In recent years, the Embassy Theatre has become known mostly as a place to see world-renowned musical acts and Broadway shows on tour.
But for much of its history, it was a movie theater.
The Embassy’s opulence hearkens back to a time when movie theaters were designed for maximum pleasure rather than maximum capacity.
During the Embassy’s most recent manifestation as a live entertainment venue, it still offered films from time to time: Hollywood classics, mostly. But the pandemic has necessitated a team-up that will bring the Embassy more authoritatively back to its roots.
Back to its roots
Cinema Center’s Hobnobben Film Festival will happen at the Embassy Theatre this year from Oct. 23 to 25.
“We started as a movie palace,” said the Embassy’s chief marketing officer, Carly Myers. “And that identity is coming back in a fresh, modern way.”
The idea to move Hobnobben to the Embassy grew out of a discussion with the top brass at Cinema Center about the Embassy’s racial equity statement, Myers said.
“(Cinema Center execs said) ‘Oh, gosh. We need to do Hobnobben. We want to do Hobnobben. We want to bring something really joyful and interesting and artistic and creative to Fort Wayne during 2020,’” she recalled. “And they knew that they couldn’t do it on site at Cinema Center. So it became this kind of natural discussion. We were already doing events here under COVID-19 guidelines.”
Events that usually happen at area venues with seating capacities in the hundreds, like Cinema Center and Arts United Center, can’t happen in those locales because they can’t be made both safe and profitable.
And events that usually happen at area venues with seating capacities above 1,000, like the Embassy, aren’t happening at those locales because most national tours have been cancelled or postponed.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the pandemic has created strange bedfellows, but it has renewed some old friendships and forged new ones.
Even before the pandemic, the Embassy had resolved to work more closely with local arts groups, Myers said.
The Embassy has “a luxury of space,” she said.
Throughout the fall, the Embassy will host productions from the Civic Theatre, Fort Wayne Ballet, Three Rivers Music Theatre, and Fort Wayne Youtheatre.
Myers thinks they’re opening doors that weren’t open in the past.
“And now when there is a need to do a bigger (local arts) event or a need to do something in a unique way,” she said, “that door is open.”
Keeping it Together
In the past, Hobnobben has happened at various venues throughout the city.
But consolidation under one roof actually started last year for reasons that had nothing to do with managing a virus.
Last year, the event happened entirely at Cinema Center, according to the non-profit moviehouse’s associate executive director, Alix Watson.
“We wanted to pare the event back to make it seem more apparent that it was a Cinema Center event and a Cinema Center experience,” she said.
Another change last year was the organization of programming by theme rather than by length, genre, or geography.
“Within that, people do get a sampling of different types of film varieties,” festival cochair Christi Hille said. “People can sample in one block everything we have to offer.”
Thematic organization also eliminates those jarring shifts in tone that can happen at other film festivals, she said.
“It’s a better user experience and viewer experience as a whole,” Hille said.
“Conventionally ... you can be in a block where you watch a sweet rom-com and then take a hard left turn into horror,” Watson said. “Or you watch something super serious and you need to take a beat and think about it.”
For films answering to the latter description, the festival’s organizers have built in panel discussions, Watson said.
The organizers also decided last year to announce the winners on the first night instead of the last. That way, attendees who used to wish they knew the award-winners ahead of time can focus on seeing those films.
25 hours of film
The opening night film this year is Ms. Diagnosed, a documentary about poor health outcomes for women with heart problems and the probable discrimination involved.
In the past, the opening night film has usually been something more commercial and something, unlike Ms. Diagnosed, that is not in contention for an award.
“Given the pandemic and the health care climate, that kind of film and that kind of conversation is that much more relevant right now,” Watson said.
There will be blocks devoted to horror films, films about parenting, fantasy films, films about friendships, dark comedies, and films about relationships where one person is incarcerated or both people are imprisoned by circumstances.
A midnight movie of sorts will be offered a few hours earlier than is customary for that genre on Saturday night.
Ninja Badass, an action comedy from Ryan Hamilton, starts at 9:45 p.m.
And a documentary on the making of an opera based on one of western writer Zane Grey’s novels seems like perfect Saturday morning programming: “Saturday morning television” for adults.
This year’s festival will consist of 25 hours’ worth of film in 13 languages, Watson said.
Attendees must wear masks everywhere in theater except when seated. Zoned refreshment stands will limit intermingling.
The Embassy’s front-of-house team has become quite adept making shows happen safely and smoothly in the COVID-19 age, Myers said.
They can clean the theater in a trice, steer human traffic, and gently remind attendees of the rules.
Attendance is capped at just over 500, Myers said, so day passes and full festival passes purchased ahead of time are the best way to reserve your seat or seats.
Hobnobben wouldn’t happen without the support of dozens of volunteers, Hille said, and she wants to make sure they get their due.
“We appreciate every single one of them,” she said. “I am about to cry now because I am overwhelmed by how amazing they are. They offer advice about what we could do next year. They’re very forward thinking.”
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