Chicago International Film Festival goes virtual


Nate Burleyson

The 56th annual Chicago International Film Festival will not return to AMC River East, instead it will come to your living room.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused many events that we know and love to be cancelled this year. Music festivals, conventions and even our graduation ceremonies all got put on hold for the time being. However, the fall film festivals refuse to back down. 

After Cannes, SXSW, and Tribeca got cancelled in the first half of the year due to the growing pandemic, fall fests knew they had to make a change if they wanted to stay on the calendar this year. So in the spirit of surviving in the culture, they made those changes. Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival shifted to a mix of virtual screenings, socially distanced theatrical screenings and drive-in presentations.

Luckily for us Chicagoans, we don’t have to suffer through this tumultuous fall season without our celebrated cinematic fixes, courtesy of the Music Box Theatre and the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF). 

“We had months of planning in place,” said CIFF Senior Programmer Anthony Kaufman. “Luckily we had a lot of time to make the pivot.”

The Chicago International Film Festival launches Oct. 14 and goes until Oct. 25with a mixture of select drive-in presentations and a plethora of virtual screenings you can stream right in the comfort of your own home. 

These virtual screenings will offer a very unique experience. According to Kaufman, unlike a lot of other festivals, CIFF is working on making their virtual screenings a more live experience with genuine live stream Q&A’s the audience can participate in with the filmmakers. 

“We really want to maintain that communal sense of the festivals,” Kaufman said.

While the virtual shift has given CIFF a great opportunity to “take the brand nationally” as Kaufman said, this actually makes way for more competition for all of these festivals that take place at around the same time, because now these festivals stream nationally.

CIFF’s industry days, which host roundtable discussions, seminars and masterclasses with some of Hollywood’s top talents, will also be more widely accessible.

According to Kaufman, the “Zoom-based masterclasses have allowed for bigger talent to be able to make an appearance.” This year they’re hosting the likes of “Skyfall” screenwriter John Logan, “Da 5 Bloods” composer Terence Blanchard and “Moonlight” producer Dede Gardner.

The drive-in presentations from CIFF come courtesy of ChiTown Movies, located in a lot next to ChiTown Futbol in Pilsen. There they will host some of the festival’s most high profile films such as Spike Lee’s live recording of David Byrne’s “American Utopia” and Chloe Zaho’s Golden Lion-winning Oscar front-runner “Nomadland.”

Tickets are on sale for the general public today, and you’d better hurry up, because Kaufman warns “These drive-in[s] will sell out.”

Another major collaborator with ChiTown movies is the Music Box Theatre. Over the summer, the two collaborated for nostalgic double features and special Chicago premieres of films like documentary hits “Boys State” and “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” and for Kris Rey’s Chicago production “I Used To Go Here.”

This fall, however, the Music Box has something very special in store. Every year they host a special 24-hour marathon of horror films dubbed “The Music Box of Horrors.” 

“When your whole event centers around 750 people in one enclosed space for 24 hours, you have to realize you just can’t do that in a pandemic,” said Music Box programmer Ryan Oestreich.

After Oestreich saw how the films over the summer performed and maintained “a real movie-going experience,” he realized they could do something special for the Music Box of Horrors this year. Something dubbed “31 Nights of Drive-In Terror.”

“We’re gonna be giving people that movie-going experience every night of the month so you can celebrate Halloween at the movies any night you’re free,” Oestreich said. “We’re really gonna deck the [drive-in] out like a horror funhouse and have fun things every night like horror trivia and prize giveaways.”

That’s right, the Music Box Theaters and ChiTown Movies are going to play a wide range of horror movies every single night of the month of October. From renowned classics like “Re-Animator” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (paired in a double feature with its Indian rip-off “Makahaal”) to cult hits like Bong Joon-Ho’s “The Host” and Karyn Kusama’s “Jennifer’s Body.” The fest will even present brand new future horror classics like Brandon Cronenberg’s Sundance hit “Possessor” and Bryan Bertino’s “The Dark and the Wicked” (a special collaborative presentation with CIFF After Dark).

“For me, it’s just making sure every piece of my brain is going in to make this drive-in experience work,” Oestreich said. “People are gonna be really blown away by what you can get out of this drive-in experience.”