Montclair Film wrapped up their annual film festival last weekend. Despite the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, their team was able to get creative and put on eight unforgettable nights of drive-in events, or as they called it, eight nights of “Carpool Theater.”
Taking place in the gravel parking lot of South Mountain Reservation in West Orange, a gargantuan inflatable screen was completely visible from each of the 100 available parking spaces.
From the opening night’s screening of “Nomadland,” starring Frances McDormand, to the closing night’s presentation of “One Night in Miami,” with actress Regina King’s directorial debut, there was never a dull moment at the theater.
Tom Hall, executive director of Montclair Film, gushed about the overall reception of the transition to Carpool Theater.
“We have had overwhelmingly positive feedback from our patrons, who have been diving in and watching films both virtually and at the Carpool Theater,” Hall said. “Filmmakers have been wonderful. We have been able to connect with so many of them for virtual Q&As and they have all brought new ideas and points of view to the festival and have really embraced the virtual and drive-in formats.”
What an incredible premiere of Derek DelGaudio’s IN & OF ITSELF at the Carpool Theater!
— Montclair Film (@MontclairFilm) October 25, 2020
One of the festival’s highlights was the closing night’s live, on-site Q&A, which featured talk show host Stephen Colbert alongside his wife Evelyn McGee-Colbert, the president of Montclair Film’s board of directors. It also featured the two of them in conversation with Frank Oz, the director of “In And Of Itself.”
Getting to interact and connect with so many people was actually one of the most enjoyable parts about the festival, according to Hall.
“Sitting in the dark with strangers, talking on line, learning about new films, being able to meet the filmmakers [and] socializing are often the most delightful aspects of the festival experience,” Hall said. “Highlights [of the festival] have been the opportunity to speak with filmmakers, connect with patrons at the Carpool Theater and to watch as the films have connected with people, despite the experience being new this year. The stories still come through and that is what is most important.”
Hall attributes Jennifer Cambras, Montclair Film’s festival and events producer, with ensuring that all COVID-19 guidelines were met in the switch to drive-ins.
“One of the keys to event management is to prepare as much as possible and be ready to adjust in real time to improve the process,” Cambras said. “The goal is to make it an enjoyable experience from the minute someone arrives until the minute they leave the premises, that way the only thing they remember is the art and entertainment they came to see.”
Cambras has also assisted in developing Montclair Film’s internship program over the years. Like the rest of the festival’s production, the program was put on pause last spring when the pandemic hit.
Maggie Roche, a junior psychology major at Montclair State University, is one of the eight interns who returned to the program after the festival’s postponement.
“The most enjoyable part [of the festival] for me was the hands-on experience of the [drive-in],” Roche said. “Email communication was tricky and made me feel like I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, but once we got onsite for the festival, I really felt [that] I had a purpose.”
Olivia Prusakowski, a senior English major at Montclair State, also rejoined the internship program after being recruited last spring.
“I think switching to drive-ins was a great way to keep the festival alive in the midst of a pandemic,” Prusakowski said. “It definitely wasn’t ideal, but nothing has been ideal in 2020. It was really cool to see Montclair [Film] pivot as they did. And to do it so well was impressive.”
For those who missed the drive-in screenings, Montclair Film is launching “ReelAbilities NJ,” a virtual program in partnership with Montclair State and the Montclair Art Museum, which focuses on the experience of people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities.
Films of all genres, including new releases, will be coming to the Montclair Film Virtual Cinema platform every Friday, beginning Oct. 30. This program will be on Montclair Film’s website, year-round.
Hall expressed his hope for this virtual service to provide some much-needed enjoyment to its patrons.
“I hope Montclair Film can continue to be a home for members of our community to keep exploring cinema and to make discoveries together,” Hall said.
Carpool Theater brought a nostalgic feeling for most amidst these ever-changing times and enabled a continued celebration of the art of film. The Montclair Film Festival did an excellent job of making both filmgoers and artists feel right at home.