The rapidly growing international film festival circuit has become a vital distribution network, a place where smaller, less overtly commercial films can find audiences eager to experience works that once more readily graced art-house and specialty cinemas. And while the young, still-evolving Cincinnati Film Festival (CFF) might not have the reputation of a Sundance or the many well-established smaller fests across the U.S., it’s quickly making its mark as a filmmaker-friendly destination with the potential to become a unique annual event in a city with a rich cinematic history and more than its share of working contemporary filmmakers.
This year’s CFF, which takes place Thursday-Sunday at The Cincinnati Club (30 Garfield Place, Downtown), features 90 films from across the globe, more than a third of which are regional, Ohio or even world premieres. (For more about the lineup, check the festival's official website here.) The festival also has some intriguing new additions this year, including a virtual online screening room via Constellation.tv for officially selected films; a screenplay contest; and a new programming director, Brandon Harris, who says that CFF 2011 “represents the most ambitious and internationally acclaimed program of films ever screened in Cincinnati.”
That’s bold statement, and it’s largely true with a slate that includes Afghan war documentary To Hell and Back Again, which won the World Cinema Documentary Best Director prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and a number of accomplished works from Filmmaker Magazine's “25 Faces in Independent Film for 2011,” of which Harris is a curator.
But as the fest’s programming continues to improve, CFF is still trying to find its footing in other ways — it hasn’t had a consistent and/or ideal home venue; and, even more importantly, the continuing depressed economic climate has impacted funding for essential infrastructure.
CFF Executive Director Katharine Steele, who took over the fest last year after its move down from Oxford, is well aware of the challenges.
“Funding has been a real struggle for this event, and that is at the core of how to help spread audience awareness,” she says. “We have a very small budget for marketing, which is integral to pulling in our regional audiences. And by marketing I mean not only marketing that is just slick and shiny, but that educates and builds awareness. Many people in this area just go to a big-budget film on the weekend and don't recognize or care about the work that goes on behind the scenes to create a film. While that is really by design, there are those that can and do appreciate film as art, which is what film is: a collaborative art that can take months and sometimes years to get to the screen in front of them.
“Granted, most of these films in our fest won't be hitting those big movie theaters,” she continues. “But the artists who created these wonderful films should be recognized and honored for their passion and achievements, and at the same time enjoy our beautiful city and the people in it that make it great.”
One the more unique aspects of any film festival is, as Steele says, the communal aspect, the celebration and nurturing of those who create the works that appear on the screen. Given its smaller, more intimate nature, CFF is the perfect destination for audiences who want to know more about the craft of filmmaking — and, vice versa, filmmakers who yearn for audience feedback. (In past years I’ve witnessed post-screening Q&As where filmmakers enthusiastically discussed their films for more than an hour, which is very rare at larger or even similarly sized festivals.)
“Last year we had 40 filmmakers in attendance,” Steele says. “Twenty-nine of those were from out of town. Helping everyone realize this is a community event and we are all now hosts to these talented filmmakers would go a long way in growing the festival. This year, we are partnered with the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and have some great screening events that help tie in filmmaking with our community. And since we don't have the kind of funding other large established festivals have, we just have to reach out a little bit more as we can.”
Among the biggest changes this year is the move to one centralized area and venue (The Cincinnati Club, which will feature three different screening rooms) instead of the more sprawling setups of the past.
“After consulting and listening to our filmmakers, audience and advisor feedback, we thought it would be best to take their advice and consolidate to one location,” Steele says. “Also, while the intention last year was good to build community relationships, we just did not have the volunteer manpower to staff these events. We do actually have screenings Saturday in The Phoenix and partner screenings at the library Saturday and Sunday as well, but that is right around the corner and across the street. This will be an opportunity for the downtown community to get to really know what a festival is about and bring people downtown who might not have been here in years and get them to appreciate our city again.”
Another way to get people interested is to have a strong slate of films, which is something Harris was brought on board to improve.
“Brandon has been a wonderful addition to our core staff,” Steele says. “About half of our films are invites curated by him, and the other half are submissions that are in competition. He has been able to bring in high-quality films that are hot right now on the festival market, and ones that will help best achieve our mission of reaching those key audiences we need to reach.”
Steele also mentions CFF's jurors — John Alberti, cinema studies chair at NKU; T.N. Mohan, documentarian and department chair of the digital filmmaking program at the Art Institute of Cincinnati; and Tim Swallow, executive director of Cincinnati World Cinema — all of whom have been integral in shaping the festival's programming.
Steele thinks the various changes and additions to this year's festival will ultimately improve the overall experience for everyone involved, making it an event that will have an impact on not just the local filmmaking/film fan community but also the city at large.
“This year we have more marketing and outreach to the core metro area of Cincinnati,” she says. “We've had a great response from filmmakers and our upcoming audiences in support of the festival, as well as from the city of Cincinnati. On Sunday (Sept. 25), the Mayor proclaimed this week as "Film in Cincinnati Week," which was a wonderful way the city can help promote this much needed cultural and arts event.”
The CINCINNATI FILM FESTVAL opens 7 p.m. Thursday with a screening of Patrick Steele's True Nature and continues daily through Sunday at The Cincinnati Club. For more information, go to www.cincinnatifilmfestival.com.