Written by Zak Hansen | Courtesy photos
With eight months’ work done and the final pieces of the puzzle falling into place, the 13th Annual El Paso Community Foundation Plaza Classic Film Festival (PCFF) was on track to offer another fantastic year of films and Program Director Doug Pullen with the El Paso Community Foundation felt confident. Then came March. When he’d normally be finalizing film schedules, Doug was instead working from home, still certain the festival would go on as planned. As the nationwide COVID-19 shutdown dragged into its second and third weeks, though, he started working on alternatives. “There was no way we were going to cancel,” Doug said. “We’ve had to start from scratch because the festival we’ve done for 12 years we can’t do. It’s all new and it’s all a learning curve.” Instead, he contacted Plaza Theater management, film distributors, theater owners, and other film festival organizers, and set to work, finally settling on a familyfriendly format — pop-up drive-in movies and digitally streamed movies — he hopes will stand as a fitting alternative to what is any other year “the world’s largest classic film festival.”
“This is a time of uncertainty, but it is an opportunity to strengthen the bonds in our community in a safe way,” said Eric Pearson, president and CEO of the El Paso Community Foundation in a statement. “I know it’s not ideal, but it will definitely be a fun way to allow people a real outlet, digitally and in person.” This year’s festival will take on an entirely new look — and venture outside of downtown enters a new era El Paso for the very first time — with a series of pop-up drive-in movies at six locations around metro El Paso, held nightly July 30 through August 9. In something of a salute to the glory days of the drive-in, this year’s schedule will feature a slate of family-oriented summer blockbusters — think killer sharks, rampaging dinosaurs, whip-wielding archeologists, and the like — along with a few returning favorites; the annual screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show will have you out of your car and doing the Time Warp in no time. These pop-up movies will be shown throughout El Paso: at the Sunland Park Mall, El Paso County Coliseum, the former Cohen Stadium, and two other locations, in the Lower Valley and Central El Paso.
“It’s like the Plaza Classic Film Festival on tour,” said Doug. There will be one of these outdoor movies each night of the festival, along with classic shorts and, if all goes well, Friday and Saturday double features, for about 15 films across its 11 days. Of course, sanitation and social-distancing measures will be in place during these screenings, with cars spaced just so — but still allowing for outdoor viewing — along with masked employees, professional parking lot attendants, emergency jumper cables, tiedowns, food handling considerations, and more to ensure everyone’s safety. “We’re all trying to figure out how to navigate this environment,” Doug said. “We wanted to give people something to do, safely. We won’t make any money or anything, but we’ll give some families something to do, and give some people some paid work.” On the digital side, the Plaza Classic Film Festival’s popular Local Flavor showcase will return for its 12th year, highlighting shorts, documentaries, and more created by regional filmmakers. The Local Flavor showcase, which features locally made and connected films, is open to all with no submission fee; sponsored by the Texas Film Commission, the series will award more than $1,500 in cash prizes. In a departure from its first 11 years, the 2020 Local Flavor selections will be screened digitally via the website’s streaming platform, with filmmakers’ permission. The Local Flavor series is curated by El Paso filmmakers Zach Passero (The Weird Kidz, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, Wicked Lake, Motel, Glimpse), who has been involved with the Plaza Classic Film Festival since it began in 2008, and Lucky McKee (Kindred Spirits, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, The Woman), who first appeared at PCFF in 2014. What is traditionally a star-studded affair, the PCFF this year will nonetheless feature a few celebrity guests.
Renowned actor F. Murray Abraham — an El Paso High School graduate — will lead an online Q&A and introduce the 1984 film Amadeus, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Other guests will be added to the roster. While it’s a distinct departure from previous years, this year’s Plaza Classic Film Festival will be a welcome distraction to what can seem like an endless stream of bad news, and its new drive-in component could just become a tradition. Through all the curveballs the world has thrown, Doug said, “We didn’t want to cancel. We’ve had so many events cancel and be postponed for next year. We’re getting beaten up in a lot of ways, and having arts and culture kind of pulled out from under us is hard. We wanted to have something for people to do; and next year we may even integrate some of these things into next year’s festival.”