Western RoundUp: Lone Pine (Virtual) Film Festival
Every October for the past half-dozen years I’ve spent Columbus Day weekend at the Lone Pine Film Festival in Lone Pine, California.
In a Western RoundUp column last fall I shared a look at some favorite moments from the 2019 festival, which was the 30th edition of this wonderful celebration of Western films and locations.
This year, like pretty much everything else in 2020, the “in-person” festival had to be put on hold due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Rather than canceling the festival entirely, the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine took the plunge and organized a robust “Western Watch Party” to take place online from October 9th through 11th; during the weekend the festival was extended an additional day, running through the 12th.
For a $45 fee in support of the nonprofit museum, virtual fest attendees could choose among 51 video selections via the Vimeo platform. Unlike some virtual events, the Lone Pine Film Festival options could be watched in any order desired, rather than having to conform to a specific time schedule.
Viewing selections ranged timewise from brief movie introductions and interviews, some only a few minutes long, to a number of full-length feature films shot in the Lone Pine area.
Interviews from past festivals that were related to the films were included as “extras,” and festival volunteers also created original content, notably three “virtual tours” of locations in the Alabama Hills just outside Lone Pine.
The festival also included the premiere of a restored 45th anniversary 4K print of Roy Rogers‘ last feature film, Mackintosh and T.J. (1975), along with Zoom discussion panels on the movie which included cast members Andy Robinson and Billy Green Bush as well as Roy’s eldest daughter, Cheryl Rogers Barnett.
During the course of the “virtual fest” weekend, I spent many happy hours immersed in all things “Lone Pine,” watching interviews, all of the virtual tours, and a half dozen “B” Westerns. My viewing included:
Welcomes from the festival staff and volunteers, as well as Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies, who has been a moderator at multiple Lone Pine Fests in recent years. As my viewing kicked off, I also enjoyed hearing “Cowboy Poet” Larry Maurice recite “A Special Place” in honor of Lone Pine and the festival.
Gene Autry and Peggy Stewart in Trail to San Antone (1947). It was preceded by an introduction filmed in the museum with the Buick convertible which has a memorable “role” in the movie. The film shows off a number of Lone Pine locations, including Anchor Ranch.
Don Kelsen’s “virtual tour” of Trail to San Antone locations.
A tour of Yellow Sky (1948) locations with historian Chris Langley, along with brief clips of director William Wellman’s son, William Wellman Jr., discussing his childhood experiences on location in Lone Pine.
“Randolph Scott in Lone Pine,” narrated by regular Lone Pine tour guides Ross Schnioffsky and Warren Davey, which also included spectacular drone footage of the Alabama Hills shot by Don Kelsen.
A vintage 1994 interview with Robert Mitchum and longtime Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin. Mitchum could be a difficult interview at times but here he was relaxed and forthcoming discussing his career, including his early experiences in Lone Pine.
A short 1995 interview with “Mrs. Hoppy,” Grace Bradley Boyd, who discussed meeting her husband, William Boyd, and his decision to focus his career solely on playing Hopalong Cassidy. They took a financial gamble acquiring the rights to the character, which paid off handsomely. Mrs. Boyd was sharp, glamorous, and engaging speaker.
The Phantom of The Range (1936) starring Tom Tyler and West of Nevada (1936) starring Rex Bell. Both were directed by Robert Hill, who unlike many directors shot “B” Western scenes on the streets of Lone Pine, in addition to the more familiar Alabama Hills. Having been to Lone Pine many times, I found the “town” shots especially fascinating.
Gunsmoke Ranch (1937), a “3 Mesquiteers” film directed by Joseph Kane, starring Robert Livingston, Ray Corrigan, and Max Terhune. Richard Bann shared in his introduction that Terhune’s ventriloquist dummy is now on display at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. I also enjoyed the chance to see child actor Sammy McKim in a prominent role; he grew up to be a Disney Imagineer and artist, named a “Disney Legend” in 1996.
Additional Westerns starring Ken Maynard and Tex Ritter, Hell Fire Austin (1932) and Riders of The Frontier (1939).
Having enjoyed both the “real” and “virtual” editions of the festival, I was curious to learn more behind-the-scenes information about the virtual festival. A few days after it concluded I had the opportunity to chat with Shawn Lum, the director of the Museum of Western Film History, who shared some very interesting insights, including thoughts on how this year’s experience could influence the future.
Ms. Lum was enthused about how the festival was received, saying it went smoothly and was a “thrilling result, trying to adapt to a pandemic when we’ve had 30 successful years of in-person festivals.” She was pleased that they came up with a plan they were capable of executing which attracted strong interest.
There were 215 paid registrants, more than double the museum’s initial goal; the majority of viewers were from the Los Angeles Basin, but there were participants from far-flung places including the UK, Australia, and Norway.
The numbers were close to evenly divided between those who had been to the Lone Pine Festival in person and film fans who were new to the festival; being able to reach beyond local travelers via the virtual event was a key takeaway from the weekend.
Digital data gathered by the museum showed that participants were extremely engaged, watching an average of 16 hours and 26 minutes of content per person over the course of the weekend. It added up to 5,871 independent views of the material, evenly distributed between Friday and Sunday, with a smaller amount of views for the “add-on” day Monday. 87% of participants in a post-festival survey rated their experience as “excellent” or “very good.”
It sounded as though the festival’s biggest challenge was that while there’s a great demand this particular year for virtual programming, studio licensing programs haven’t yet caught up to be able to fill that need, so the festival relied chiefly on public domain content.
Some of the original content produced for the festival, such as the virtual tours, will likely be available online in the future, but decisions are still pending as far as how and when that could happen.
In terms of the future, the expectation is that when it’s safe to have an “in-person” festival again it will happen, hopefully in the fall of 2021, but going forward the museum staff and board are also interested in exploring pairing events on the ground in Lone Pine with some sort of virtual programming.
Ms. Lum commented on the significance of actually being in Lone Pine, seeing in person how the landscape impacted filming and what it was like for the people who worked there, while at the same time the virtual event allowed the festival to reach new audiences.
She concluded that the virtual festival “makes us want to explore our options. We feel good about having done it and want to work with this new model.”
I’m thrilled that film fans who have never been to Lone Pine in person were able to experience it in a new way, and I’m also hopeful that the virtual festival will encourage some first-time visitors to attend future events. It will be very interesting to see what the long-term influences are from 2020 as plans unfold in future years.
Until we meet again in Lone Pine!
— Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.