Hell’s Half Mile brings re-imagined festival to Bay City

COVID-19 can’t stop the music and movies of Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival. Instead, festival organizers have re-imagined the event to include both in-person and virtual options.

Typically, Hell’s Half-Mile fills a September weekend with independent films and music at venues throughout the downtown area. This year, Festival Director Alan LaFave says the organization is offering a hybrid of virtual and live events throughout the summer and fall. Labeling it HHM 14.5, LaFave says this year’s festival is a mix of pop-up outdoor cinema, movies viewable in the comfort of home via a unique app, live music outdoors, and virtual Q&As with filmmakers, actors, and producers.  

“We didn’t want to add to the growing list of canceled events, but we wanted to have a positive spin on our decision, of course, which was made to protect our volunteers and filmmakers as well,” LaFave says. “We wanted to make sure that we provided some alternative entertainment for our audience.”

For 14 years, the Hell’s Half-Mile Film and Music Festival filled a September weekend with independent films and music at venues throughout the downtown area.

LaFave says they considered hosting a fully virtual event, but decided that would change the character of the festival. “Our festival is about connections and being social, and of course if we would have gone entirely virtual, that would have eliminated the entire music end of our festival, which is very important to us as well.”

The 2020 festival lineup includes a pop-up cinema in collaboration with the State Theatre. Organizers plan to show drive-in movies on an inflatable screen in the parking lot of the Pere Marquette Depot, 1000 Adams St. Live music will fill the Drydock Beer Garden, 113 Center Ave.

For people who want to stay further away, the festival offers virtual viewing opportunities through its website, https://hhmfest.com/. Ticket proceeds for the virtual screenings are split between the festival and the film producers and distributors. “It’s a really great way for us to bring great curated films to our audiences and still benefit from the ticket sales,” he says.

“What we’ll eventually do is try to create opportunities for those who have watched the film, to discuss online together, so they still get that film festival feeling, where they’re able to talk about the film with someone who has seen it,” LaFave adds.

Each week, HHM adds a new film to the lineup. The films will be available for three weeks. “It’s a really great opportunity for distributors to provide really great independent films that may not get in front of our local audiences any other way, or may get lost if they’re on other streaming services.”

Festival Director Alan LaFave, at left, leads a panel discussion after a film during the 2019 festival.

The first film was released on Aug. 5 and is and available until Aug. 22. It is a Romanian Noir film called “The Whistlers,” and is subtitled. The next film to be released is a documentary called, “John Lewis – Good Trouble,” which is the story of the life of recently deceased congressman and civil rights activist. Upcoming film genres include comedy, suspense, and drama. Trailers for the films are available at https://hhmfest.com/hellion-film-club/.

Virtual Q&As provide unique opportunities for viewers to meet with filmmakers, actors, and producers. “The ability to connect with the filmmaker and hear what the backstory is in creating the film is what drives things for me,” says LaFave, adding that creating conversations about films is important to keeping the films alive long after the end.

LaFave says organizers have reached out to some of the filmmakers to set up virtual Q&As for audiences. More will be announced, but those sessions will be held closer to what would have been the festival date in September.

Festivalgoers have already been receptive to the idea of the virtual screenings, LaFave says. Back in April and May, HHM tested the virtual screening process. LaFave says the first film screened had over 2 dozen tickets sold. For the second, dozens of people watched and participated in a Q&A.

Festival organizers didn’t make the festival entirely virtual in order to preserve the musical aspect of the event.

The festival is about more than just watching movies. In addition, filmmakers can participate in a filmmaking challenge through Film SLAM. In the challenge, amateur filmmakers get the opportunity to try their hand at writing, filming, and editing a movie within a very small window of time.

“We want to do a virtual version of this,” he says. “Folks will still make the films on their own, and they will be screened virtually through something like we’re doing with the films on the website.”

The Film SLAM challenge will be announced in the next few weeks, as plans are still in the works to make sure this part of the festival can happen in this virtual platform.

LaFave says the alternatives have been well received.

He says musicians are especially ready to perform. “You can make assumptions that people just don’t want to do this stuff but more of it is that they just don’t have the opportunity to,” he says. “They’re just really excited to play somewhere.”

LaFave says offering the outdoor venues gives patrons an opportunity to enjoy some great entertainment while staying outdoors and at least 6 feet away from other people. “We hope to be able to stay outside, where it’s just a safer way to gather,” he says.

Details are being updated frequently at https://hhmfest.com/.

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