The original 2020 date for the Chattanooga Film Festival has come and gone – without the "Sundance of the South" having the chance to screen a single movie. That's because Chattanooga Film Festival organizers were proactive in March about cancelling the April 16-19 event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while it looked like this year would be a wash, that was until something unexpected happened.

Microsoft, along with several partners including MediaKind, Evergent, VisualOn and Slalom, offered to take the Chattanooga Film Festival online, transforming it into a four-day interactive event not unlike the one that takes place in the Scenic City each year – this time totally virtual, and a month later than originally planned. 

Chris Dortch Sr., left, looks on as Chris Dortch II, the director of the Chattanooga Film Festival, welcomes attendees at the Waterhouse Pavilion in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chris Dortch Sr., left, looks on as Chris Dortch II, the director of the Chattanooga Film Festival, welcomes attendees at the Waterhouse Pavilion © Katy Howard / Lonely Planet

"In addition to the films we screen every year, the heart and soul of the festival are the friends we make and the community," said festival founder and executive director Chris Dortch II in a statement on the CFF website. "When Microsoft approached us with this idea, we knew it meant the difference for the Chattanooga Film Festival surviving as an arts nonprofit. We are excited to innovate with Microsoft and MediaKind to deliver a virtual film festival that helps our community connect during these times.”

The Chattanooga Film Festival's slate of feature and short films will be streamed online, and will only be accessible during the dates of the event for 30,000 virtual attendees. In addition to the film screenings, Microsoft is using its technology to host post-film Q&As, panels, and other live content that give fans a chance to connect with filmmakers, producers, and other special guests.

The 2020 lineup, announced May 13, includes several celebrity guests, including Ice-T and the heavy metal band GWAR, as well as filmmakers Mick Garris, Alex Winter (best known for Bill & Ted and Lost Boys) and Joe Dante (of Gremlins and The Burbs fame). 

Films will include the world premier of Nicholas Ashe Bateman's The Wanting Mare, as well as that of Brazilian horror flick Skull. Other features include Climate of the Hunter, Jumbo, The Beach House, Scare Package, La Sirena, Disco Graveyard, and I Don't Do This For Love, I Do This For Love - Nathan Bell on Tour

The Chattanooga film festival often gives fans a chance to meet and interact with filmmakers, and the online version will be no different © Sania Kahn / Lonely Planet

Access badges start at $10 for one-day access and $30 for full four-day access, while a $100 virtual badge gives guests VIP access that includes screenings of additional titles. Those who have already purchased tickets for the original CFF run in April will have their badges honored for the new, online event. Proceeds from ticket sales not only help keep the Chattanooga Film Festival, a certified 501(c)(3), coming back year after year but are also split with filmmakers in support of the film community and working artists.

The Chattanooga Film Festival officially started in 2014, but goes back far longer in spirit. It's rooted in the Mise en Scenesters film club, which Dortch started in 2009 with a showing of Repo Man and Return of the Living Dead. MES took its cues from underground music and the DIY punk scene, making use of any available space for screenings, including a warehouse belonging to Collective Clothing and a former fire hall.

A theater full of film fans at the Chattanooga Film Festival
The Chattanooga Film Festival has taken place at several venues throughout the city in years past. This will be the festival's first virtual year © Katy Howard / Lonely Planet

Although Chattanooga is Tennessee's fourth-largest city with a reputation for the arts, Mise en Scenesters was one of the only ways to see indie, arthouse, and genre films without driving two hours or more to reach independent theaters like the Belcourt in Nashville and the Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta.

Despite the varied settings, often without air conditioning, MES showings proved popular enough that Dortch took the next step of launching a small film festival – a Halloween and horror-themed event known as the Frightening Ass Film Festival. The FAFF gave Dortch and his fellow organizers a chance to learn the ropes of organizing larger-scale events, and soon they were ready to launch a full-fledged film festival. 

The neon lit exterior of the Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga TN
The Chattanooga Film Festival was originally slated to take place at the Songbirds Guitar Museum this year © Songbirds Guitar Museum / Lonely Planet

Early on, the Chattanooga Film Festival piggy-backed on the chain theaters in town, using screens at the downtown Carmike. Later, it moved to the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. This would have been the first year the festival took place at Songbirds, a 14,000 sq ft guitar museum and event venue which is part of a multi-million dollar transformation of the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo, the train station of Glenn Miller fame cum hotel cum entertainment complex.

Over the past decade, the Southside neighborhood around the Choo Choo has also evolved through tremendous community support (including an annual parade and 24-hour party) from somewhat shabby and blighted to a bustling strip of restaurants, bars, and art galleries.  That's a trajectory not entirely dissimilar to the Chattanooga Film Festival's own flowering from the dream of a few die-hard cinephiles to an event lauded by the likes of Southern Living and Movie Maker and attended by celebrities like Elijah Wood.

With a new online format this year that doesn't require a car ride or plane ticket to attend, even more film fans can check out this true labor of love –  at a time we could all use an extra dose of community, weirdness, and art. 

Keep up to date with Lonely Planet's latest travel-related COVID-19 news here.

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