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Scream It Off Screen: Because Screaming at Something You Hate Is Fun

The wonderfully weird short film competition has gotten so big it's headed to The Fitzgerald this weekend.

Scream If Off Screen|

Do it for the clout, and the $101.01 giant check.

I'm sitting in the Parkway Theater, waiting for the February edition of Scream It Off Screen to begin, and the woman next to me asks me what to expect. 

I’m a little unsure how to explain what's about to happen. Past films have included...

  • “Zombol,” a five-minute black-and-white zombie film 20 years in the making;
  • “Pubic Hair on My Vagina,” a satirical monologue inspired by questions men ask on Tinder; and
  • "Junk Puppet Poetry # 3," featuring a poem about fall by Paul Laurence Dunbar read by a puppet.

I tell her that unvetted short films will play, and when a red light beside the stage lights up, audience members are encouraged to yell “gong!” if they don’t like what’s on screen. If enough people reject the clip, host Terry Sommer will strike an actual gong with a mallet, and everyone will sing a melancholic farewell song to the ill-fated submission. 

I stress to her that no one knows what they’ll see until it hits the screen, it’s going to be chaos, and the screaming is the best part.

I mean, how different can these two examples of winning videos be?

And now, after selling out Minneapolis's Parkway Theater every month since January 2023, Scream It Off Screen is bringing its mayhem to St. Paul for a big show at the Fitzgerald Theater, which can seat about three times as many screamers.

Scream It Off Screen’s rules are fairly straightforward: Anyone, from DIY beginners to professional filmmakers, can submit any type of video, as long as it’s not a commercial. At the end of the night, Sommer asks the audience to cheer for their favorite flick, using a decibel reader to determine who gets the loudest screams. The winner then makes their way up to the stage to receive a giant check for $101.01 while Sommer serenades them with a congratulatory song.

But it’s not just about film. In between submissions there are skits, ongoing jokes, and plenty of crowdwork. Sommer's previous shenanigans have included leading a group of musicians in a rendition of the Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching,” recruiting an audience member to make waffles for the crowd all night, and challenging himself to hold as many oranges as possible while walking across the stage.

“[Terry] does a really good job interacting with audience members,” says Kelsey Derby, a regular showgoer since 2022. “He kind of pokes fun at everyone. It's entertaining, but it never feels malicious.”

Filmmaker and two-time winner Jack Davis calls Sommer an “inspiration” and says that SIOS shows have a “cult-like” energy. “It's like, ‘Hell yeah, Terry. I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth,’” Davis says.

Sommer instage with the show's mascot, Screamy.Scream It Off Screen

It’s a recent Saturday morning and Sommer is sitting in the basement of Caffetto, surrounded by pinball machines and graffitied walls. He pulls out three small plastic bags of herbs, and begins slowly adding small scoops of powder to his coffee. He says they can help prevent cancer and boost energy.

Sommer doesn’t care what people think about his theatrical bits; he just hopes some enjoy it. “It's a stage and people wanna be entertained. That's the whole point of having stages in our little society,” he says. 

Last spring, he underwent a (successful) surgery to remove a brain tumor and began selling a T-shirt with an MRI scan simply because he thought it was a cool image. When asked what motivated him to sell his “Mr. Terry’s Tumor” tee, he says “It seemed like the right thing to do.”

As cofounder of Scream It Off Screen, Sommer says it’s his duty to act as a conduit for the majority of the audience. “They decide, and I'm the machine that hits the gong,” he explains. While he tries to remain neutral, he also admits that if he was in the audience he’d “gong” most of the films he screens. SIOS has been going strong for about five years, so he's seen a lot of bad movies.

It all began in 2018, when Sommer and his partner, Natalie Koness, would gather friends in their backyard and screen films on a projector. By 2019, they needed a bigger space, so they reached out to The Parkway, where the event really picked up steam.

How did this bizarre series, where performance art meets outsider film, get so popular? For starters, Sommer points out that Scream It Off Screen rejects Minnesota Niceness; there’s no passive aggression when shouting at a screen in disapproval. 

An audience prepares to scream.Scream It Off Screen

“Have you ever been at an event in Minnesota where someone even says, ‘Boo’?” Koness asked City Pages in 2019. “You’re taught to say, ‘Oh, I loved that, that was really good.’ Not everything is good! A lot of stuff isn’t good.”

Filmmakers say they’ve found it to be great for constructive criticism and building up a thicker skin. Caitlin Juvland, a.k.a. Sk8lin, “the best skater in the world,” has submitted around 16 films over the years. She says she has become increasingly comfortable with feedback, as she gets gonged the majority of the time.

“I've been really surprised just how much submitting regularly has transformed me,” she says. “I used to be super nervous and kind of devastated if I got gonged… But it’s such a small thing if I get gonged now. I don't really care.” 

Juvland has also taken home the big prize; in 2020 she won for the “Pubic Hair on My Vagina” piece mentioned earlier. She says the sting of rejection is worth it for professional growth: “I think it's a great way to just build a super strong backbone as an artist and refine your craft and celebrate films of all kinds."

For Sommer, it’s about getting people to engage with something in real time. “I think, as a consumer of online content, it's so easy to just watch something, or watch a little bit of something, and then move on,” he says. “You don't have to ever think about it again.” But the experience and the funny moments of his show stay with you, like that night in February when I watched Nu-Mi, an alien-like sort of slug, lurch onstage after each film to be cut open by a surgeon who would retrieve numbered balls for a game called “Squiz.” 

For the upcoming Fitzgerald show, Sommer wants to do something that’s never been done on the theater’s stage: mix vinegar and baking soda in an interesting way. (This may explain why he calls the first few rows the “splash section.”) People are also being asked to wear a color based on their seat section, creating a “human rainbow” that will be photographed for posterity. There will be no indigo section, however. “Because nobody knows what that color actually is,” he says in a teaser. “The teacher never really explained that in school.” 

As always, Sommer’s intent is to entice community members to engage in the local arts scene.

“What [SIOS] is about, at this point, is getting people who would never go to some sort of local art thing to go check it out,” he says. “And something like having this gong thing, I think, gives them an impetus, a sort of a bargaining chip almost.”

This weekend, instead of unscreened submissions, the 12 winning films of 2023 will play, and audiences will scream (or scream again) for their favorite. Sommer says he is interested to see the crowd’s reaction; will they “gong” a film that an earlier audience loved? “It can just be another illustration of the relativism of everything in this world," he says with a grin.

Scream It Off Screen: Battle of the “Best” Short Films
Where: The Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, May 18
Tickets: $30; find more info here

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