Chicago International Film Festival opens Wednesday on screens around town — call it a pandemic silver lining

© Chicago Tribune

Jamie Lee Curtis in " Halloween Kills." - Universal Pictures/Universal Pictures/TNS

CHICAGO — The 57th Chicago International Film Festival opens Wednesday. It’d be ridiculous to expect any annual cultural event to attempt a business-as-usual approach in the gums of a pandemic. For now, we hope, we’re no longer in the teeth.

Leading up to 2020, “business as usual” meant a festival confined by choice to several theaters inside the AMC River East 21 multiplex in the downtown Streeterville neighborhood. There were advantages to that. Moviegoers could zip from one screening to the next quickly, or grab sushi next door, or a Vitamin Water at Walgreens down the block.

But this year looks more like years past. Prior to 2008, festival screenings used to be held at various downtown theaters, including AMC 600 North, the Harris Theater in Millennium Park, plus the Music Box in Lakeview and the Landmark Century Centre in Lincoln Park.

This year AMC River East remains the center of activity. But the festival has spread out once again.

It’ll likely be a better, more democratic experience, and one of those true rarities: a pandemic silver lining.

Opening night screenings of Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and David Gordon Green’s “Halloween Kills” take place at the Music Box. Todd Haynes’ documentary “The Velvet Underground” is kicking off the festival’s ChiTown Movies drive-in offerings in Pilsen, which is where “Nomadland” closed last year’s almost entirely virtual festival.

In addition to the River East screenings, seven Music Box screenings, five at the Gene Siskel Film Center and four at the Pilsen drive-in — including the Western “The Harder They Fall,” featuring Regina King, Idris Elba and Jonathan Majors — the 2021 festival reaches south, for the first time, with two pop-up outdoor screenings on the patio of Bronzeville’s Parkway Ballroom.

The pandemic, says festival managing director Vivian Teng,“made us reevaluate everything. Where we wanted to be, what we wanted to do, everything. We thought about Chicago and its communities. We really wanted to branch out, and take the question ‘What does the return look like?’ seriously, while expanding beyond downtown.”

Three programmers join the Chicago International Film Festival team this year. One is Emily Eddy, another is Amir George. Also a filmmaker, George grew up on the South Side, attended Columbia College, co-founded the touring experimental film program Black Radical Imagination and has worked since 2018 as a programmer for the True/False festival in Columbia, Missouri.

Free to the public, George’s two slates of short films screening on the Parkway Ballroom patio (or indoors, if the weather’s not good) include Amrita Singh’s 10-minute “Winning in America,” about a spelling bee champ and her contentious relationship with her father. The final, gently perceptive confrontation takes place on Promontory Point in Hyde Park.

“There’s a lot of inaccessibility on the South Side for films,” says George. “This year, it’s great to have a partnership with the Parkway Ballroom. I think it’ll be a good time. And it’s good for anyone who can’t get to the AMC downtown.”

The festival’s hybrid model — many films screening on one of the five locations this year will also be available for online streaming ― is important right now, he says, adding that he’s “optimistic about film culture. I think there’ll always be the possibility of a screening somewhere.” He’s speaking of the future, but what he says describes the festival about to open. “Outdoors, online, in-person. I mean, this is a young art form! And it has so much left to offer.”

Another first-time CIFF festival programmer, Raul Benitez, oversees the After Dark section (blood, dread, gore and genre delicacies) playing both indoor and outdoor screens. One film premiering locally in the After Dark slate: “Hellbender,” playing at ChiTown Movies, a witchy, widely admired coming-of-age tale.

He likes the democratic vibe of spreading out into different neighborhoods: “Some people just don’t like going downtown, in any case.”

When the festival moved online last year, along with every other festival worldwide, the staff became highly conversant in the languages of Zoom, tech support and pandemic worry. It went well in the end, Teng says. In 2019, before the pandemic, the annual operating budget for Cinema/Chicago, the nonprofit organization in charge of the festival, was approximately $1.5 million. In 2020, the budget shrank to $1 million. This year, it’s back up to $1.25 million.

Teng notes that audiences require certain reassurances about going back indoors.

“There’s still some hesitancy about returning to theaters,” she says. “Pre-2019, we knew which days would be the ‘spike’ days, and we had a tremendous amount of advance ticket sales. And now, well, habits have changed. People aren’t buying so far in advance. It’s more like two or three days. People are picking and choosing.”

But she’s plainly relieved to be back in the business of managing in-person operations. She’s not alone.

“People want to share an event with each other,” Benitez asserts. “We like to talk about things. We like to talk about films. We’re a gabby species. And it’s not just us trying to adapt the times we’re facing. The whole world is trying to figure this out.”

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Venue information, screening schedules and ticket prices for the 57th Chicago International Film Festival, Oct. 13-24, can be found at chicagofilmfestival.org.

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Timothee Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri in the film " The French Dispatch." - Courtesy Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios/TNS/TNS