At Z Movies

Filmocalypse Now: Film Festivals and Film Fans Fielding the Covid Curves

For most of us, these past months have surely felt as if we are living the end of the world. 2020 has been a veritable filmocalypse.

They’re baaAaack! Theaters reopened last month with steep discounts on tickets and concessions. (Photo: Kelly MacConomy)

Alexandria, VA – In many ways the summer of 2020 was both long and lost. Pandemic protocols presented filmgoers with repeated disappointments. The options were to close, cancel, go virtual, or create a pop-up drive in. Or a combination of them all.

Movie theaters suffered the greatest hit, most being closed since March. Major theater chains had planned phased re-openings in July but the politicized mask-wearing melee and sudden surge in coronavirus infection numbers, especially in major theater markets, put that on hold.

AMC created quite a stir when it opened with select new and retro releases on August 20, with pricing a throwback to 1920. On that day only, all ticket prices were 15 cents, same as 100 years ago. Popular films such as Black Panther and showtimes for evening screenings sold out immediately.

Because each theater was limited to a 40 percent seating capacity, it was hard to score an astronomically discounted seat. Ticketing was tricky because of rigid social distancing. Seats are blocked out as they are selected so you compete simultaneously with other online buyers, kiosks, and ticket counters. CDC-approved masks are required. Bandanas, neck cowls, and scarves are not acceptable. But AMC has you covered with free masks for those without the right facial covering.

AMC’s Welcome Back to the Big Screen offered $5 “Bring Back Movies” tickets for most films last month. Fun family classics such as the Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Grease, and The Goonies and 1980s prices brought people back, if not back to the future of the new normal. As it happened Back to the Future was also back on the marquis recently, along with more contemporary screenings such as the Inception Tenth Anniversary Event.

Even Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) came back to share another most excellent journey: rescuing their teenage kids from their own bogus misadventures while saving the world with their song, and bringing peace and harmony to the universe in the long-awaited release of Bill and Ted Face the Music.

Educator, history, and film buff David Kinsella in his signature field-trip adventurer hat. He is a big fan of Ava Gardner. (Photo: David Kinsella)

Film and history buff David Kinsella, a veteran educator at Patriot High School in Prince William County, went to see Russell Crowe in the wild-ride thriller Unhinged last month. “They did a great job with counter screens and keeping the audience extremely small with everyone wearing a mask,” he said. “I wore a mask all the time, save eating popcorn with no one ever within 50 feet of me. There were no mask police, so everyone was very nice.”

When not at Z movies, David can be found exploring battlefields, historic sites, and attending literary book talks and educational lectures. He’ll be wearing his signature hat. Well, not inside the theater!

September kicks off film festival season in the DMV. The Middleburg Film Festival has been offering virtual screenings of documentaries and indie films for weeks. This eighth year of the festival is on the calendar for October 15-18, but the schedule for studio-supported documentaries and narrative filmmaking has not been released yet. (The submission deadline was last month.)

Virtual screenings are mostly $10 or $12. One notable and timely release is John Lewis: Good Trouble, a tribute to the late legend, including a supplemental interview Congressman Lewis gave to Oprah Winfrey just before his passing.

The Alexandria Film Festival is in its 14th year and also leaned into virtual screening formats this past summer, scoring the premier release of Rebuilding Paradise. The film documents the devastating fire and partial recovery of Paradise, California, a town of 48,000 that was obliterated by wildfire in fall 2018. Only some 4,000 residents remained or returned.

A scene from Rebuilding Paradise, one year after the fire. The documentary by Ron Howard is available online now through the 2020 Alexandria Film Festival. (Courtesy photo)

Rebuilding Paradise was produced and directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker Ron Howard, director of Backdraft, a film about Chicago firefighters combating a homicidal pyromaniac. The documentary uses video and stills from first responders’ body cameras, firefighter crews, residents, and news footage to document the inferno as it happened.

Rebuilding Paradise is available through the AFF website. A special Q&A Zoom with director Ron Howard and moderator Katy Tur (NBC News) is a bonus. Be sure to access the free link for the Q&A featuring Rebuilding Paradise participants, from the town drunk to the town mayor Steve “Woody” Culleton and School Superintendent Michelle John.

Given the devastation of the California fires now, this film is all the more relevant. In it, a first responder on site remarks, “Firefighters are living climate change. It’s staring them in the face every day.” Ron Howard points out in the Q&A that when Benjamin Franklin coined the phrase “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he was speaking as a firefighter with the Union Fire Company, which he founded in 1736.

The AFF has released more virtual screenings, including The Con, a series spotlighting the financial debacle of 2008, and Apocalypse 45, a documentary exclusive to the AFF with previously unseen footage from the Battle of Iwo Jima taken by the WWII filmmakers, including one who captured the famous flag raising.

The film also includes scenes of the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The film was drawn from 700 reels of archival color footage discovered in a National Archives vault and digitally restored.

AFF founder Patti North says that Director Margaret Wohler is looking into a drive-in experience when the event kicks off November 12. The festival runs through Sunday, November 15. Be sure to purchase your tickets early.

New this year to the Virginia film festival circuit is the Loudoun Arts Film Festival (LAFF). Faced with pandemic-related logistical problems, festival organizers had to regroup or cancel. LAFF was rescued by collaborating with 50 West and Sunset Hills Vineyards owners Mike and Diane Canney. Working together, LAFF will be held for seven nights at 50 West Vineyards in Middleburg, September 11~13 and 17~19, showcasing live local musical talent each night from 5:30~6:30 p.m. and award-winning doc/indie films screenings at dark, around 8:00 until 10:30 p.m.

Co-Founder of the Loudoun Arts Film Festival filmmaker and writer Owen Palmiotti. Photo Owen Palmiotti

A 40-foot inflatable screen will be positioned on the panoramic hilltop parking lot with amplified sound accessible via car radio. Stay tuned to festival details at and the vineyard website,

Closing night, the LAFF pop-in drive spotlights Lin Manuel Miranda’s improvisational hip hop group revisited on Broadway in 2019-documented on film by director Andrew Fried.

For most of us, these past months have surely felt as if we are living the end of the world. With Wonder Woman 1984 moved back again to October 2, the new James Bond to November 25, theaters dark for months, and all other summer blockbusters moved to the fall, 2020 has been a veritable filmocalypse. But don’t discount these determined, creative movie buffs and film festival aficionados. They love the smell of crushed popcorn in the dark. It smells like…… showtime!!!!

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Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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