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Montclair Film board and staff toast the Montclair Film Festival on what would have been opening night, Friday, May 1. COURTESY TOM HALL

All online classes and programs listed on the website, montclairfilm.org.

Some events take place on MF’s Facebook page, Facebook.com/montclairfilm.

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

This week, the 2020 Montclair Film Festival would have been hard to miss in town: banners hanging from lampposts, drawings by kids in storefronts, people wearing lanyards walking up and down as they went from screening to screening.  

The Montclair Film Festival would have shown 150 or so films, with about 75 features and 75 shorts. There would have been discussions moderated by Stephen Colbert. There would have been parties.

But in March, COVID-19 happened.

The 2020 Montclair Film Festival was one of the first big events in town to be postponed: Montclair Film decided to cancel the festival’s spring dates on Friday, March 12, a week before the schools closed down.

That cancellation set off alarms for other local arts organizations, most of whom decided to postpone or cancel by the middle of the following week.

The SXSW music festival had already canceled. “We weren’t sure if we were being too aggressive,” said MF Executive Director Tom Hall.  “It was very hard to make big decisions

TOM HALL

in an information vacuum.”

Montclair Film pulled the plug on the spring festival because it couldn’t wait: It was at the point where it would have to spend significant money to print the festival catalogues and make the banners. “It would have been worse two or three weeks later,” Hall said.

Many of the films that would have been shown at MFF are in limbo; a few are on Netflix or other streaming platforms, but most are not. MF still intends to put on a festival, though it doesn’t know when.

There are rights issues with distributing the films online, explained Bob Feinberg, MF founder and chairman of the board.  

So there is not an online film festival.

“We’re paying very close attention to what’s going on in New Jersey, which is one of the

BOB FEINBERG

hardest-hit places,” Feinberg said. “We’re trying to balance our excitement about programming with reality and safety.”

But Montclair Film, like the Montclair Public Library and Outpost in the Burbs, is pivoting to hold programs online.

Montclair Film’s  Story Slam program, in which people tell stories and are judged, will

launch sometime this month, Feinberg said. 

This past Friday, May 1, which would have been the first day of the 10-day festival, Montclair Film held an online Q&A with directors of the documentary “Crip Camp,” which would have been part of MFF.

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READ: 505 + FRIENDS, CINEMA + CONVERSATION GIVE BACK

READ: VIRTUAL CLASSES MAKE THE SHOW GO ON

READ: ONLINE AT THE OUTPOST: THURSDAYS AND SATURDAYS

READ: CONNECTIONS AT MONTCLAIR PUBLIC LIBRARY

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Another issue Feinberg is monitoring is the state of film itself. What will happen to the entertainment industry if this lockdown continues for months? 

“That’s one of the big questions,” he said. “Lots of stuff has been shut down. Lots of people have been furloughed, or lost their jobs. 

“But there’s tremendous creative talent out there. I think you’re starting to see things happen.”

Feinberg suggests there may be an increase in animated films, and films that have fewer people involved. A small cast and crew film is challenging, however, because filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor. 

“I read an article in one of the trades about whether this is the death of intimacy in filmmaking, I mean love scenes. You can’t do that remotely,” he said.

But while the festival is on hold, Montclair Film is diving into offering other activities online.

WATCHING TOGETHER, APART

The showing of “Crip Camp” on Friday, May 1, with an introduction beforehand and a Q&A after (a video of Hall talking to the filmmakers, using some of the questions people had sent in), was a special event.

But watching movies together is something Hall has been promoting for seven weeks, with  Montclair Film’s Discover Together program. Every day, Hall holds a discussion around a different film. Every Sunday, Hall shares a weekly schedule on Montclair Film’s web page, and encourages people to watch at home on Netflix. 

On MF’s Facebook page, people “talk” by sharing comments, and in a private group for MF members, Hall holds a live introduction every day at noon. Thousands of people have tuned in, he says.

“The best thing about the Montclair Film Festival always is being able to bring filmmakers and audiences together to have a conversation. The thing that is most meaningful is dialogue around the films,” Hall said. “Whether it’s a Q&A, or stopping someone and having a talk in the hallway.”

Facebook talks don’t do that the same way, but they can do it a little bit.

505 Films + Friends has also moved online. This club, for teens who are neurodiverse (which refers to neurological conditions including dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and autism, among others), offers a place for conversation and social gathering.  

Sue Hollenberg, MF director of education, said that everyone who was in the club originally

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has kept coming. “It’s working almost exactly the same,” Hollenberg said. People show up a bit early to have some social interaction. 

Melissa Schaffer and David Steinke, who lead the club, talk about the film. The club members watch the film (now at home, instead of at Cinema505 on Bloomfield Avenue) and then regroup to talk.

The films are free on Netflix, and Hollenberg said they would make the film available if anyone didn’t have it. So far everyone has had Netflix.

“The conversations have been fantastic,” she said. “It’s really sweet.”

One group of films that could have an online showing are the winners of the Emerging Filmmaker Competition, films made by high school students. The winners have already been notified, and judges, many of whom are producers, have offered to produce an online show. Some of the films are on computers at the kids’ schools, so Hollenberg is figuring out a plan to retrieve them. “I’m 95 percent sure we can pull something together for June,” she said.

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Tom Hall holds a Q&A with “Crip Camp” directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht on Friday, May 1. COURTESY TOM HALL

MONTCLAIR FILM SCHOOL

Montclair Film’s  online education programs include screenwriting, editing, visual effects, and documentary filmmaking.  

MF cannot give access to equipment until it’s safe for students to return to Cinema505, and nobody knows when that will be.

Feinberg, a lawyer for PBS, is well aware of the lawsuit brought against Montclair State University by an undergraduate filmmaking student who wants prorated tuition, since he cannot access the school’s equipment and facilities.

However, they can give access to software for some classes that students can use at home.

Montclair Film has announced seven classes, most starting in mid-May.

“Some are still postponed online, while we figure out the next steps with hands-on filmmaking where it’s a crew of filmmakers,” Hollenberg said. 

Part of the pivot for Montclair Film has been moving more to screenwriting and film study.

“We knew a lot of people were looking for meaningful opportunities to do stuff right now,” Hollenberg said. Moving online has attracted some distance learners, too, who might not have come to onsite classes, including students from Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The classes include a directing master class with Michael Slovis (“Breaking Bad,” “Preacher”) on June 3, a visual effects class that is already sold out (and may have a second section), “Inside Docs: Filmmaker Series” led by Montclairite and documentarian Reuben Atlas, and a new class titled “Writing Through the Pandemic.”

The classes are mostly starting in mid-May, and running through June. This would usually be an off-season for Montclair Film, but coronavirus has changed the schedule.

“I pride myself on hands-on learning,” Hollenberg said. So she decided to rethink the schedule and add classes on a rolling basis, rather than roll out a slate. “As soon as we get stuff we think is good, we put it out there,” she said. There will likely be more in the summer. 

As for when the festival will be: MF is as much in the dark as anybody else. “It’s an expensive proposition for us to put on a film festival, especially if nobody is going to come,” Hall said with a laugh. “Even if it was declared full steam ahead, I’m not sure people will want to sit in a movie theater, go out to a restaurant, or dance at a party — with good reason. I wouldn’t want to be someone pushing people out of their comfort zone or doing irresponsible event planning.”

While Feinberg loves the films himself, he misses the excitement of just walking around town and seeing the crowds, the banners, the posters drawn by kids in shop windows. It’s hard to create that excitement remotely, he said.

“We’re social creatures,” he said. “The thing that first made me think about a film festival in Montclair was not some great independent film premiere that I saw. It was wandering around the town of Park City during the Sundance Film Festival and just seeing what it looked like. And all the sort of hoopla — and you know, that’s going to have to hold.”

“Booksmart” is the Montclair Film Discover Together film for Monday, May 11.

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