Small State, Big Fest

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, RIIFF’s small town atmosphere provides a forum for filmmakers to interact with their peers, other film-lovers, and industry folk—all 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. I’d 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 Collaborative—a 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 There’s Something About Mary. “One of the board members is good buddies with the Farrelly’s father,” says Marshall. “So Bobby [Farrelly] shows up the first year and sees the crowd and says, ‘I’m 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, Providence’s 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 Organ—now 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 you’ve been in the building.”

This year’s 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 Nagaike’s Flying, and the world premieres of Steve Zankman’s Autopsy Room Four, based on a short story by Stephen King, and Tony Rogers’ The Cook. But Dominique Monfery’s Destino and Kenneth Branagh’s 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 Branagh’s second time directing a short. With very little dialogue, it illustrates a romantic encounter at a spiritual retreat. For Listening’s 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 Ameli’s Mud Red—based on the true story of an English soldier’s encounter on the battlefield with Adolf Hitler when he was only a grunt in the German army. Also screened was Rachel Johnson’s The Toll Collector, about a young girl’s dream to be a ballerina told through stop-motion animation. Dean Yamada’s The Nisei Farmer, which won Best Short and will get Oscar consideration, depicts an Asian couple’s 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 year’s festival didn’t deter participants. Greg Pak’s feature, Robot Stories, won the Best Feature Award, and he is currently looking for distribution. He says, “I’ve shown some of my shorts here in the past, and the festival has had a good reputation among filmmakers. Even though distributors and producers aren’t here, you still get reactions from the audience, and that’s 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 shouldn’t give up hope for distribution if they don’t 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 film’s success at regional festivals enticed distributors.

Although one of the festival’s historical downfalls is lack of industry interest, this year’s 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 festival’s main revenue sources, sponsorships, and ticket sales.

“Why isn’t Samuel Goldwyn here, or IDP, or Lions Gate?” asks president of filmBUZZ, Greg Kahn. “We’re 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 Bell’s The Patchwork Monkey, Boris Ivanov’s Princess Castle, and KidsEye Grand Prize winner Ellen-Alinda Verhoeff’s Abbie Down East, about a young girl’s heroics to rescue her mother and younger sister from a lighthouse during a vicious storm. Glenn Holsten’s 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 Actor’s Studio-type atmosphere, Cassel sat down to talk about his career, most notably his Oscar-nominated performance in John Cassavetes’s Faces.

“The biggest problem with the plethora of film festivals is that they’re 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 don’t 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. “I’d 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.”

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Jason Guerrasio was a staff writer for The Independent.