It’s a tranquil Saturday night on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. People are walking their dogs, or posting up with a margarita on El Burrito's patio. Nothing seems amiss... until you walk into the Parkway Theater, which is exploding with shrieks as guys in baseball uniforms run around the stage.
This is Scream it off Screen, a film festival that's truly unrivaled when it comes to zaniness and volume. A film festival that begs the question: "What the fuck is going on?" The concept is simple: 15 short films are shown, and a few minutes into each, the audience has the chance to—you guessed it—scream it off screen.
Those who want to skip it shout "GONG!" and those who like what they see shout back in support: "LET IT PLAY!" There are a few short skits between screenings (hence the baseball uniforms; America's pastime was the loose "theme" at May's event). At night's end, a filmmaker gets the win by merit of audience decibel levels, and is awarded a $101.01 prize.
It is, I'm not kidding, the most fun I've ever had in a movie theater.
“Have you ever been at an event in Minnesota where someone even says, ‘Boo’?” Scream it off Screen's Natalie Koness laughs. “You’re taught to say, ‘Oh, I loved that, that was really good.’ Not everything is good! A lot of stuff isn’t good.”
Scream it off Screen made its debut at the Parkway in January; before that, it was something Koness and co-creator Terry Sommer did in their apartments with a projector and maybe 10 friends. They kept hosting it, and people kept coming, until it got to a point where they needed a real-deal event space. It's been held in an increasingly packed Parkway ever since.
Sommer muses that more people are creating videos than ever before; the mass of stuff you can watch online—from YouTube to TikTok—is frankly overwhelming.
"It’s cool to take a cross-section of that and then have it shown live somewhere, where people are seeing it in real life, not in front of a screen,” he says. "Maybe this is, like, the vinyl of internet videos. Bringing people back together in real life to do something and to voice their opinion."
Here, a video made on a cell phone has just as much of a chance of winning as one with a for-real cast and crew. The submission process is simple: Hopefuls drop off a zip drive containing their flick a day or two before the event. The first 15 filmmakers get in, and nothing is pre-screened before the live show. There are no genre restrictions, and viewer discretion is definitely advised. Unlike almost any other film series, it’s free to submit, plus you don’t have to fill out a ton of paperwork.
Production values vary. (Widely.) The audience is the equalizer. It's some seriously egalitarian shit.
But though the barrier to entry may be low, the skin-thickness required is high. “It’s not an every-kid-gets-a-blue-ribbon kind of thing,” Koness says. People tend to love it or hate it, to be super into the concept or made utterly uncomfortable by it.
“And I think that’s totally fine," she adds. "People are allowed to hate the event just like they’re allowed to not like the film, you know?” But no filmmaker seems to get bitter or take it personally. Plenty of people submit monthly, and many get gonged every single time.
Koness guesses that filmmakers like looking at their work through a truly unfiltered lens. Nowhere else can you see such a visceral reaction to your work from such a broad cross-section of people. Her favorite thing is when the audience is divided—when people love and hate what you’re doing.
And let's be clear: Some people are going to hate what you're doing. Loudly. They might even try to best you next month.
“There’s a lot of people out there in the audience, sitting through the really shitty stuff, and they’re like, ‘I can do better than that," Koness says. “They’ve never made a video in their entire lives, but they’re encouraged to try.”
As for why the audience likes it? Why it’s getting bigger and goofier and more raucous by the month?
Well, as previously stated, it's fun as all hell. But also: “I think that people actually really like controversy," Koness says. "You’re not getting that in real life anywhere, except for on the internet. And I feel like people like being a part of something. You truly do have a voice.”
“There’s gonna be controversy, there’s gonna be drama, right?” Sommer adds. “It kind of creates this fantasy world in the theater.”
Scream it off Screen
Saturday, August 3
8 - 10 p.m.
The Parkway Theater
4814 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis