PICTURED: Angkor Awakens, presented as part of Ojai Film Festival’s Festival Highlights. 

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Last week, we featured this season’s hottest new releases with our annual Summer Movie Preview. But true cinephiles know that some of the best movies are the ones not available at the multiplex. Both the Ojai Film Festival and Oxnard Film Society have for years brought high-quality, lesser-known productions to local screens. No one is going to the movie theater right now, of course, so both organizations are bringing the movie theater to their patrons via a robust lineup of cinematic excellence.

Oxnard Film Society’s Virtual Cinema

Since 2007, George Sandoval, founder and executive director of the Oxnard Film Society (OFS), has screened critically acclaimed foreign films at Plaza Cinemas 14 on Fifth Street. Screenings took place on the first and third Monday of the month and every Monday during the summer, with 100-150 people per show.

“We are bringing close to 7,000 people to Downtown Oxnard every year,” Sandoval estimates.

It was an appreciative group, one that didn’t just enjoy seeing the films, but talking about them afterwards — usually at Fresh and Fabulous Cafe next door (which would stay open late just to accommodate filmgoers).


“People loved discussing these films,” Sandoval recalls of the series. “It’s a sense of community.”

With theaters closing in March, Sandoval quickly got in touch with his film distributors, and discovered that some of them were offering “virtual cinema.” He curated a list of five films that he found particularly compelling and on March 16 put the links up on the OFS website. Clicking on the link takes viewers to a distributor page where they can rent the film for a three- to five-day window. Rental fees are $10-12, with 50 percent going to OFS. 

Some of the first films made available were Corpus Christi (Poland), Vitalina Varela (Portugal) and Incitement (Israel) — all heavy dramas that Sandoval says “have something to say . . . Something of quality that makes you think.” For lighter fare, try the Romanian thriller/comedy The Whistlers or the music-infused Once Were Brothers about the rock group The Band.

Sandoval just added three more films in May (Beanpole, Mephisto and Bacurau), and will periodically increase the offerings throughout the summer. While he’s not sure exactly how many people are viewing each film, he knows people are watching — and not just Ventura County locals.

“I’ve had three emails — one from Africa, a friend in Vienna and a fellow in Mexico,” he says.

Sandoval has heard from his longstanding OFS patrons, too.

“When it first started, I just got inundated,” he recalls. “ ‘How do I do this?’ ‘How do I stream?’” Sandoval has found it’s easiest to stream from his laptop, and hook his laptop up to his television with an HDMI cable. He’s had to walk more than one tech-challenged viewer through the process.

“I’ve thought about making a training video,” he says.


Ojai Film Festival Highlights

The Ojai Film Festival is hopeful that its 2020 event will take place as per usual in November. Until then, the OFF is keeping film lovers engaged with a summer lineup that can be enjoyed from home. 

“Most people are locked down with limited access to cultural offerings,” says founder/artistic director Steve Grumette. “So we came up with the idea of showing the highlights from the last couple of years.”

The series launched on May 22 with Angkor Awakens and Ay Mariposa. On May 30, catch the documentary shorts Aleppo and Nobody Dies Here along with the feature film April in Autumn. Other film “bundles” will be made available every Friday through June 26 — and possibly longer if OFF can acquire the films. All films will remain up for the duration.

Grumette says that most of these films are award winners (either from the film festival circuit or OFF judges) and audience favorites. Many of them are short films and documentaries; offerings you can’t typically find on services such as Netflix or Hulu. There was an effort to create a lineup with broad appeal — documentaries, dramas, uplifting films, grittier works and even some romances.

April in Autumn

“It’s really the creme de la creme,” he confirms.

Best of all, it costs nothing to stream these quality films.

“It’s kind of just a gift to the community,” Grumette says. “It’s completely free.” 

To access a film, go to the “Online Festival” section on the OFF website, and click on the name of the film. It will take you to a page with a description and a small video screen you can click on to play. The films are hosted on YouTube, but on an unpublished link available only on the OFF website.

Grumette hopes the festival highlights will be entertaining, a tantalizing reminder of the 2020 Ojai Film Festival to come, and a dry run if theaters are still closed (or closed again) come November.

“We really don’t know if it’s going to be possible to do a regular festival,” he says. “In case we can’t, we’re preparing to do an online festival. One way or another, there will be a 2020 Ojai Film Festival.”