Miami’s film festivals adapt to new media amid COVID-19

A still from "When Liberty Burns," which was shown as part of the Miami Film Festival. (Courtesy of the Miami Film Festival)

It’s 10 p.m. and you’re in Fort Lauderdale attending the sold-out premiere of a zombie movie in which plot is secondary to carnage. The soothing sensation brought on by the smell of fresh popcorn is interrupted by the scream your friend lets out at the jump scare he should’ve seen coming. You cackle as the last girl trips and the horde of undead catch her.

If you think that sounds like a time before COVID-19, you’re wrong- it happened on June 25, during the second installment of Popcorn Frights’ Drive-In Horrorshow.

As one of the largest genre film festival in the Southeastern United States, Popcorn Frights had a lot on its shoulders back in March, when Florida entered a state of emergency and events began to get canceled and postponed.

“We knew immediately as soon as COVID started to have an impact on the entire arts world, that we needed to significantly pivot our expectations of the coming festival this summer,” said Igor Shteyrenberg, co-founder and co-director of Popcorn Frights. “Clearly, our expectations were totally off.”

The event was originally planned for August, but Schteyrenberg and the festival team rescheduled it for October 1 when things began to look bleak. But the hazier the future became, the more they realized they had to re-focus. That’s when the horror fest’s sixth annual edition became a “moving festival experience,” Shteyrenberg says. It was reformatted as drive-in events that would take place over the span of several months instead of during the usual nine consecutive days.

“When you think of what other, larger festival experiences similarly have had to do…  everyone is shifting to virtual festival platforms, for the most part,” Shteyrenberg explained. “But we’re a genre festival. Popcorn Frights is all about bringing community together and having a screaming-good time. You can’t really do that at home, on a computer screen.”

Of course, that isn’t the case for all of the festivals that were set to take place in Southern Florida this year. Many will recall the Miami Film Festival being cut four days short on March 12th, only six days after it began. Among the canceled events were the showings of 21 feature films.

“I’m incredibly grateful that we were able to screen 80% of our official selection and celebrate so many wonderful films and filmmakers with the audience,” said Jaie Laplante, executive director of the Miami Film Festival. “It’s still incredibly sad and disappointing for the 20% of filmmakers that we did not get to screen, but we have been and continue to be working on taking care of many of those films with focused, staggered online premieres throughout the spring and into the summer.”

One such event was the virtual showing of “When Liberty Burns,” a documentary about the McDuffie Riots that was part of a one-day-only encore presentation on Juneteenth—which came on the heels of the George Floyd protests occurring nationwide.

“I think the change in the industry toward more online offerings was already in progress before the pandemic, but if anything, the lockdowns have only increased people’s values for the shared experience of in-theater presentations,” said Laplante. “That’s what I think most festival events will be focused on once re-openings become more permanent.”

Victor Gimenez, executive director of the LGBTQ+ film festival OUTshine, agreed.

“It’s a community experience to watch the films together and then discuss them together,” he said. “It is a fine balance but I do foresee that there will still be some virtual components for that part of the audience that—they were just never going to go to the physical festival, at least at this point in their life.”

OUTshine has transitioned to a fully online format for the duration of the pandemic—with the exception of an opening drive-in showing that will take place on August 20. Until then, audiences can look forward to smaller events like the monthly “Glow” series, which includes a film screening, as well as a Q&A with filmmakers and talent over Zoom.

Drive-in showings like the ones at OUTshine and Popcorn Frights are great in that they maximize social distancing while remaining the closest possible thing to a theater experience. Like any pop-up event, they hinge on availability, which is why dates for the Drive-in Horror Show have only been announced individually. This is also why specifics of the OUTshine event—like time and location—remain unclear for now. Still, Popcorn Frights’ initiative has proven to be a huge success, hosting 450 attendees on its first night while complying with social-distancing and hygiene guidelines.

Pulling double-duty as co-director of Popcorn Frights and executive director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival—two festivals with wildly different needs—has made Shteyrenberg ambidextrous when it comes to adapting to the chaos.

Taking place from April 15 to the 29, MJFF acted swiftly in canceling all of its in-person events and going virtual. The main goal, Shteyrenberg said, was to protect their audience, which is largely composed of people aged 60 to 70—basically, those most vulnerable to the virus.

This included providing their viewers with a watch guide to all MJFF titles available on services like Netflix and Amazon, as well as creating a digital library of Jewish and Israeli films available to rent. Currently, they are also packaging their film-viewing experiences with educational components, such as live discussions with industry guests like Jesse Eisenberg, who stars in this year’s “Resistance.”

“[It’s] definitely challenging, definitely forcing us to be at our utmost creative,” said Shteyrenberg. “No one knows what lies ahead, but we just want to make sure that that bridge between us and our community is still strong and that that connection is still there.”

The sense of uncertainty lingers in the world of festival programming. Gimenez says his organization was severely affected by state budget cuts and a lack of funding. As a result of the pandemic, Governor Ron DeSantis recently vetoed the Culture Builds Florida grant, which cost OUTshine $25,000 in funding. The non-profit also saw a $50,000 sponsor pull out earlier this year. Currently, they receive a Paycheck Protection Plan loan, but when that runs out payment cuts or furloughs could lie ahead.

“The COVID scenario happened at a point where we would normally be getting a lot of membership renewal, which didn’t occur,” Gimenez explained. “A lot of it is going to be really dependent for us financially on how our festival goes.”

Still, he remains optimistic.

“Different festivals that have gone online have had positive results,” he said. “A lot of them, quite frankly, have reached people who they would not normally have reached… So we are optimistic about the results of the virtual festival, and then we’ll see how it comes along.”

Shteyrenberg shares the optimism. “At a theater, you’re sitting next to a friend or a stranger, and there’s this goosebump chill in the air, and you can feel the electricity and the buzz and the laughs and the screams,” he said. “People are hungry to get back to movie theaters.”

Ursula Muñoz Schaefer is a contributor for South Florida Media Network and the Opinion Director at PantherNOW. When she’s not writing or stressing out about world affairs, she enjoys watching movies. She is a broadcast Television major at FIU.