SF Approves In-Person Sundance Festival Screenings at Fort Mason Center

A view of Fort Mason Flix, the San Francisco drive-in theater which is partnering with the Roxie Theater to present the Sundance Film Festival's programming. (Charlie Villyard/ Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture)

San Francisco city officials will allow drive-in screenings for the Sundance Film Festival to go ahead at the end of the month, giving Bay Area movie buffs the opportunity to see the films in-person during the pandemic.

A statement sent to KQED from the city’s COVID information team said the decision to permit the festival’s drive-in movie screenings at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture is in accordance with statewide guidelines.

“Under California’s regional stay-at-home order, drive-in theaters are permitted to operate,” the statement said. “In line with the city’s allowance of industry operation to the level at which the state permits, San Francisco has worked with the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture to carefully examine operating conditions that reduce the risk of drive-in theaters as much as possible. The Fort Mason Center has been a close partner in ensuring that their operations are aligned with the current state of public health conditions in San Francisco and we will continue to work together on these issues.”

A follow-up email from the city said drive-ins are currently the only non-essential businesses not currently open in San Francisco that are allowed to be open under state guidelines. “The state does not currently allow San Francisco to consider opening any other closed uses,” the email said.

Despite the widespread stay-at-home orders across the Bay Area that forced many non-essential businesses to close down again late last year, drive-ins are currently operating in other parts of the Bay Area, such as the West Wind Capitol Drive-In in San Jose and the Alameda Theatre & Cineplex.

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The Fort Mason Center and its presenting partner the Roxie Theater will be required to limit cars to a single household and won’t be permitted to sell concessions. Filmgoers must remain in their vehicles unless using the restrooms.

“While the Roxie’s doors have been closed for nearly 10 months, we’ve been active this entire time, trying our best to still present great movies and stay connected to a community that’s so dear to us,” said Lex Sloan, the Roxie’s executive director.

“These Sundance Festival drive-in screenings at Fort Mason are a chance for us to get a little closer to bringing the theatrical experience we’ve missed so much back to San Francisco," said Roxie operations manager Kelly Wiggin.

Along with its online programming, Sundance selected the Roxie as one of roughly 30 partner film presenters around the country. The historic indie theater is the only Northern California presenter; the state’s other two are in the Los Angeles area.

It’s the first time in the festival’s history moviegoers will get to experience Sundance’s entire program without having to trek out to Utah.

Moviegoers can see films from an array of Bay Area filmmakers at this year’s festival. Locally-produced highlights include Natalia Almada’s documentary Users about the dehumanizing consequences of technological advances, and a pair of documentaries focused on Bay Area public schools: Debbie Lum’s Try Harder, featuring students from San Francisco’s Lowell High School; and Peter Nicks’ Homeroom, set in Oakland High School. (Homeroom is only available online; it will not be screened at Fort Mason.)

“To have our local story about a San Francisco institution, Lowell High School, be at Sundance is so exciting to begin with,” said Try Harder director Lum. “This year, we can have a premiere simultaneously in the exclusive venue of Park City and in San Francisco, so that the community at the center of the story can actually attend Sundance.”

"For us it was a difficult decision to apply to Sundance knowing COVID would be a factor because the film is really intended for a theater," said Users director Almada. "But when we thought about it more deeply, it felt really important to keep making our work as a reflection and a response to the time in which we are living. Waiting for this to all pass didn’t feel right. The silver lining of not being able to go to Sundance is the possibility of having Sundance come to us."

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 28 through Feb. 3. Full San Francisco Sundance lineup and tickets here.