In movie-watching during the age of quarantine, honking is the new clapping.
The Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQIA+ Film Festival, in an effort to bring queer film lovers together during socially distant times, organized several drive-in screenings this year in addition to its digital lineup of over 160 films.
The experience at Friday’s opening night felt at once nostalgic and of-the-moment. Masked volunteers waited at the entrance of the Calamigos Ranch — a rarified retreat nestled in Malibu’s wine country, less than an hour's drive from Los Angeles — to take temperatures from the wrists of guests at the driveway check-in. Tickets were purchased beforehand with a $30 parking fee added to the $8 admission.
Once confirmed from a preprinted list, guests received a voucher exchangeable for a cocktail kit, a presealed bag of popcorn (salted or caramelized), a program guide, and hand sanitizer before driving down a dirt road to “Theatre 1,” a large field carved into the five-acre ranch. Attendants with orange lights then waved cars to socially distanced spaces facing a large elevated screen.
Although en plein air, there were some familiar fixtures of a film festival. After months in quarantine, it was a refreshing sign of normalcy to see the presence of brand sponsors again. Bartenders behind large plastic dividers exchanged vouchers for premixed Effen cosmos and other cocktails; many guests also took Effen bracelets, which flashed rainbow colors throughout the night from wrists dangling out of windows. The automobile sponsor, Hyundai, deployed a representative car with the best seat in the lot. There was even a VIP area, “Theatre 2,” with a larger screen and more intimate setting.
Sunset was around 7:45 p.m. So those who arrived early had the opportunity to stroll the verdant grounds of the ranch, a popular wedding venue teeming with green meadows, chandelier-strewn trees, verandas, ponds, and even a (now dark) Ferris wheel.
Throughout, charming groves of cabins evoked the Catskills resort in Dirty Dancing, although an overnight stay at the onsite hotel may deter most overnight visitors with a $650+ price tag. An onsite restaurant, the Malibu Café, was also open for business with offerings like a $24 kale salad. (Fortunately, guests could bring their own snacks for in-car consumption.)
Masks were required for all guests outside their vehicles, but many Outfest regulars still recognized one another and exchanged small talk, a flirtation, or a wave before the screening of The Nowhere Inn, a mockumentary by Bill Benz with its own history of COVID-19 disruption; it premiered at Sundance in January and was scheduled to appear at SXSW and Tribeca before those festivals were canceled due to the pandemic.
Before the film began, however, the festival was introduced with words from Outfest’s leadership team, including Damien S. Navarro, the new executive director. Navarro, who took the reins from former head Christopher Racster at last year’s festival, acknowledged “the new frontier” caused by the pandemic, which was “forcing us to accelerate” a plan that used technology to expand Outfest’s reach outside of Los Angeles.
This includes the newly launched app, Outfest Now, where subscribers can screen the majority of this year’s lineup on electronic devices for a 72-hour window, in addition to Q&As and panels. “We know from experience connection is the strongest tool we have to fight adversity,” said Navarro, adding that “we have created the tools we need not just to survive, but to thrive, flourish, and grow.”
“As we have all struggled to find ways through these feelings of isolation, something strange and beautiful has [risen] to the top,” he said. “You're no longer restricted by location, distance, and let's face it, pants have taken on a different meaning.”
Navarro was speaking via a prerecorded video broadcast at Calamigos and could be heard by tuning the car’s radio tuner to 101.5. But he was also among the viewers watching from their cars, convertibles, flatbeds, and hatchbacks — separate but together in the communal experience of filmgoing.
Within moments, Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Carrie Brownstein were illuminated on-screen and embarked on a journey that would be unimaginable in the present day: filming a documentary about a music tour. When the screen eventually went dark, the horns honked and the lights flashed their approval. Only a few cars needed a friendly jump for a depleted battery before winding back down the Malibu hills toward home.
Outfest runs through August 30. Catch more drive-in screenings this weekend and the entire lineup with a festival pass at Outfest.org.