They Built it, and They Came

Film Fest 919 In Chapel Hill North Carolina met the pandemic challenge by following a storyline of the Best Picture Academy Award Nominated movie “Field of Dreams.”

Yes, “If you build it, they will come” became a reality for Film Fest 919 Founder/Executive Director Randi Emerman as she and Co-Founder and Co-Director Carol Marshall rolled up their sleeves and tackled their inside theater problem head-on. Astonishingly, they built a new Drive-In theater with their partners at Northwood Ravin in Carraway Village in only 30 days.

New Carraway Drive-in Courtesy of Film Fest 919

Opening October 14 with director Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” and closing October 31 with the 45th Anniversary of “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”  The festival featured 14 of the year’s most talked-about films. The Audience Favorite Award was a tie: “Nomadland” and “Fatman.”

“Nomadland” director, writer, and editor Chloé Zhao was also recognized with the Distinguished Screenwriter Award. “Fatman” co-writer and co-director Ian and Eshom Nelms were given the Spotlight Award.

I asked Randi Emerman to talk about some of the challenges of organizing and actually executing a film festival during a pandemic. She replied, “Our first decision had to be what the festival would look like. Carol & I talked and pivoted so many times, but we knew, in the end, our festival films needed to be seen in a theatrical environment.

Randi Emerman all smiles Opening Night…Courtesy of Film Fest 919

With theaters shut down, the drive-in experience was the answer.  A million decisions had to be made right away, ranging from finding the perfect location, actually building the giant screen, acquiring DCI compliant equipment, and financing the operation, not to mention programming and getting buy-in from studios and distributors. With perseverance and determination, we received the “go” just 45 days out from the development team of Northwood Ravin, and we flew into action to make it happen.

Now we were faced with our biggest challenge, how to finance the operation. Since March, we had applied for over 23 grants only to be turned down, while simultaneously approaching donors and sponsors. With so many canceled events, many of which did not offer refunds, we were simply unable to raise capital.  But together, we forged ahead, just the two of us with a handful of very dedicated volunteers, and pulled it off. Personally, the toughest experience for me,— Carol was unable to make the trip and not be here to see that beautiful picture up on that amazing giant screen.”

I asked Carol Marshall what she was most pleased about upon the conclusion of Film Fest 919? She answered, “My experience was quite different as I couldn’t travel to North Carolina due to the pandemic. Although I was able to handle many technical aspects from working with studios to managing things virtually while Randi dealt with everything on site.”

And what was the most gratifying part of the 2020 festival? “The fact that we were able to pull it all together in a very short period of time, a month and a half, is unheard of in the festival world. I was also really happy with the films we programmed, especially in a year where most films were pushed back theatrically to 2021. I was pleased that people came and were very supportive.”

Carol continued, “Opening night was my favorite moment as everyone who was helping got together for a photo; I’m in the photo via Facetime, that made it real for me.

Co-Founder Carol Marshall (pictured on the phone via FaceTime), Claire Harris, Lori Doherty, Co-Founder Randi Emerman, Maia Swan, Julia Glass. (Courtesy of FF 919)

For Randi not knowing 100% if the Film Festival was going to come together in time she became a little choked up during opening night as she was raised in a family of theater owners, and was filled with pride.

It does appear remarkable that the festival was actually going to happen in leu of so many others simply canceling. As a member of the Film Fest 919 Honorary Advisory Board, personally, I was amazed when we began discussing film programming in September—as I was wondering how in the world these plans were going to come to fruition.

Well, it did happen, but not without countless hours of planning, creative strategizing, execution, and sacrifice. The pro-active duo made it happen the way filmmakers wanted their films to be seen. They faced unbelievable obstacles along the way—two hurricanes, a tornado, an imploding server, and zero funding. They made their dream come true, and the community was the benefactor of a film festival the directors are proud of by focusing on their vision and the festival’s mission.

Here’s more great news, in early 2021, the Drive-in will have one-night showings during awards season for Film Fest 919. It looks like the adage, “If you build it, they will come,” played out for real in North Carolina—this journalist just got goosebumps. For me, my regret is the missed opportunity of not being able to attend and the chance that I may have heard someone say, “Is this heaven, while Randi or the 919 Film Festival team answered, No, it’s North Carolina.”

Sarah Knight Adamson© December 13, 2020