How Houston Cinema Arts Society used old, new venues to bring Sundance to Houston

Although the movie industry is unable to network and screen films at the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this year due to the ongoing pandemic, the nonprofit organization is bringing its festival to Houston and 19 cities in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Locally, the Sundance Institute is working with Houston Cinema Arts Society to host drive-ins and virtual screenings. The event runs Jan. 28-Feb. 2. In addition to six films selected with Sundance and one chosen locally, the Houston event will feature a virtual conversation with Richard Linklater, Houston-born director of films such as “Boyhood,” and Channing Godfrey Peoples, the Fort Worth-based director of “Miss Juneteenth.”

HCAS got to work planning the Sundance Satellite screenings immediately after its 12th Annual Houston Cinema Arts Festival, which also was held virtually and at drive-ins across Houston in November. Like the local festival, the challenge facing Sundance was inventing a new festival paradigm amid the uncertainty of an ongoing pandemic, said Laurence Unger, executive director of the Houston Cinema Arts Society.

“There was a lot of back and forth around (questions such as) should we try to do low-capacity screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts — who is a long term partner — or should we just decide, ‘OK, the health situation is too uncertain; we don’t know what it’s going to look like. We have to stick to these outdoor screenings,'” Unger said. “We ended up sticking with the outdoor screenings, as sad as it was to not be able to work with some of our traditional partners.”

For the Sundance screenings, HCAS is partnering with the Moonstruck Drive-In again and turning The DeLuxe Theater into a pop-up drive-in.

HCAS has been working with the Moonstruck Drive-In since it opened last year at 100 Bringhurst St. in Houston-based Midway’s East River site. In November, the Houston Cinema Arts Festival held two screenings at the drive-in along with one of its partners, the Houston Latino Film Festival, which had to postpone its 2020 event originally scheduled for March 19-22.

“Moonstruck is really amazing, and their manager, Andrew Thomas, is an amazing cinephile and businessman,” Unger said. “He was a fantastic partner. … Moonstruck, Houston Cinema Art Society and Sundance kind of all came together to bring the operational and the programmatic aspect together to do these six days of six films that are all six official Sundance selection films.”

As for The DeLuxe Theater, the historic building’s main focus is theater and dance, so it does not have some of the movie-screening capabilities of venues such as the Museum of Fine Arts.

“It really needs an upgrade to its screening facilities in order to be able to participate in film festivals and to show films for the community in a meaningful way,” Unger said. “We’ve been exploring all kinds of different possibilities of ways that we can upgrade The Deluxe to show films of movie-theater-grade quality in a way that’s very easy to manage for the theater so that it can easily move between dance, theater and film screenings.”

The historic Fifth Ward theater, located at 3303 Lyons Ave., opened in 1941 as a Blacks-only theater and had a 28-year run as a movie house before closing in 1969. From 1971 to 1973, it was used as an art gallery, first under the sponsorship of the Menil Foundation and later by Hope Development Inc. The building has remained shuttered for more than 40 years. In December 2015, the theater reopened after a major transformation.

HCAS will host “Miss Juneteenth” at the pop-up drive-in at The DeLuxe as part of the locally spearheaded Beyond Film Program. Unger said the goal of hosting a film at The DeLuxe is to help build awareness for both the theater and an existing partnership, the Black Media Story Summit, which HCAS holds with Austin Film Festival and Black Public Media to bring together emerging and established Black filmmakers and underrepresented filmmakers.

“As of right now, we partner with The DeLuxe Theater for the Black Media Story Summit,” Unger said. “We really want to build that out so that it’s not just one day of film programming a year, but a greater series of film programming tied into the community there.”

Meanwhile, determining which films to screen in the Bayou City was a long and ongoing conversation between Sundance, the filmmakers, the distributors and local film organizers, Unger said.

“This year, they had to do it differently because showing something in Park City is not the same as showing something in Key West or Iowa City or in Houston or in Dallas,” Unger said.

The conversation consisted of describing the venues to the filmmakers, what the audience is like in each host city, past programming and which filmmakers local film organizations worked with in the past. It was an ongoing conversation between all constituencies to arrive at the final Sundance films for Houston.

“It’s striking this balance of what kind of audience the filmmaker envisions for themselves and our audience,” Unger said. “I feel like six films is kind of like a perfect amount to be able to have.”

By Sara Samora - Houston Business Journal