Indie Film Festival to Transform Parking Lot at Eagle Rock Plaza into a Drive-In Theater

2020 Arts & Culture Editions Front Page September

By Emily Jo Wharry

 Despite the pandemic, planning for the 7th annual Highland Park Independent Film Festival forged ahead this spring and summer with calls for submissions and the selection of films.

The venue, however, presented a big problem. The home of the film festival is the historic Highland Theater on Figueroa Street. But, like all movie theaters, it has been closed since the start of the pandemic.

And so, with the festival scheduled for Oct. 2 and Oct. 3, the organizers pivoted in August, opting for a drive-in film festival to be held in the upper parking lot of the Eagle Rock Plaza.

The team behind the Highland Park Independent Film Festival, from left: Alessandro Gentile (co-founder), Terry Butcher (associate producer), Marita De La Torre (co-founder), April Ibarra (producer), and Mark Reitman (co-founder)

“The management of the Plaza welcomed us with open arms,” says Alessandro Gentile, a cinematographer and one of three founders of the Highland Park film fest. The Uptown Gay and Lesbian Alliance and the California Arts Council also stepped up as co-sponsors, he says.

Gentile has a way of making it sound as if the shift from a movie theater to a drive-in was easy.  

In fact, it’s a feat – the first ever drive-in movie fest in Northeast Los Angeles. It is also a display of the show-must-go-on energy that led to the founding of the festival in 2013 and has fueled its growth each year since then. 

Gentile grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, studied film at UC Santa Barbara and then moved to the Bay Area to work as a line producer. Off the clock, he invested hours in unpaid side projects — such as documentaries and music videos — before being hired in 2003 to work on his first feature film. That experience inspired him to step out of his comfort zone. He left producing — the logistics side of moviemaking — for the creative side, enrolling at UCLA to study cinematography and eventually moving to Eagle Rock.

In 2011, Gentile met Marita De La Torre, a theater and film actor turned producer, when the two worked on the same film set. At the time, De La Torre had recently moved to Highland Park, where she still lives.

Gentile put the idea for a film festival to De La Torre. “I just said, ‘Hey, listen, the neighborhood’s changing really quickly. I know this is a crazy, absurd idea, but would you be interested in starting up a film festival in Highland Park? And she was like, ‘Dude, are you crazy?’ And I was like, ‘A little.’”

De La Torre was sold on the idea. She and Gentile teamed up with Mark Reitman, a music producer and DJ whom Gentile had met through a local Highland Park arts organization. The trio founded a company, Mud Productions, LLC, that serves as the festival’s parent organization.

Gentile says that the festival has thrived organically over the past seven years because of Northeast L.A.’s strong sense of camaraderie around artistic projects. De La Torre likens putting on the festival to throwing a “big party for Highland Park every year” – a party in which local filmmakers and local audiences are the guests of honor.

This year, the drive-in film festival will showcase 22 independent shorts, including six by filmmakers from Highland Park and Eagle Rock. Two of the films in the lineup are world premieres and two are United States premieres. Another two films in the festival have never been seen before on the big screen, though they have screened virtually. Seven of the films are by women directors. Two are LGBTQ-themed.

The selections reflect a conscious attempt to lift up community voices and present an array of creators and topics.

“We’re filmmakers as well, and so we always say, ‘How do we make our filmmakers feel thought of?,’ says De La Torre. “I always tell them every year, ‘You make us. Your content is what makes this festival. It’s the make or break. I want to thank you for entrusting me to screen your film.’”

The audience is also top of mind for the festival founders. “We always want the public to know that we love this community and that’s why we do this every year,” says De La Torre.  “And we want that to show and we want them to feel that this is their festival.”

The first evening of the film festival, Friday, October 2, will focus on sci-fi, action and psychological thrillers. In “APPyness,” directed by festival alumnus Ryan Turner, a woman tests a new app that lets her control her emotions. “We Choose To Go,” directed by Marlene Emilia Rios, takes viewers along on a trip-gone-wrong to outer space. 

On Saturday, October 3, the lineup features local directors, female filmmakers and films about Los Angeles. Director Jimmy Alvarado’s second episode of “Eastside Punks” documents East L.A. punk-rock legends. Director Daniel Addelson’s “Where the Stars Look Different” presents a coming-of-age story about two teenage girls whose lives have been shaped by immigration status.

Ticket sales and a full film roster will be online starting Thursday, September 3. You can also follow the festival @hpifilmfest on Twitter and Instagram.

See you at the drive-in.

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