PERRY — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Walker Cinemas, like movie theaters throughout the country, completely shut down. The popcorn machines were turned off and no one stood behind the ticket counter for months.

“It’s my family’s movie theater, so it’s devastating to see it in my backyard with no cars,” said Shawn Bennion, whose family runs the North Ogden location of Walker Cinemas.

Bennion is currently studying communication at Weber State University with a public relations and advertising emphasis. As movie seats sat empty in the early days of the pandemic last year, he tried to think of a way he could use what he was learning to let the community know that Walker Cinemas was mindful of the hard times and that the people behind the projector were going through it alongside them.

He and other family members began organizing a virtual community film festival, open to the public to submit homemade movies that are 10 minutes or shorter. And, from Bennion’s perspective, it was a success. The theater received 12 submissions and locals voted to determine a winner.

“It was just more fun than anything that people were excited about it and people were showing enthusiasm toward it,” he said.

Films were made by people of all ages, from kids to adults, and the winner was a 13-year-old. Many of the videos were COVID-themed, drawing inspiration from being cooped up at home with family.

After the first film festival finished last June, the theater has been “itching” to do another one, said Connor Bennion, a manager with Walker Cinemas, in a press release. And as Shawn Bennion plans and promotes round two, along with a public relations team from the student-run Ogden Peak Communications at Weber State, he is looking to expand the pool of participants.

“Now I want to grow, because we’re still impacted by the pandemic greatly, so I’m like, let’s give it another whirl and if we can keep it up, then we’ll just keep the wheels spinning and grow and grow and grow,” he said.

The submission deadline for this year’s film festival is April 18, and the community will be able to view the films at the Perry location of the theater from April 26-28. This year, first-, second- and third-place winners will earn a cash prize because of local businesses that have signed on to sponsor the festival. Full instructions for entering the competition can be found on Walker Cinemas’ Facebook page.

Shawn Bennion feels the competition furthers the sense of community that local theaters like Walker Cinemas creates — something he said larger corporate chains can’t replicate.

“Of course, it’s nice to have a nice establishment, but it’s so fun to go to places with familiar faces because then I think you generate a lot deeper relationships,” he said. “I think that you’ll find that here at Walker’s and I think that we treat everyone with a different experience from other larger movie theaters.”

Given that the community has in the last year had to sacrifice a lot of the events that bring it together, he hopes the festival will be a way for people to safely begin to get to know each other again. As theatergoers watch and vote on each other’s films, Bennion said Walker Cinemas has taken multiple precautions to protect its patrons.

Audiences will be seated every other row with households grouped together, and as they enter the theater, each person will be given a sanitary wipe to clean their seat. Additionally, volunteers and staff will sanitize each theater between viewings. Bennion said he is working to develop a method to deliver concessions to prevent people from congregating in the lobby.

“I want anyone within my reach to submit a film just for the sake of having fun and showing a creative side,” Bennion said. “As things progressively get back to normal, this is one small introduction to that world of what we used to live in everyday.”

Contact reporter Emily Anderson at eanderson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @emilyreanderson.

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