Preview: How to Experience the 56th Chicago Film Festival From Home (and the Drive-In)

Forced by mishandled pandemics to get creative about presenting an annual film festival, the team at Cinema/Chicago have pieced together eleven days of screenings, Q&As, panels and even networking happy hours all to be experienced from the comfort and safety of home. With the exception of eight drive-in screenings offered during the course of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, the entire festival can enjoyed from your living room. And while that doesn’t exactly deliver on a film festival’s enduring raison d’etre—typically, to gather filmmakers and fans together for a lot of movies in just a few days—it does make the Chicago mainstay available to audiences far beyond the Windy City.

As always, Third Coast Review will share our takes on what to watch as the festival unspools, from the first weekend to the last day, so stay tuned for those takes as they come in. In the meantime, it’s understandable if navigating a virtual film festival feels a bit daunting (what does that even mean?). So please, allow us to show you the way…

First, take a moment to dig into the Festival’s programming plan and get an inside look at how this year’s festival came to be with Steve Prokopy’s annual conversation with Cinema/Chicago Artistic Director Mimi Plauché. Plauché offers a glimpse into what it takes to shift an annual event from one in person to one online, as well as what that meant to their typically robust programming. Namely, the Festival features just a fraction of the hundred-plus films it usually showcases; though that’s surely a disappointment to filmmakers eager to keep their movies in front of festival audiences, it means your screening plans are a bit more manageable than ever. The Festival has also put together a handy How To guide if you’re looking for the basics.

Virtual Screenings

If you haven’t yet participated in virtual screenings since the pandemic closed cinemas, consider jumping in for the Chicago International Film Festival. The platform is simple to use and works just like renting a film from your favorite digital platform: use the Festival’s program guide to select a film, and then follow the prompts to rent it through their online store. Pay attention during the purchase process to the availability of any given film; this is where things get tricky. Most films are available nationwide for the duration of the film festival, from October 14-25. There are some, however, that are only available for the second half of the event (becoming available to screen beginning October 20, for example) or in rare cases, there are screenings that are “appointment viewings.”

For example, Werner Herzog’s new documentary Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds is only availalbe to stream for a 6-hour window on Tuesday, October 20. If you rent the film, you have to watch it during that timeframe, otherwise you’ll miss it. Think of it like showing up to the cinema for a specific showtime: the movie’s happening at that time whether you’re in your seat or not. And finally, some films are available in the Festival’s virtual cinema, but there’s a cap on the number of “tickets” sold; Regina King’s splendid One Night in Miami is such a film, and its virtual tickets have already sold out. (As of the time this was written, tickets are still available for the film’s Drive-In screening; more on that below.)

Also take note of which films feature virtual Q&As, a standard offering at film festival screenings in the Before Times. Now, with no travel and no in-person events, these post-film conversations with filmmakers are a bit harder to come by (see a full list here). But Festival organizers have retained a semblance of Q&As past in virtual events dedicated audiences can view via webinar or YouTube stream. Films with virtual Q&As with filmmakers will have that information included in their listing.

Fireball / Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

Drive-In Screenings

Though the Festival’s usual venue, downtown’s AMC River East 21, is open and showing films, event organizers made the prudent choice to skip the traditional cinema model for this year’s program. With capacity restrictions and health concerns top of mind, the only in-person screenings happening for the 56th Chicago International Film Festival are those you’ll watch from your car. As drive-ins have surged in popularity over the last eight months, the Festival joins organizations like Elevated Films and cinemas like Music Box Theatre in programming their events at ChiTown Movies Drive-in, a gravel parking lot in Pilsen that’s been transformed into a movie-goer’s mecca during a pandemic. The Festival will screen only eight films at the Drive-In over the next week, a space that holds about 120 cars. Which means space is limited for these unique movie experiences.

Films included in the line up are varied enough that you’ll be able to head out to the West Side for whatever strikes your fancy; opening night is a documentary about Chicago’s own John Belushi, while the weekend features the euphoric concert doc David Byrne: American Utopia, a version of the Broadway show filmed by Spike Lee, and in a nod to spooky season, a late-night screening of The Dark and the Wicked, presented with Music Box Theatre’s “Music Box of Horrors at the Drive-in.” Tickets are steep, as the closing night screening of Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland will run a single car $100 (Cinema/Chicago members save $15). The film, which took top honors at both Venice Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival last month, is certainly exceptional (I’ve seen it, I can say that). But if that pricetag seems a bit much for a movie you’ll listen to on your car stereo or FM receiver, just remember that most of the Festival’s big films do become widely available in the months after the event (Nomadland will be available on December 4).

Tributes, Panels and Shorts, Oh My

In any other year, the Festival calendar would be as busy with parties and receptions as it is with film screenings, offering festival-goers a chance to get a taste of Hollywood right here in Chicago. This year’s tributes have been drastically scaled back, but the good news is, cocktail attire and champaign are completely optional for virtual events.

Perhaps best known as the title role in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Rachel Brosnahan will participate in a live streamed conversation with the Festival on Thursday, October 21 on the occasion of her latest film, I’m Your Woman streaming in the Festival’s virtual offerings. Additionally, Kate Winslet will be honored at the one-night-only, drive-in screening of Ammonite in a pre-recorded program. It might not be the same as red carpet affairs festival fans have come to appreciate, but it’s nice to know a star like Winslet will take the time to record a message to Chicago audiences.

I’m Your Woman / Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

Now a staple of the Festival’s non-film programming, Industry Days is again taking place parallel to the movie screenings, with a line-up of film industry professionals from every aspect of the business participating in panels, roundtables an even online networking events through October 18. Keynote presentations include a “State of the Industry” panel to kick off the program, where producers, event organizers and studio reps will discuss the catastrophic impact of the pandemic on the industry, and a three-part series on filmmaking during COVID. Though geared more towards industry professionals, the schedule always includes intriguing conversations about the business of movie-making and this year is no exception.

One area of programming that remains as robust as ever is the Festival’s commitment to short films; nine different short film programs each offer a feature-length viewing experience, with programs that include a number of short films presented in succession. From experimental to family friendly to documentary and more, the Festival’s short film programs are a great way to get a lot of bang for your virtual buck.

However you experience the Chicago International Film Festival this year, it won’t look like what any of us are used to. But then again, nothing about our lives right now looks like what we’re used to, which makes the fact that we have a festival at all—virtually, at a drive-in, wherever—something to celebrate.

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Lisa Trifone

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