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Alabama’s Sidewalk Film Festival goes to the drive-in this year, thanks to COVID-19

Chloe Cook knew as early as February that something might be up.

As executive director of Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema and a member of the national organization the Art House Convergence, she was hearing whispers about what theater operators were seeing in other parts of the world as COVID-19 began to spread.

“I was here watching people in larger cities having these conversations, frankly a little naively thinking somehow our country might avoid this and might not be hit as hard,” she says.

That soon changed, though, as Cook and her team made the decision March 12 to close their downtown film venue and began thinking about the Sidewalk Film Festival, scheduled for Aug. 24-30 in Birmingham’s historic theater district.

What Sidewalk landed on was changing its venue to the Grand River Drive-In at the Backyard in Leeds. The outdoor and socially distanced festival will feature about 150 films over its seven days.

“I think the lineup is spectacular,” said Cook, quick to point out that she’s not on the selection committee. “I’m really proud of the work they did under trying circumstances.”

The 22nd annual festival, sponsored by Regions Bank, will feature a mix of the independent feature-length and short films the acclaimed festival is known for – “Bloody Noses, Empty Pockets,” “Jasper Mall”  and “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain” are among the titles – and more mainstream movies like 1993’s “Dazed and Confused,” 2002’s “Barbershop” and a sing-along version of 1968’s “Yellow Submarine.”

“We have more what I would say are repertory screenings of cult classics that we wouldn’t typically do in a normal year,” Cook said. “But because we’re in the drive-in format, it felt like the time to screen some really drive-in appropriate titles.”

The Sidewalk schedule will play out on the four screens at Grand River Drive-In rather than the normal 10-11 venues in downtown Birmingham, which means fewer films for the festival that usually screens 300-350 movies.

“We’re limited by the four screens and when it gets dark,” Cook said. “We can’t start the movies until after the sun goes down.”

Films will screen beginning at 8 p.m. each night, with gates opening at 6:30 p.m. for the venue that features concessions and a bar. Prices are based on how many people are in a car, from $15 for one person to $47 if there are five or more.

“I have been really surprised by how many people were not aware of the drive-in’s existence,” Cook said. “I’m glad we’re getting to use the space, because it’s really unique. A lot of our peers in the film industry are jealous that a facility like this exists in our community. So many festivals have canceled outright or gone to a virtual-only format.”

Though the pandemic hit before Sidewalk’s call for entries had ended this year, the festival still had 1,500-2,000 films under consideration by the 65-person screening committee, Cook said.

Some of the highlights of the films selected include:

  • “Banksy Most Wanted” (Aug. 24, 8 p.m.) – A documentary about the street artist and political activist.
  • “After Selma” (Aug. 25, 8 p.m.) – A look at the continued suppression of voting rights in America after the march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. Part of the festival’s Black Lens series.
  • “A Dim Valley” (Aug. 26, 10 p.m.) – Part of the festival’s SHOUT series, a feature film about a biologist and his graduate students involved in a research project deep in the Appalachian woods.
  • “Coming Clean” (Aug. 27, 8 p.m.) – A look at the country’s opioid crisis.
  • “Harley” (Aug. 28, 8 p.m.) – A documentary, part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, about a successful and eclectic criminal defense attorney from New Jersey.
  • “Suzi Q” (Aug. 29, 8 p.m.) – An examination of 1970s rocker Suzi Quatro.
  • “Heroes” (Aug. 30, 8 p.m.) – A film about motorsports stars Mika Hakkinen, Tom Kristensen, Michele Moulton, Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher.

Cook said the hope is to reopen the downtown film venue soon and to move back to the theater district for next year’s festival, but that this year’s drive-in Sidewalk Film Festival is a good, safe way to enjoy some movies during this uncertain time.

“We’re enforcing the mask ordinance, and people will be staying in their cars to watch the films,” she said. “We want people to be comfortable and safe while doing something that’s somewhat normal.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)