Film Fest 919 (FF919) founders Carol Marshall and Randi Emerman have been bringing award-winning cinema to the big screens of Orange County since 2018. Making a home at the Silverspot Cinemas, the dynamic duo was forced to pivot their business model amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As theaters closed and indoor gatherings were limited, Marshall and Emerman took to the stars, opening the Drive-In at Carraway Village.
For more than 20 years, Marshall and Emerman have showcased notable filmmakers and screened unique international films.
“One of the things that we always knew we wanted to do was curate a festival,” explained Marshall.
While working in Florida, the two women began planning their strategy. “Chapel Hill was the kind of market we were looking for,” said Emerman. “People here have a zest for the arts.”
Trading palm trees for pine trees, Emerman put down roots in Orange County, while North Carolina is a second home for Marshall. Since beginning the festival, many of the featured FF919 films went on to win awards, including the movies “Parasite” and “Nomadland.” With expectations high, 2020 festival plans quickly came to a halt as COVID restrictions hit the U.S. In quarantine lockdown, Marshall and Emerman began working towards alternative solutions.
“One thing we did know is we did not want to do a virtual festival,” said Marshall. “The beauty of a film festival is being able to watch movies with other people and talk about them, so we got close by being able to show films outside.”
Conveniently located off I-40, the Drive-In at Carraway Village provides a COVID-safe environment for moviegoers and a year-round home for FF919.
“There’s such a nostalgic value to drive-ins,” explained Marshall. “You can still be within your little pod, get out of the house, and watch a movie on the big screen. It feels like a special outing.”
Building the outdoor theatre was no easy task. Marshall and Emerman battled the harsh conditions brought on by North Carolina weather. Hurricane season brought heavy rain, a tornado ripped through the projection screen, and a server melted due to the summer-time heat and humidity. The pandemic posed its own challenges, including the inability to fundraise.
“Festivals depend on partnership and sponsorship dollars,” said Emerman. “It was virtually impossible to raise money, but as always, we prevailed.”
Appreciative of the private donations and assistance from numerous volunteers, Marshal added, “to the people that did step up and help, we are forever grateful.”
Providing a year-round venue, the drive-in has allowed Marshall and Emerman to expand genres, showing classic throwbacks and family night features. The Contenders, a new series formed as an extension of the festival, is a creative concept developed by Marshall and Emerman, giving viewers the experience of watching award-worthy films and exclusive conversations with directors and filmmakers.
“The Oscars are going to be in April this year, which is completely unheard of,” explained Marshall. “It gave us an opportunity to [show] some of the contenders that came out after the festival last October. People have a chance to see [these movies] in [their] true form, which is on the big screen.”
Must-see films such as “Sound of Metal,” “On the Rocks,” and “News of the World” will play throughout February. The March Contender series schedule is set to release on Drive-In at Carraway Village’s website in the coming weeks.
What began as a pandemic pivot turned out to be a great opportunity for this locally owned “microbusiness.” Marshall and Emerman plan to continue their drive-in endeavor, expanding into concessions and additional entertainment.
“We’re going to have a really awesome pre-show that’s going to support N.C. artists coming in the very near future,” said Emerman.