Launching a brand new festival is an unbelievably time-consuming and mind-blowing undertaking. I should know, I’m doing it myself right now. It’s even more difficult now, than it was twenty years ago, with so many festivals already out there, already with an established following. A new festival has to find a niche or fill a need. June 2015 will mark the debut of the Greenwich International Film Festival, a celebration of tomorrow’s great filmmakers in an affluent community of art-lovers, with a lot of money, and a history of investing in film, and yet strangely, no established film festival. I first met the triumvirate of founders at the International Film Festival Summit last December. IFFS is held yearly in Austin as a place for festival directors to network and learn about industry, it’s a festival of festivals. The GIFF team impressed me because they not only had not had their inaugural event yet, but also because they were actually still 18 months out from it. They were there to soak in all the knowledge they could from people who had done it before. They were there to make contacts and to help formulate just what their new festival could be. I came on board their team as a consultant several months ago and I instantly thought this would be an excellent opportunity to track the building of a brand new festival for AMFM Magazine. From the ground up to the initial event, we’ll have the inside story on just what it takes to bring a film festival into the world. We’ll check in with the founders several times over the next few months.
First, a little about the thought behind the fest. Founders Carina Crain, Colleen deVeer and Wendy Stapleton Reyes say the inspiration came from a simple conversation that there was not already one in Greenwich. Reyes says: “this played out over multiple dinners with friends… we had a lot of friends who had invested in films and we didn’t even know they did it and they would say ‘we have a film that’s coming out at Sundance’ or ‘we have something that’s showing at Tribeca’ and it kind of clicked that there was a huge need.” Greenwich makes an ideal location for a film festival due to its proximity to high profile film talent, journalists, film schools and, most importantly, potential investors. It is easily accessible from surrounding communities in Fairfield and Westchester Counties, as well as to major metropolitan markets such as New York City and Boston. It is home to some of the world’s most influential industry leaders and to a community of urban sophisticates, who are avid patrons of the arts. According to Reyes, “Greenwich is one of those really interesting and unique places where we have a captive audience of potential financiers and art-lovers who want to be more exposed to the film industry, have it in their backyard. As opposed to other places like Los Angeles where it is saturated with people in the film industry, there is actually a dearth of that in Greenwich.”
Greenwich can offer the festival-goer the benefits of both ‘getting away for the weekend’ like heading to Napa Film Festival, Sonoma International Film Festival, or Cucalorus Film Festival (in Wilmington, NC) and the easy access of a major film festival that is playing in your own city. “The actual physical layout of Greenwich makes it completely perfect because we’re going to create a festival that lives within one mile of the train station,” Reyes says, adding people in New York “can get on the express train, and make it shorter than 40 minutes to Greenwich. Basically you can stay in mid-town Manhattan and get to the film festival, watch a few films, and go back just as easily as you can get two miles at Sundance.”
The festival has managed to bring a number of interesting personalities onto their board, including Entourage creator Doug Ellin, Sopranos actor Michael Imperioli, former first daughter Jenna Bush Hager, and New York Yankee Mark Teixeira. While these are high profile names, they are also people with strong ties to Greenwich. Producers on the board like Avram Ludwig (Swingers), Clay Pecorin (The Big Wedding), and Jeb Stuart (Die Hard) all live in the community. Teixeira actually made a cameo in Entourage a few years ago and joked about how expensive it was to have three kids in private school in Greenwich. The festival also just announced film critic Elvis Mitchell has joined the team as the Marquee Director, and will be overseeing programming. Mitchell also curates the Film Independent series at LACMA in Los Angeles, so he’s about to be a frequent flyer and can help bring Hollywood names to the festival.
Something highly original about the Greenwich International Film Festival is it’s philanthropic mission. One of the prizes for the festival goes to the most ‘Socially Conscious’ film, this includes features and shorts, and comes with a cash award of $10,000. Additionally, the festival has partnered with UNICEF to support OneMinutesJr., which offers workshops on filmmaking skills to young people, especially those who are underprivileged and marginalized. “Part of our mission says we want to use the power of film to promote the greater good, and to do that both through being able to spread messages via film to an audience of people who can and want to make a difference and also by having a partner humanitarian organization where we’re going to build something similar to a Tom Shoes’ model for a film festival,” says Reyes; “People going to watch a film [at GIFF], can they leave inspired and knowing that they actually did do something beneficial while they’re being entertained.”
For filmmakers, GIFF offers some truly generous incentives to submit. Colleen deVeer, the Programming and Submissions Principal, says: “we want to be able give filmmakers a platform to exhibit their work, with the goal of finding financing and distribution but also being able to connect these two worlds of finance and filmmaking so that we create a network for the filmmaker to produce subsequent films.” As already noted, Greenwich is a community where many of the potential audience members have money to invest in films. Furthermore, the awards for both the Best Narrative Feature and Best Documentary Feature include a $10,000 cash prize each, putting GIFF immediately in a class that has very few participants. Whereas Sundance and SXSW offer no cash prize, Tribeca and Dallas have $25,000 awards, Heartland offers $45,000, Los Angeles Film Festival has awards of $15,000, and Napa has a $10,000 award for Narrative Features. With GIFF being a brand new festival that will probably not be on the tip of every filmmaker’s tongue yet, an aspiring producer would be insane not to submit their film and be part of the first batch of entries for these awards while the competition is maybe not as heated as it will be when word gets out. Even more impressive is the commitment Greenwich is making to filmmakers toiling away on their films, offering a $25,000 cash prize for the best work in progress. The value of this cash prize will be matched by a post-production house for services, making the total value for this award $50,000.
Building a festival from the ground up takes a lot of planning. DeVeer says a lot of the last year was spent “working on the logistics of the festival, the planning of the venues, where its going to be held, and coordinating with the town, who is lending us an incredible amount of support.” The festival has already sponsored a few events, including an oscar party and the hometown premiere of LUCKY THEM, co-written and produced by Board member, Emily Wachtel. The evening included a cocktail reception, a screening of the film, and a Q&A with cast and crew from the film, including Toni Collette. These events were “kind of a proof of concept,” according to Reyes, “so we could see who our audience is and get demographic information on them.” This information was then used to ‘woo’ potential future sponsors. The events were also a good excuse to get local magazines to start covering the festival. “We’ve always said what we want to do is to do something small and do it excellently,” says Reyes, “and so we started really locally and its been a very organic process. The first year was really spent getting grass roots support.” The most surprising thing so far about the process? “How fast it’s going,” says deVeer; “Initially we had plans to do the festival in June of 2014 and the first year went so fast that we were actually very happy that we changed our mind on that one and gave ourselves another year to accomplish our goals and our dream for this thing.”
The triumvirate of GIFF has one thing going for itself, each other. “I think because the three of us work so well together and are very complementary to each other in terms of getting this thing off the ground,” says Carina Crain, the hardest part “has been learning how to put on a film festival. We don’t have experience in that but our passion for film and storytelling and doing it correctly, we did so much work to research it to make sure we were doing it right.” Reyes agrees: “we kind of learned a lot about where we fit, in terms of our partnership, and we each bring something different to the table and we know when that’s something that’s very important to them, and when to defer to them, so it’s kind of been a dance.” The team hasn’t been afraid to bring in people like Elvis Mitchell, to help guide them in this new venture. Says deVeer: “I feel that at the beginning, the hardest thing for me was to ask for what I wanted, and now its slowly getting easier as the year’s gone by and I think we’re making a lot of progress because we’re bolder, we’ve learned a lot. It’s really been an education for all of us.” Crain adds: “Yes, it’s a great concept but how do we get to the finish line?”
The Call For Entries went out Tuesday, you can read it here. But there is a lot of work left to do, watching films and selecting them, marketing the festival, bringing on sponsors, planning the panels and workshops that will be a part of the weekend, hiring theatre managers and volunteer coordinators. We’ll check in on ‘the girls’ from time to time over the next 9 months to see where they end up, but right now, they seem to know where they are heading. “I’m excited to see the excitement of the filmmakers,” says deVeer, “we all want them to feel special, we want them to be taken care of, we want them to have a really wonderful weekend at this event and to give them a lot of exposure and hopefully send some of them on an incredible journey in the film industry. We’re excited to discover new talent. It’s going to be a great place for them to launch their work.” Festivals can be hard to predict. Two of the most important festivals in the world, Tribeca and Fantastic Fest, are a mere twelve and ten years old. Relative newcomers like Napa Film Festival and Portland Film Festival are finding fans in filmmakers and film-goers alike. “By year ten, I really do hope it’s a destination on the film festival circuit,” says Crain, “that people will add the name Greenwich to the marquee festivals that happen all around the country and the world. If that happens I think it will be a great thing to see that we were able to build something of great worth to filmmakers and the film industry and to make sure these films have a home.”
Greenwich International Film Festival arrives June 4-7th, 2015, and if you have plans to start your own fest, there is no better place to seek guidance, like the GIFF team did, than at the International Film Festival Summit running in Austin December 7-9, 2014.