On Friday, Florida reported 6,148 new cases of COVID-19, and 228 new deaths, bringing the overall toll across the state to over 9,000. At the 29th edition of the Florida Film Festival, the show goes on; it’s one of the few festivals to hold indoor screenings this summer, with three to five programs per day at the Enzian Theater in Maitland, Fl.
Much of the festival, which runs August 7-20, migrated to the virtual realm. Among the 177 films in the lineup, 152 were available online exclusively to Florida residents. However, the very existence of indoor film festival screenings in the midst of the pandemic — in one of the country’s most afflicted regions — stands out.
In-person events have taken place exclusively at the Enzian, a 200-seat arthouse cinema that also offers moviegoers tables, food, and drinks. The Enzian reopened at 50 percent capacity in June. Longtime festival director Matthew Curtis said most screenings have seen turnouts of 20 to 40 people, though some screenings, such as Fox Searchlight’s Dev Patel-starring “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” hosted as many as 80.
While individual groups can sit at tables together, single patrons are given their own space, which can also limit capacity. “We’re proud to have had the opportunity to present these filmmakers’ work on the big screen,” said Curtis, who noted that none of the Enzian staff or its extended community had reported any illnesses. “Everybody’s been really careful.”
Festival attendees receive a PDF explaining safety requirements in advance of screenings, including a requirement for face coverings and temperature checks. The festival hosted one in-person “celebrity event,” with a performance by Texas mainstay Joe Bob Briggs and his one-man show, “How Rednecks Saved Hollywood.” There was no opening-night party, but the festival did host an outdoor “Meet the Filmmaker” event at the New Standard, a restaurant located across the street from the Regal Winter Park Village. Attendance was capped at 50 people at each of two 90-minute shifts. Masks were required, drink tickets handed out, and plated appetizers replaced the buffet. A band played indoors with speakers piping the music to the crowd outside. “There wasn’t a lot of milling about,” Curtis said. “It did feel different. But we were glad to have it.”
Curtis said two films in the program requested that they screen only online: “Boys State,” a joint release by Apple and A24 that the festival made available on its Eventive-hosted festival site for six hours, and the Sundance short film “Abortion Helpline, This is Lisa.” That short was programmed as part of the festival’s Oscar-qualifying Documentary Shorts Competition, which screened at the Enzian; however, audience members received a code that allowed them to watch the short online. While “Boys State” screened at special outdoors events across the country, Apple declined to allow the festival to show it inside; the decision for the short came from the filmmakers.
“Look, this is all new for us,” Curtis said. “Everybody’s gotta be flexible.” Most online screenings were limited to 100 views, commensurate with the theater capacity; Curtis said all films made available on the site during the first weekend maxed out on views.
While the Toronto International Film Festival plans to hold screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Isabel Bader Theatre next month, the Florida event provides an early preview of efforts to resurrect physical festival experiences. After postponing its April dates earlier this year, the event announced in June that it would take place in the heat of summer. The festival usually hosts 80-100 visiting filmmakers across 10 days, but only four filmmakers from the competition sections traveled from out of town.
Curtis said that the quieter aspect of the festival brought it back to its roots. “It reminds me of the first couple years, in the early ’90s,” he said. “It’s been a long time since it’s been anything like this.” He added that he had made time to watch some of the films in the Enzian. “We’re usually running around like crazy,” he said. “It’s so chill this year. It’s nice to be in a theater again and actually watch some brand-new movies.”