their own home then signs on to zoom or google hangout afterward at a designated time to talk about the movie you just saw. Watching movies all at the same time while all on video conferences I’ve found technically complicated and not very rewarding.

If you’re making it a truly virtual film festival, it’s a bit more important to stick to a schedule so all participants know when they should be watching and when they should be yapping with each other. We’ll get to scheduling in just a sec but first..

3. Who is choosing the movies? You can either designate a leader who picks all the movies but also bears responsibility if they suck or you can create a list based on a theme (see next) and vote. A designated leader, like dictatorship, is more efficient. Democracy, as Oscar Wilde said, “is great but takes up a lot of weeknights.”

If you’re the leader, do your own research and come up with the program or poll your own electorate of family and friends for both a theme or movies that fit it. But remember, planning a film festival isn’t all that different than planning a party. It’s designed to entertain the guests not show what sort of genius you were coming up with the event in the first place.

In my experience, film festivals benefit from a strong leader so the movies are well chosen and hang together someone but a leader that listens to those he/she has invited to their festival.

4. Theme? Festivals have themes to distinguish themselves from binge watching. The idea is many movies creatively grouped in a interesting way. Half the joy is coming up with that creative list rather than just hitting “next” on the remote control.

Self-creating film festivals come in a few different types: A Vertical Festival is usually organized around the body of work of a creative person (all of Denzel Washington’s pre-Oscar movies, All movies directed by Ava Duvernay) A Horizontal Festival is organized around something non-people related all the chosen movies have in common (movies who all have “Star” in their name, movies that take place in Chicago).  A Spring Cleaning Festival is a conscious attempt to see movies that have languished on your to-be-watched list for too long. A Hall of Fame Festival is usually grouped around the perceived “best” movies in a genre (Romantic Comedies) or a given time period (the 1990s). A Hub and Spoke Festival will begin with a beloved, well known film then see ancillary movies (another movie by that director, a remake, another movie featuring a jazz soundtrack) and material (short films from that director, a documentary about the hub film’s subject) from there.

The purpose of a Vertical Festival is to notice commonalities (Michael Douglas never plays a working-class person) and evolutions (Laura Dern often played quiet characters in her 20s and loud characters in her 40s and 50s). The purpose of a Horizontal Film Festival–because you have declared the thing they have in common up front–is to notice differences (look how many different kinds of movies took place only at night). A Hall of Fame Festival will inspire debate and discussion b/c “best” is a subjective criteria. A Hub And Spoke Festival usually needs a strong leader to push the spokes out far enough from the hub so the movies at this festival feel different enough from one another. A Spring Cleaning Festival is better reserved for a my-family-only kind of festival where everyone’s had a hand in the queue to be cleaned out in the first place.

4. What movies? Whether you go with one leader or a group vote, start by collectively making a first draft list of movies that fit your theme. Most likely it will be larger than the time you have. If it is, either the group votes or the leader should chose their best judgement. Failing either of those, go with the movies highest rated on Rotten Tomatoes unless you are really into watching bad movies.

5. How? It is best to have either hard copies of your chosen films, either on DVD or digital download. Streaming services are notorious for removing movies from their library without telling anybody and you don’t want to depend on a movie being available service on day of your festival because there’s no promise of that.

6. Schedule. Unless your theme requires you to go in a specific order, start with a short fun, banger of a film to whet everyone’s appetites. End on a movie with uplift because if you end with a horribly depressing movie, the audience will not only feel that way about the movie but the festival itself and most likely you as well. In between, you generally want to alternative between heavy and light in tone, between short and long in run time.

7. The Next Day. After your festival do something completely different like go for a hike or call someone. I find watching a bunch of movies in a row a mostly forgettable activity (and then what’s the point?) if it’s all swallowing and no digesting.