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As Film Festivals Face a New Reality, Provincetown Reimagines a Way Forward

A film community celebrated from a distance as the LGBTQ-friendly festival hosted four drive-in screenings alongside its virtual offerings.

Provincetown Reimagined

Photo by Mae Gammino

As cars pull up to the Wellfleet Drive-In on Cape Cod, a masked attendant hands every vehicle two small pieces of paper — a listing of the current line-up of double features promising rain or shine shows and encouraging early arrival, and a yellow sheet of protocols. On the sheet, printed in bold above a primer on the theater’s quaint original 1957 speaker system and a stern warning against the use of laser pointers, reads:

“Attention. Per order of the commonwealth of Massachusetts: There are two parking spaces between each speaker post and each vehicle is permitted one space. The right side must remain empty even if another car is part of the same quarantine unit. Social distancing must be maintained in all lines. Masks must be worn when outside of your vehicle. Anyone who refuses to comply with the rules will be ejected without refund.”

Welcome to social distancing at the drive-in.

This is how visitors to the Provincetown International Film Festival were able to come together this year to view and discuss films, as they have done every summer for the last 22 years. The small-town festival, which usually takes place the third weekend in June and boasts an unofficial but abiding partnership with John Waters, is one of the first to have adapted to current safety precautions and produced a live event.

Along with its virtual lineup, a necessary concession many festivals have had to live with, PIFF hosted four in person screenings at the Wellfleet over two July evenings. (Both were sold out, though the drive-in did not allow for full capacity.) The first night opened with Mischa Richter’s expressionistic Provincetown documentary “I am a Town,” and finished out with Sundance 2020 favorite “Save Yourselves!” The following evening, Waters appeared to introduce his double feature, a stacked twofer of drive-in friendly midnight fare: “Night of the Lepus” and “Kitten With a Whip.”

“We feel very lucky, especially in this year where everything’s been canceled,” said PIFF Artistic Director Lisa Viola. “That we were able to say, ‘We’re not canceled and in fact we’re hosting,’ felt really good. To be able to provide a space for the community and for all of our filmmakers.”

Seated for a masked, socially distant interview, Waters agreed. “I’m glad we’re having this,” he said, noting the recent cancellation of Telluride and his role as a board member for the Maryland Film Festival, which was postponed earlier this year. “Every festival is going through the same thing. I feel really bad for young people that had their first film ready to get going and then this happened. I would be insane.”

While the community-building element of Provincetown had to be forfeited this year, festival staff decided to support filmmakers by showing their films anyway. (Massachusetts is currently in Phase III of reopening, which means some movie theaters are technically allowed to reopen, though many have yet to take that step. Drive-ins, however, remain a viable solution.

The opening night selection was a no brainer: “I Am a Town” was shot entirely in Provincetown, and many locals appear in and supported the film. Richter attended and introduced the film. Though it premiered at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight, the museum’s annual celebration of non-fiction film, Richter had his sights set on a local screening. Before PIFF announced its newly conceived live festival, the hippie filmmaker was considering a houseboat or beachside screening.

There have been unforeseen positive outcomes to the virtual screenings as well. In addition to helping the festival recoup at least some of its lost revenue, the organizers were inspired to see how many viewers tuned in from around the country. Though distributors insisted on geo-blocking for anywhere outside the U.S., people expressed interest from around the world.

Moviegoers mingle from a safe distance at opening night of PIFF Reimagined

Photo by Mae Gammino

“We’ve had people from Seattle to New York from Texas to Utah buying tickets,” said Director of Programming Andrew Peterson. “My hope is that there’s a lot of people that maybe have never been to Provincetown and they were able to get a flavor.”

For Viola, “Provincetown is literally at the end of the world, and as much as we’d love to invite everyone to come, it’s not accessible to everyone,” she said. “Especially in this time when people are trying to connect and feeling more isolated than ever, the fact that wherever you are you can still participate in the festival is pretty special.”

Though it’s a smaller regional event, Provincetown is often able to attract big names to the festival, both for its picturesque location and the opportunity to rub elbows with John Waters. The LGBTQ vacation destination makes the festival a natural draw for queer and queer-adjacent filmmakers and industry folks alike. John Cameron Mitchell, who recently relocated to P-town to ride out quarantine, showed up for Waters’ double feature. Recent honorees who have flown in for a lobster roll and to accept an award include Sofia Coppola, Sean Baker, Judith Light, and Chloë Sevigny, to name just a few. One of the unique aspects of the smaller festival is that the talent remains approachable.

PIFF Artistic Director Lisa Viola

Photo by Mae Gammino

“There’s an access and camaraderie that you don’t get at wonderful, big festivals like Berlin and Sundance, where there’s a thousand parties every night,” Peterson said. “Here there’s one party, where you know everybody’s gonna be. If Quentin Tarantino or Gael Garcia Bernal or Jane Lynch are here, they’re on their bike. And you can see them and talk to them and everybody’s relaxed.”

The festival’s sponsors remain supportive of the festival. WarnerMedia was on board as soon as PIFF reached out about making something work. Small festivals like PIFF work within small margins as it is, and the ability to maintain some aspect of the festival became even more important with the Provincetown Film Society’s year-round cinema being closed for the foreseeable future.

“It was difficult to pull this together so quickly, it’s a very small team that all volunteered,” said Peterson. “We had sponsors that were really behind us, WarnerMedia and others, that said, ‘If you can do something, we’ll be there.’ But I don’t know what next year’s gonna be like. The future of all festivals is really at stake right now. And a small festival in a town that relies on tourism with a 70-seat theater, we’re in a tough spot. But through this year’s festival we see a way forward.”

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