Half the members of the audience seem to be on their phones. They’ve brought outside food, and trash is all over the theater. They talk – sometimes shout – over the films, adding their own commentary. It sounds like a film lover’s worst nightmare, but to B-Fest attendees, it’s part of what they love about the event.
This weekend, A&O Films put on its 34th annual B-Fest, a 24-hour festival of low-budget or downright bad films, in Norris’ McCormick Auditorium. The sold-out festival attracted fans from all over the U.S., many of whom have attended for years.
The festival began in Nov. 1981 out of student interest, and has occurred mostly every year since. Traditions soon developed, like the regular showings of Plan 9 From Outer Space (when fans throw paper plates every time they see a UFO) and the short version of The Wizard of Speed and Time.
B-Fest’s niche-ness allowed it to develop a following among internet forums, and over time, more people came from outside the NU community. But A&O Films still puts it on year after year – to head of finances Aditya Jain, who worked this year’s festival, it’s for the fans.
“There wasn’t anything else like this,” Jain said. “We just keep doing it every year because people love it, and they want to be able to come here every year.”
The films may not be serious, but B-Fest’s attendees take the festival seriously. People plan for weeks in advance – some go in groups, some find hotels and stay around Chicago for the entire weekend. Dedicated fans bring pillows, snacks, changes of clothes and toothbrushes, along with necessary props for any films on the year’s lineup. They chant “Kiss!” when characters get close and “USA!” when guns come out, they cheer when big developments happen (and when dogs appear), they respond when characters make dumb statements, they sing and dance during the credits.
A lot of the time, Tim Lehnerer is one of the main instigators of these antics. His business card simply calls him a jerk, and he wears a full silver pinstripe suit – “John Parker had the same outfit, so I had to,” he said, referencing a character from sci-fi finale The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
This was Lehnerer’s 18th B-Fest in a row, and he now has a group of around 25 friends he sees every year at the festival. A few years after he began going, he started making an annual B-Fest mix CD to give out, and this year he handed out his 16th set of CDs.
“There was an old message board on the internet called The B-Movie Message Board – back before Facebook, back before Myspace, back almost before the internet had pictures,” Lehnerer said of how he found B-Fest and his friends. “We now have a second generation [of fans], which terrifies and confuses me.”
This year’s lineup included films for nearly everyone who could get past their low budgets and general lack in quality. There were action films, horror films, even Beatles rock opera film Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (which this reporter remembers watching during his high school rock history class, when the teacher actually thought it was good). Lehnerer, a B-movie expert at this point, of course had his favorites.
“I really actually quite liked Dolls. It was a creepy, almost kid-appropriate horror movie – which is hard to say about a movie where people get their eyes ripped out, but there you have it,” he said. “Seeing The Villain start doing live action, Wile E. Coyote-Roadrunner gags was insane and wonderful.”
Around 6:45 p.m. on Jan. 27, the lights went up after the Buckaroo Banzai credits rolled. B-Fest ran past its scheduled finish of 6 p.m., but its dedicated fans didn’t care. As they cleaned up their things and left, some told their friends, “See you next year!” And many of them will be back in 2019, and for years to come, to watch another B-movie marathon – at bookish Northwestern University, of all places.
“It’s crazy to think that we’re just this random college in Evanston, and they’re coming down here specifically for this,” Jain said. “There are some people who have been here longer than I’ve been alive, which is crazy to think about.”
Lehnerer is just one of B-Fest’s many longtime fans, but he’s definitely been coming for longer than some freshmen have been alive. He doesn’t plan to stop, either.
“I genuinely hope that they keep doing B-Fest so that my last appearance here is in an urn,” Lehnerer said. “And that somebody will write ‘14,999 Joe Meek fans can’t be wrong’ on one of the plates and throw it during Plan 9, and that’ll be the fireworks that commemorate me.”