Since its inception seven years ago, the Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF) has been known for putting the filmmaker first. Unlike many can you top this film festivals, RIIFFs small town atmosphere provides a forum for filmmakers to interact with their peers, other film-lovers, and industry folkall of whom are focused on the films, not the hype.
We built our [festival] to be a networking opportunity, says George Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director. It cuts out that competition crap. Id rather have people collaborate and work with each other to learn new ways of using the language of film.
Marshall created the festival in 1997 along with Flickers Arts Collaborativea film society that started in the 1980s and now arranges screenings and exhibitions throughout the state. Marshall is also a teacher at Rhode Island University, although he says that the festival is something that started as entertaining and fun and evolved into a full time job.
The inaugural festival brought in 2,000 people in three days, but RIIFF really came into its own the following year when Rhode Island natives, the Farrelly brothers, premiered Theres Something About Mary. One of the board members is good buddies with the Farrellys father, says Marshall. So Bobby [Farrelly] shows up the first year and sees the crowd and says, Im going to bring my next movie here. We spent a year dogging him, making sure he kept his promise.
The success of that festival provided the Woonsocket Theater (where the festival had been held) with enough money to undergo restoration, which forced the festival to move out and to their current home, Providences Columbus Theatre. Built in 1926, the Columbus, which seats 1,492, has vaudeville-like stained-glass archways, a mural on the ceiling, and a Wurlitzer Organnow used for horror films. It also used to be a porno theater, and most locals still know it as that. When the festival first moved in, everyone was looking over their shoulders, wondering who was going to see them come in, says Marshall. But Marshall and theater owner Jon Berberian have tried to play down its shady past. We told people: now you can admit youve been in the building.
This years festival screened 184 titles from forty-two countries and thirty-two states, one of which qualified for the Academy Award short film category. It opened with six short films, including the U.S. premiere of Hirofumi Nagaikes Flying, and the world premieres of Steve Zankmans Autopsy Room Four, based on a short story by Stephen King, and Tony Rogers The Cook. But Dominique Monferys Destino and Kenneth Branaghs Listening were the crowd favorites. The animated Destino is the completed version of a project that Walt Disney commissioned in 1946 as a sequel to Fantasia. For decades, the uncompleted film collected dust until two years ago, when Roy Disney commissioned Monfery to complete it. The seven-minute short received the Grand Prize for Best Animation. Listening marks Branaghs second time directing a short. With very little dialogue, it illustrates a romantic encounter at a spiritual retreat. For Listenings screening, the Columbus was packed to the rafters and organizers had to turn away close to a hundred people.
A big chunk of programming went to the eighty-two shorts that screened throughout the five days. Some of the standouts were Paolo Amelis Mud Redbased on the true story of an English soldiers encounter on the battlefield with Adolf Hitler when he was only a grunt in the German army. Also screened was Rachel Johnsons The Toll Collector, about a young girls dream to be a ballerina told through stop-motion animation. Dean Yamadas The Nisei Farmer, which won Best Short and will get Oscar consideration, depicts an Asian couples conflict over a reparation payment that they received for the injustices suffered by Japanese Americans during World War II.
The absence of distributors at this years festival didnt deter participants. Greg Paks feature, Robot Stories, won the Best Feature Award, and he is currently looking for distribution. He says, Ive shown some of my shorts here in the past, and the festival has had a good reputation among filmmakers. Even though distributors and producers arent here, you still get reactions from the audience, and thats important.
One of the few films shown that actually had a distributor was Audience Award winner Zero Day, which was picked up by Avatar Films. This anatomy of a school shooting played only regional festivals during its run, and is a perfect example of why filmmakers shouldnt give up hope for distribution if they dont get into a major fest. I feel a big reason we got picked up was because we only played regionals, says director Ben Coccio, who believes the films success at regional festivals enticed distributors.
Although one of the festivals historical downfalls is lack of industry interest, this years co-sponsor, marketing and research company filmBUZZ, may change that. Specializing in audience reaction to independent films, filmBUZZ is hired by festivals, distributors, and producers to collect and report the buzz of films. In this case, filmBUZZ reports the films that were the most popular to distributors who they believe may have interest in the film. Along with audience reaction, the company uses audience surveys to provide RIIFF with information that supports the festivals main revenue sources, sponsorships, and ticket sales.
Why isnt Samuel Goldwyn here, or IDP, or Lions Gate? asks president of filmBUZZ, Greg Kahn. Were trying to get their attention about festivals like these that are under the radar of most distributors. filmBUZZ also spoke at a forum about marketing and distributing films.
In the spirit of letting as many filmmakers as possible show their work, RIIFF shared their spotlight with the Providence Film Festival, Providence Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and KidsEye International Film Festival, which premiered crowd favorites including Susan Bells The Patchwork Monkey, Boris Ivanovs Princess Castle, and KidsEye Grand Prize winner Ellen-Alinda Verhoeffs Abbie Down East, about a young girls heroics to rescue her mother and younger sister from a lighthouse during a vicious storm. Glenn Holstens documentary, Jim in Bold, was a favorite at the Providence Gay & Lesbian Festival. The film follows three friends who embark on a road trip across the country to speak to young gay teens; interwoven with this is the life story and poetry of Jimmy Wheeler, who committed suicide at age eighteen.
The festival ended at nearby Brown University with A Conversation with Seymour Cassel, who was honored with the RIIFF Lifetime Achievement Award. In an Inside the Actors Studio-type atmosphere, Cassel sat down to talk about his career, most notably his Oscar-nominated performance in John Cassavetess Faces.
The biggest problem with the plethora of film festivals is that theyre too exclusive, says Marshall. Instead of festivals trying to be the next Sundance, we should be figuring out what we can do as a group to grow and support the filmmakers out there. Otherwise [these kinds of films] disappear. RIIFF addresses this by swapping films with Australian festival Ausfest and the Manleu Short Film Festival in Barcelona, Spain. Marshall also hopes to build a partnership with a theater in Connecticut, which plans to host a teen focus film festival.
With attendance for the festival up fifteen percent from last year and close to 18,000 tickets sold, RIIFF shows that you dont have to program lavish events and book notable movie stars to make a profit. One local teen summed it up when he explained why he chose to go to the Columbus on a Saturday night, instead of the local multiplex. Id rather watch these films where the filmmakers bust their asses to make it, than the Hollywood ones that were made by a few guys sitting in front of a computer.
For more information, see www.rifilmfest.org