The Utah Film Center will host a pop-up drive-in movie Saturday as part of this year’s Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival, offering one night to gather — while socially distancing — before its virtual screenings.
“People are yearning for in-person connection,” said Mariah Mellus, director of external relations. “Gathering for the entire festival just wasn’t feasible, so we wanted to offer them this one-night event to get together and celebrate the beginning of the festival.”
The pop-up event at Utah State Fairpark will begin with a drag show, followed by a screening of the 1968 film “The Queen.” It will be held in the parking lot south of the Days of ’47 Stadium.
Concessions, including beer sales, will be available, though Utah open container laws prevent drinking in vehicles, so attendees will have to enjoy their alcohol outside their cars. Patrons will be required to wear masks when they leave their parking stall to buy snacks or use the restrooms, and masks will be sold for $1 on-site.
Tickets are $25 per car and must be purchased in advance on utahfilmcenter.org by midnight Friday so that contact tracing can take place if someone tests positive for the coronavirus after attending.
When the spread of COVID-19 made gathering in large groups unsafe, Mellus and the rest of the Utah Film Center brainstormed ways to safely bring people together and explore LGBTQ issues and ideas through dramatic and documentary films.
They felt they had no choice but to move the festival into an online format, but patrons and staff members still felt a significant desire to gather, Mellus said.
“There’s just something about watching a movie with people,” Mellus said. “That collective energy that’s achieved with seeing something together can’t be replicated online.”
Previously, the center had put on outdoor movie screenings as fundraising events. It sent out a survey in May to previous festival attendees, asking whether or not they’d be comfortable meeting in an outdoor environment. The overwhelming response was yes.
Mellus said that some patrons “cried tears of joy” when the pop-up drive-in was announced. One emailed the center expressing gratitude for the center’s commitment to using different avenues to show these films instead of pulling back.
The film community rallied around the idea as well — the Sundance Film Festival offered its equipment to the film center.
An inflatable screen will be placed on a riser at the front of the parking lot so it can be seen above the cars. Ensuring strong sound and projector quality was a high priority in providing the event, Mellus said.
Patrons will park in jumbo-sized parking stalls, 12 feet from the next car, to allow for enough space to sit in front of a car and watch the show.
“We’re complying with all state, health, [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and liquor laws at this point. It’s a lot to navigate,” Mellus said with a laugh.
The parking lot can accommodate 70 cars, and as of Thursday afternoon, patrons had already bought up about half of the available tickets. Usually, festivalgoers took in the films at theaters in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center and at the Salt Lake City Public Library.
“This is a test run for us,” Mellus said. “We’re looking for other parking lots now. We’d like to activate these unused spaces and create a safe space for people to watch film collectively.”
“The arts and cultural sector as a whole is trying to find a way to still present these [works of art] in the safest way possible,” she said. “We understand the power and impact of being able to see each other and gather, but nobody wants to put anyone at risk. As the Film Center, we’d like to be the example of how to do a safe and fun outdoor event which allows us to gather and find our new normal.”
Gates will open at 8 p.m. and the Drive-in Drag Show will begin at 9 p.m. Drag king Madazon Can-Can will emcee the event alongside their band of drag kings and queens, including Gia Bianca Stephens, Mik Jager and Kay Bye.
“Queens and kings just want to put on a show, and we’re going to have a show for sure,” Mellus said.
At 9:45 p.m., the screening of “The Queen” will begin. The 1968 documentary is about the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, held in New York the year before. It centers on the work of Sabrina, the pageant’s organizer and emcee. (She credited by her given name, Jack Doroshow; she died in 2017, The New Yorker noted in writing about the “extraordinary” movie last year.)
“We like to put a retro film into the mix just to remind people of the filmmakers and the stories that came before us,” Mellus said. “... ‘The Queen’ is an excellent example of what it was like to be one of the pioneers of drag queen competitions.”
In the 1960s, “you were risking your life to be in or attend a drag show,” Mellus said. “We are able to look back on that 52 years later and see how far we’ve come, and also how many drag queens struggle with those same prejudices now.”
All proceeds from the event will go toward supporting the Utah Film Center. If patrons cannot afford the $25 entry fee, they can reach out to the Film Center staff, because the center does not want to turn anyone away.
“Every festival has a core audience that supports them year after year and becomes like family,” Mellus said. “Some of them have been coming for all 17 years that we’ve been doing it, so to not see them is like a piece of the festival is missing.”