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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

How to Grow a Small-Town Film Festival

Yesterday I received the press release announcing the lineup of the 2011 Oxford Film Festival, and a couple of things struck me about the fest and this year’s lineup that I wanted to jot down. If you have zero interest in smaller film festivals or conversation about how small fests can grow and thrive, you can stop here and move along to something more interesting. If you are interested in small town film festivals in any capacity, you might find it a conversation you’d like to engage in.

Before I go any further I should disclaim here that I’m a documentary juror for the 2011 Oxford Film Festival and have been a regular panelist/juror/moderator there for several years running, and the people who run the fest have become friends.

Those relationships have also allowed me to watch as a festival staff has grown and changed and adapted over the past few years, observe with interest the creative choices they’ve made, and judge with an outsider’s perspective what’s worked and what hasn’t. The first year I came to the fest (I think it was 2007, I’d have to rifle through my box of fest badges to be sure) they were really starting to have some growing pains as they were ready to transition from the beginning stages of growing big enough to matter to their community and be noticed outside it to wanting to become a leading fest for the Southern region.

Someone from the fest contacted me and asked me to panel and jury for them. They were charming but persistent, and after some back-and-forth they convinced me to give their little festival a shot. Over the next few festivals they buffed up their guest list, bringing a few more nationally recognized names each year. In 2009, Morgan Freeman showed up to open the fest (he lives nearby, and they’d been trying to get him for years; once again, charm and persistence paid off).

And now we get to the 2011 lineup, which I’m pretty excited about. I know they went through tons of submissions to get to the slate they have, and I’m interested to see how they’ve programmed it. The docs, of course, since I’m jurying there, but there are films in the Mississippi, experimental, animated and shorts categories I’m interested in. No doubt, things will be hit and miss, but that’s the case even at Cannes, n’est-ce pas?

So take a look at this year’s lineup. Go ahead. Yes, right now.

For a fest in a smallish Mississippi college town, that’s an impressively diverse slate. Nice number of selections with a solid emphasis on regional film (and I’ve seen some solid films in that program at Oxford in the past, so don’t mock ’em because the filmmakers don’t live in NYC). If you’re working for a smaller film festival yourself, take note of some of the things this fest is doing right:

1) The free family films are a smart move for smaller fests. First, because your fest is (or should be) a non-profit and therefore can viably claim education as being among their goals. But also because giving something back to the community that you want support from is a Good Thing. And of course, it’s never too early to start teaching kids to appreciate movies.

2) Emphasis on regional. Oxford isn’t trying to compete against fests like Sundance (though they almost always conflict with Berlin, and I kind of wish they’d move out a week to avoid this) and they know it. They are playing to a very specific audience here. It’s a college town that prides itself on a reputation for being an intellectual and artistic hub in a region that needs intellectual and artistic hubs.

The past couple years, OFF has very smartly partnered with Thacker Mountain Radio, a local treasure. Opening night now includes the opportunity to attend a taping of the Thacker Mountain Radio show, which is a lot of fun and definitely something you won’t see in LA or NYC. They also make good use of another local treasure, chef John Currence, who owns City Grocery, a very popular French-inspired Southern gourmet eatery on the Square (awesome), and Big Bad Breakfast (also awesome), which serves exactly what you think it would. Don’t come to OFF expecting to stay on your South Beach diet. Festival staff is great about organizing (and providing transportation for) optional outings as well, to places like another local legend, Graceland Too.

3) The folks at OFF have been diligent about networking both with other regional fests and the larger indie film community. They get that this is an insular industry where contacts matter and can make all the difference, for instance, in landing panelists for your distribution panel who actually work actively in the industry and have relevant input to offer. This in turn makes the panel more valuable to filmmakers (and locals who might be interested in becoming filmmakers — remember, this is a college town). They’ve made consistent outreach to other regional fests: Oxford, Sidewalk, Atlanta and Memphis are at the center of this informal Superhero League of indie film in that part of the country, which also includes North Carolina School of the Arts. I would also include deadCenter in Oklahoma City and Dallas to the west and Sarasota to the East, and maybe a few other fests.

4) Enhance your programming with panels and Q&As. A film festival isn’t just about watching films; it’s about films. People go to fests, in part, to see filmmakers and talent in person, to listen to and participate in post-screening Q&As, to go hear panels on how to promote or sell your indie film or get it into fests, or how to break into writing about film, or what have you. OFF has played around a bit with where to hold the panels — on campus, where they’re more accessible to students, or at the Malco theater where the screenings are, where they can attract people already there to see films.

It’s seemed to me that for this fest, because it’s relatively small and they don’t have a “headquarters,” having panels at the theater works really well. Dallas generally has their panels at or near wherever headquarters are that year, which seems to work for them as far as convenience for the people on the panels, who tend to be staying at the same hotel, but I’ve wondered if making panels more accessible to casual fest attendees who might not otherwise go out of their way to catch a panel might be more effective.

Oxford really bumped up their game and got more attention by outreaching and networking within the industry to make the contacts needed to bring in more recognizable industry names for panels and fests. But it’s not just about bringing in outsiders; they do a great job mixing it up with regional experts as well. They’ve had some interesting panels, but the popular Speed Pitch panel is my favorite.

They bring in a panel of distribution experts and let filmmakers sign up to pitch either the film they have at the fest or another project in a few minutes. After everyone’s had a turn, the panelists give feedback on the pitches: what worked, what didn’t, how the filmmaker could make their pitch stronger, which pitch they’d be most interested based on the speed pitch. The filmmakers get some good advice and make contacts, it’s a lot of fun, and everyone seems to like it.

5) Keep it cozy, and integrate the fest into the community. Oxford is in the South, of course, and Southern hospitality is evident throughout the fest. OFF integrates with the community better than a lot of fests I’ve been to. There are a few small parties in private homes (there used to be more of these, but the fest has grown so much now they’ve had to seek out bigger venues. Even the big closing night shindig, though, feels homey and like a big party with extended family.

One of the strengths of this fest is that everyone from panelists to jurors to filmmakers to local students hangs out together at the parties; there are no roped-off VIP areas where talent gets sequestered from the common folk, and there are lots of opportunities to have interesting conversations. A couple years ago Jason Ritter was at the fest with a film, and we have a great series of pics from the parties that year in which he’s randomly jumping up behind the crowd or poking his head around to the side in almost every shot like a manic, friendly “Where’s Waldo.” That kind of thing doesn’t tend to happen at Sundance, with schedules pressing and publicists hovering.

6) This was going to be a five item list, but this one is important: Take care of your guests. A reputation as a small fest that doesn’t know what it’s doing is a killer for getting talent to come to your fest. The indie film world is relatively small, and word gets around. OFF has earned a reputation among the filmmakers who’ve come out for it as a great little fest that takes care of guests. They shuttle people to and from the closest airport in Memphis. The have good food in the green room and a nice filmmaker/guest luncheon at City Grocery, and amazing food at all the parties. The hotel is conveniently located near the Square — the hub of social life in Oxford — and they run shuttles throughout the day back and forth to the theater. They respond to problems promptly and get them resolved.

If you’re connected with a smaller film festival, I’d love to hear your ideas on ways your fest has successfully grown, or how your fest serves its community well. And if your town has a smaller film fest you think I should know about, drop me a line to let me know.

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5 Responses to “How to Grow a Small-Town Film Festival”

  1. We have a destination festival in Washington State, 2+ hrs northwest of Seattle, in the most beautiful Victorian seaport you could imagine. Now in our 12th season, we offer all of the qualities you listed- free community films (both indoors and under the stars), remarkable hospitality, an atmosphere of one big happy film loving family, splendid regional outreach but still have not attracted the attention of the industry. Our featured guests have included Tony Curtis, Jane Powell, Peter Fonda, Tom Robbins and we are fortunate to host Robert Osborne every few years. With 6,000 seats filled over a 3 day festival, we are able to screen 95 titles in 5 venues. Because our mission is introducing independent film to wider and wider audiences in our region, we now bring filmmakers back for school and library appearances, to talk about the business of independent film from the inside. Students learn more about the incredible variety of skills required to create film, audiences see another aspect of entertainment as a career path and folks who have never considered attending our festival experience film outside the ‘mainstream.’
    You might just want to come and see us!!

  2. Stewart Nusbaumer says:

    Well, how about telling us the name of the fest?

  3. Jane says:

    Port Townsend Film Festival

  4. Kim Voynar says:

    Thanks Jane! I live in Seattle, so I might have to pop up that way and check Port Townsend Film Festival out.

  5. I really enjoyed this, is there any way we could do an article exchange?

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon