Crowds gather on the plaza outside the Wellmont Theater following the screening of “The French Dispatch” on Thursday, Oct. 21, the opening night of the Montclair Film Festival. This year marks both the festival’s 10th anniversary and a return to in-person movie screenings after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the festival to go virtual in 2020. (NEIL GRABOWSKY/COURTESY MONTCLAIR FILM)

By ERIN ROLL
For Montclair Local

“Good evening, and welcome back to the movies.”

That announcement, from Montclair Film founder and board chairman Bob Feinberg, was met with rousing applause from the sold-out crowd at the Wellmont Theater Thursday night, Oct. 21.

It was the opening night of the Montclair Film Festival, marking both its 10th anniversary and a long-awaited return to in-person movie screenings. 

The festival kicked off with a screening of “The French Dispatch,” the most recent film from director Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”). 

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“The French Dispatch” is the story of a New Yorker-esque magazine of the same name, published in the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé by a team of eccentric American writers and editors. The film’s stars include Benicio Del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Lea Séydoux, Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray. 

The show was supposed to start at 7:30 p.m., but the show had a delayed start due to the massive line of patrons waiting to be screened and admitted. Patrons were asked to show proof of vaccination along with their tickets and IDs before being admitted to the theater. 

The long line stretched up the ramp to the South Fullerton parking lot and wrapped around once before spilling out yet again onto the sidewalk on South Fullerton Avenue. 

But the long line gave many people a chance to wave to friends and exchange hugs. 

“It feels like a town-wide reunion,” resident Alma Schneider said as she stood outside the theater after the show. “And I can’t believe it’s been 10 years.”

Montclair Film founder and board chairman Bob Feinberg, left, and board president Evelyn Colbert address the audience at the Wellmont for the screening of “The French Dispatch.” (NEIL GRABOWSKY/COURTESY MONTCLAIR FILM)

Mayor Sean Spiller and Third Ward Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams were both in attendance at the screening.

“We’re excited because the township has done the right things,” Spiller said, referring to the township’s health and safety requirements over the course of the pandemic. Because of that, he said, life in Montclair could start to return to a new normal. “It’s just an exciting night.”

According to state data, 76% of Montclair’s entire population is vaccinated, and 90% of those over age 18 are vaccinated. Both statistics put Montclair ahead of New Jersey overall. 

Abrams said that festival was a celebration of the broader community, and a sign of Montclair being a pacesetter for other towns and cities in the region. 

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced the festival, which typically takes place in the springtime, to switch to other formats, such as drive-in movies and virtual screenings. It moved to the fall for 2021.

“We’re here, we’re safe, and we’re all together,” Evie Colbert, board president of Montclair Film, said. The past 10 years had seen a lot of growth for the festival, and she said the next 10 years would be even better. “The future is bright because Montclair Film is bringing movies back to Montclair.” 

Our Montclair: New beginnings for Montclair Film

Montclair Film has had to deal with the challenges brought by COVID-19, and a flood that caused heavy damage to its headquarters on Bloomfield Avenue — the second major flood in two years. Colbert said that many members of the community had already reached out with donations and offers of support. 

The festival began in 2012 with a seven-day program of films and conversations. Since that time, Montclair Film has become an organization offering a year-round program of screenings, classes, workshops and other activities outside of the festival itself. 

Besides being the film festival’s opening movie, “The French Dispatch” will also be the first film shown at the Clairidge Theater on Bloomfield Avenue when it reopens on Nov. 4, Montclair Film Executive Director Tom Hall said. 

The Clairidge, which will now operate under the auspices of Montclair Film after closing last year under Bow Tie Cinemas, has undergone a major renovation and cleaning. A ribbon-cutting for the theater took place on Oct. 20. 

Tom Hall, the executive director of Montclair Film, speaks to the audience at the Wellmont Theater for opening night of the group’s annual festival. (NEIL GRABOWSKY/COURTESY MONTCLAIR FILM)

In March 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all movie theaters and live entertainment venues to close down as the COVID-19 pandemic began. The Clairidge’s management ultimately shut the theater entirely, even when state regulations loosened and other theaters began to return.

This year also marks the opening of a new pedestrian plaza in front of the Wellmont Theater, part of a $135 million arts district construction project. The plaza, which connects the theater with a new apartment complex and a parking garage, was also the venue for a VIP afterparty.

“To me, it’s like one of the bragging rights to be in Montclair is to have this festival,” Evan Cutler, who has served as one of the jurors for the festival’s Emerging Filmmakers competition for middle and high school students, said.

When asked about what he was looking forward to during the festival, Cutler said he was especially looking forward to the screening of the Dionne Warwick documentary “Don’t Make Me Over,” scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 23, also at the Wellmont. 

Gray Russell, the township’s former sustainability officer, said he remembered the days when the Wellmont was a single-screen cinema. The theater was converted to a live performance venue in 2008. 

Russell said he was excited also about the Clairidge reopening, and the opening of the new plaza in front of the Wellmont. 

“I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled that as opposed to last year, we’re back at the movies,” he said.