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Sonoma International Film Festival kicks off with drive-in movies at Skypark

Cinema At The Airport

24th annual Sonoma International Film Festival

When: March 24 - 28

What: Drive-in screenings at Sonoma Skypark airport, 21870 Eighth St. E., Sonoma:

6 p.m. Wednesday, March 24: “Six Minutes to Midnight”

6 p.m. Friday, March 26: “Spacewalker”

6 p.m. Saturday, March 27: “The Comeback Trail”

Tickets and more info at sonomafilmfest.org

Over the past decade, Sonoma International Film Festival Artistic Director Kevin McNeely has lured dozens of celebrities to town, from Bruce Willis and Meg Ryan to Susan Sarandon and Michael Keaton.

Now, he’s parking cars out at the airport.

“We’ve got three nights at Skypark,” he said, looking forward to screening “Six Minutes to Midnight,” “Spacewalker” and “The Comeback Trail” under the stars at Sonoma Skypark, the local airport on Eighth Street. “Needless to say, there are no night landings.”

McNeely and festival staff learned a lot from last year’s socially distant festival and from hosting airport pop-ups throughout the year — things like parking “the big SUVs in the back and smaller cars up front” so everyone can see the 40-foot screen and providing live speakers so guests can still hear the movie while making a run to the bathroom.

It’s a far cry from McNeely’s youth, when he hid in car trunks to sneak into the Maplewood Drive-In in Minnesota. He may have seen “Ben Hur” or “Around the World in 80 Days,” but he doesn’t remember much aside from the 3.2% beer and people selling peanuts on roller skates. This time around, no one will be checking trunks. If you pay $75, you can pile in “as many people as you want,” he said. Gone are the “cumbersome” speaker boxes hanging from car windows. Now the sound is piped in via FM radio.

Just like in the good old days, look for a few short films before the main attraction; festival organizers will even throw in a goody bag. But aside from airport drive-in screenings, SIFF will be a mostly virtual affair once again, going online to bring in more than 100 films from 40 different countries from March 24-28.

Highlights include the opening-night film, “Six Minutes to Midnight,” a British World War II drama starring Judi Dench and Eddie Izzard, airing two nights before its U.S. release date. Pushed back from a 2020 release, closing-night film “The Comeback Trail” stars Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Zach Braff in a Hollywood crime caper.

The festival includes several opportunities to give back to the community. Cinephiles can buy a First Responder/Frontline Healthcare Workers Pass for $25, with proceeds going to staff at Sonoma Valley Hospital and Sonoma Valley Community Health Center. Also, any money raised from ticket sales (and donations) to see the documentary “Escape to Extinction” will be matched by animal activist Susan Atherton up to $10,000, with proceeds benefiting the Conservation Society of California and the Oakland Zoo.

And, once again, a portion of the income from the festival will go to the Sonoma Valley High School Media Arts Program. Over the years, the festival has donated more than $600,000 to the program, which started with two computers and a few cameras and now has eight editing suites, CGI technology, a control room and a newsroom. This year’s virtual festival features a half-hour program showcasing “the best of student short films.”

“These kids are starting to graduate into schools like CalArts and Chapman and Rhode Island School of Design and USC and UCLA,” said McNeely, who years ago produced several ESPN “Sidelines” episodes. “And they’re coming out and working for MTV, Discovery, Pixar, Disney and starting their own production studios.”

Every spring, the Sonoma festival plays to local appetites, screening a healthy serving of food and wine films. But this year, programmers seem to have taken it a step further, lining up documentaries about Native American food sovereignty (“Gather”), olive oil (“The Crossroads of Chance”), coffee (“Shade Grown Coffee”), farming (“The Dirt Whisperer”), winemaking in Israel (“Holy Wine”) and Lebanon (“Wine and War”), and the art of authentic border cuisine (“Truly Texas Mexican”), which features an online cooking demonstration from the filmmaker/chef.

McNeely is already looking forward to celebrating next year’s 25th anniversary festival in person. And if COVID-19 restrictions continue to loosen, the festival will host more screenings later this summer.

“I’m hoping that in August, we’ll be able to put together a ‘Best of the Fest’ with our jury and audience award-winning films. We’ll do it Friday to Sunday, with a combination of winery screenings, drive-ins and limited capacity in theaters.”

Cinema At The Airport

24th annual Sonoma International Film Festival

When: March 24 - 28

What: Drive-in screenings at Sonoma Skypark airport, 21870 Eighth St. E., Sonoma:

6 p.m. Wednesday, March 24: “Six Minutes to Midnight”

6 p.m. Friday, March 26: “Spacewalker”

6 p.m. Saturday, March 27: “The Comeback Trail”

Tickets and more info at sonomafilmfest.org

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