(The following was written for Can’t Stop the Serenity at the request of CSTS Global Chair Matt Black in order to provide global event organizers with ideas for holding events during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Since I felt it might be of interest to Browncoats in general, I’ve decided to publish it here as well.)
Not even a global pandemic could stop the Rivers & Bridges Brigade of the PA Browncoats from holding Pittsburgh’s 15th annual Can’t Stop the Serenity charity screening!
The Steel City’s 15th annual CSTS charity screening of Serenity was scheduled to take place in early July of 2020 at the Parkway Theater in McKees Rocks, PA, where we had held a successful event in 2019. We had reserved the bar and movie theater for a Sunday matinee screening, but as the COVID-19 pandemic forced more and more shutdowns across the state, it became increasingly apparent that we were not going to be able to hold our event as we had planned it.
Our city has held a CSTS screening every year since the event’s inception in 2006, and global pandemic or not, as the current cap’n I was not keen on the idea of having Pittsburgh’s streak of CSTS events end on my watch. A Zoom meeting was organized in late April, and the seven regular members of our CSTS Pittsburgh planning committee (a.k.a. “the crew”) met to discuss whether or not we could hold an event safely, and if so, what changes would have to be made in order to do so.
The crew expressed their concerns that the venue would not allow for social distancing, and even if we were able to enforce social distancing and mask regulations, the reduced capacity of the theater would not allow for a large enough crowd to bring in any real sizeable donation for Equality Now. In addition, the Firefly- and Serenity-themed carnival-style games that had become a tradition at our events would only encourage attendees to gather in groups and pass game pieces like dice and rings from one person to another, which was definitely not sanitary given the situation. It didn’t take long before we determined we were going to have to cancel the event as it was scheduled and look for other options.
Our first thought was a drive-in theater, but the vast majority of area drive-ins weren’t that close to the city, and most of them were still closed anyway, with no clear reopening date. On top of that, word had begun to circulate that drive-ins were going to be considered as an alternative during the lockdown period not only for movies, but also for live events like concerts and comedy shows, and the feeling was that any drive-in that was open would not be willing to rent us space at a rate we could afford.
That’s when we came upon the idea of an outdoor screening in one of the county’s parks. An outdoor screening had its advantages. Social distancing would be much easier, and the general consensus of health experts was that outdoor gatherings were intrinsically safer than indoor ones anyway. We also quickly discovered that renting a grove in one of Allegheny County’s parks would cost only a fraction of our regular rental fee at the Parkway Theater. This was important because we really couldn’t be sure what kind of attendance we would have, and reducing the event’s overhead would serve to increase the amount that we’d be able to donate to charity (and mitigate any potential losses) in a year in which attendance and donations might be down. Our CSTS Pittsburgh events had been held in the South Hills of Pittsburgh since 2013, so we decided that we would reserve a grove in Allegheny County’s South Park to serve as 2020’s alternate screening site. My youngest brother Michael, who lives in South Park Township and has been on my crew for as long as we’ve been organizing CSTS events, agreed to scout locations for us, and we were eventually able to find a grove that was adjacent to a field where attendees could watch the film on blankets or lawn chairs and have plenty of personal space. We reserved the facility for Saturday evening, September 5.
But if we were going to hold an outdoor charity screening for the first time in CSTS Pittsburgh’s 15-year history, finding an available grove in the park wasn’t the only obstacle that would need to be overcome. First and foremost was the lack of audio/visual equipment on site. Fortunately, the newest member of our crew, Brian Diederich, stepped up to solve that problem. Brian is very active in Pittsburgh’s gaming and programming communities, and he was able to obtain a portable screen and sound system from Academy Pittsburgh, a local school that teaches coding and programming, and Looking For Group, Pittsburgh’s premiere gaming lounge and community. This allowed us to screen a DVD copy of the movie using a laptop computer and LCD projector. Brian, who always goes above and beyond the call of duty, not only supplied his own portable gas-powered generator to provide power for the A/V equipment, but he also went so far as to build a custom wooden stand to hold the laptop and the projector!
With the location and equipment accounted for, the next step was “COVID-proofing” the many aspects of a CSTS event.
In a typical year, admission and raffle tickets would be sold not only in advance, but also on site. This year, however, we wanted to eliminate the need for “cashy money” and/or tickets to change hands, for the safety of both the crew and those in attendance. This time it was Susan Mazur of Jump Cut Theater (a sponsor of Pittsburgh’s CSTS events since 2018) who provided the solution. She arranged for tickets to be sold electronically on Jump Cut Theater’s website, and set up the sale so Browncoats could purchase a package that included admission to the event and raffle tickets, or just the raffle tickets themselves. Due to PA state restrictions, attendance was capped at 50 attendees, including the crew.
Unlike previous years, my crew and I had not solicited prize donations from local businesses and Etsy vendors, in part due to the fact that we could not get out during the lockdown and partly out of respect for the economic toll that the pandemic had taken on businesses both large and small. This left us with a much smaller prize inventory than we would have in a typical year. The decision not to have the games had eliminated the need for those prizes, but we were also forced to reduce the number of raffle baskets we would raffle off. Typically, we would have one raffle basket for each member of Serenity’s crew, and attendees would put their tickets in corresponding custom wooden boxes (again made by Brian) that feature an image of each crew member. This year though, we opted to go with just three baskets, which were as close to identical as possible. Raffle tickets purchased online would give attendees an equal chance of winning any of the three baskets. One of the Pennsylvania Browncoats from the Delaware Valley Brigade, Audrey Hackett, very generously donated a basket of items that she had put together, and we were able to use this as our door prize. We also continued the tradition of having a “first-time viewers” raffle for people who were seeing Serenity for the first time that evening. (Believe it or not, there are almost always at least a few, and you can usually locate them in the audience by listening for the audible gasps at that one particular moment after the ship crash lands and Wash declares that he is a leaf on the wind!) In order to conduct that raffle, for which the prize is always a DVD copy of the film, Susan had attendees indicate whether or not they’d seen the movie before when they purchased their tickets online. At the end of the movie, we simply used a random-number generator app on one of our phones to “draw” numbers and awarded the prizes to the people whose names corresponded to those numbers on the spreadsheet that Susan provided of everyone who had purchased tickets. (This same list was used to check attendees in as they arrived.)
There was still the issue of how we would keep people from “just showing up” to an outdoor screening. We had legitimate concerns that publicizing the location of the screening might encourage some people to try to attend without purchasing tickets, and some of the crew pointed out that passers-by in the park might even just wander up out of curiosity once the film began. This was not only a health and safety concern because it could potentially put us over the permissible attendance limit, but it would also potentially cheat the charities out of attendance donations. We solved this problem by taking a page out of the book of London’s famed “Secret Cinema” events, which send their location electronically to those who have purchased tickets just 24 hours before the event begins. Our attendees were asked when they registered whether they’d prefer to be notified of the location of the screening via email or text, and we sent out the location and directions Friday evening, along with a way to contact me if anyone had questions. Of the nearly 40 paid attendees, only two ended up having to contact me for additional assistance.
If we had held the event at the Parkway Theater, food and beverages would have been sold on-site by the establishment, but now that we were outdoors, refreshments became another issue, albeit one that was easily remedied. Since we were now billing the event as “Serenity Under the Stars,” and were encouraging attendees to bring their own blankets and chairs for a socially-distanced “picnic and a movie” experience, it stood to reason that we could simply encourage them to bring their own food and beverages as well. County ordinances prohibited alcohol or glass containers at the event however, and we had to make sure that was well communicated both in advance and on signs at the event itself. (I did notice that a couple of attendees insisted on smuggling a six-pack of Blue Moon Ale in along with their other refreshments, but as the cap’n I asked myself what Mal would do, and I ultimately decided we’d done our due diligence and it wasn’t worth making a fuss over unless one of the bottles were to break. None did.)
2020’s screening was the first in Pittsburgh since 2013 that wasn’t held at a traditional movie theater, which meant that I would have to negotiate the licensing for the film myself. Whenever a CSTS screening is held in a traditional movie theater, the theater arranges for the licensing for Serenity through Universal Studios, but screenings that don’t take place in a traditional theater venue are licensed through a company called Swank Motion Pictures. My experience dealing with Swank back in 2013 had been memorable for all the wrong reasons, but fortunately this time the process proved to be much less aggravating, if only slightly less lengthy.
With folk in our town hurting from the economic effects of the pandemic just like everywhere else in the ‘verse, the crew agreed that since we were going to have to re-register our event with CSTS’ global governing body anyway (in order to make them aware of the changes to the event’s date, venue and overall structure), we would like to include a local charity to which 25% of the proceeds from our event could be donated. (CSTS global regulations require that at least 75% of the proceeds from all CSTS events be donated to Equality Now.) We had all seen the images on the local evening news of the lines of cars that in some cases stretched for miles as people waited for food at sites that were providing assistance to those who had been left out of work during the shutdown, and we ultimately decided that we would list the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank as our event’s secondary charity.
Once we had a plan, things came together rather quickly, and in the end, I really couldn’t be any more pleased with how everything turned out. We were blessed with exceptional weather on the day of the screening, and we very nearly sold out the event. Everyone was respectful of the regulations requiring social distancing and the wearing of masks, and although we didn’t have the usual pre-movie activities, those in attendance seemed happy just to be able to spend time outdoors and enjoy a communal experience with others who shared their passion for Firefly and Serenity. The event raised $655.00 for Equality Now and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which almost equaled our total from the previous year at the Parkway Theater. We had a number of people support the event from outside the Pittsburgh area, including several who took advantage of the fact that the screening was held on Labor Day weekend and actually made the road trip into town to see the movie. A fairly large contingent of the Delaware Valley Brigade of the Pennsylvania Browncoats (based mainly in the Philadelphia area) was in attendance, as well as Browncoats who had traveled from State College, PA, eastern Ohio and even as far away as Orlando, Florida! Given the circumstances, the amount of support that Browncoats showed our event was unbelievable. Their love truly did keep CSTS Pittsburgh in the air when she ought to have fallen down.
Looking back, there are a few things we could have done differently to make the event even better. I don’t think anyone was really prepared for just how dark it was going to get in the grove after the sun went down, and despite the light of the projector on the screen, it was very difficult to see while we were drawing and awarding the raffle baskets. We had to use the headlights from the crew’s vehicles to illuminate the area while we packed everything up after the event as well. If we were to do another outdoor event, I think an ample supply of flashlights and portable work lights would be a must.
And while we were grateful for the overwhelming amount of support from out of town, it did create a logistical problem when half of our raffle baskets were won by people who were not only not in attendance at our event, but also did not live in or around Pittsburgh. If we had had to ship the baskets to New York and New Jersey, the shipping costs would have taken a sizeable chunk out of the donation total for the charities. Fortunately, one of the winners informed us we could drop her prizes off at a friend’s house in East Pittsburgh, and the other told us she preferred to donate her prizes back to CSTS Pittsburgh to be raffled off as part of a future event. It’s easy to say, “All’s well that ends well,” but this is definitely a possibility we will have to take into consideration in the future if we decide to conduct our raffles online.
All things considered though, I really could not be more pleased with how things turned out, nor could I be more proud of the determination, resilience and ingenuity shown by my crew. If I am not mistaken, Pittsburgh’s screening was the only in-person Can’t Stop the Serenity event that was held in 2020, and if that’s true, then our ‘Burgh is the only city left on this rock that has held a live CSTS event every year since The One True B!x first conjured the idea back in 2006.
What’s more important though, is that we earned the name Can’t Stop the Serenity, proving that it is possible to come together as a community of Browncoats and do good works even in the face of a global pandemic. And as Malcolm Reynolds would say, “That’s what makes us special.”
(Those who are interested in hosting their own CSTS events, during a global pandemic or any other time, are always welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if they have questions or would like to discuss aspects of hosting an event that weren’t covered here. Keep flyin’.)