Oxford Film Fest Heads South to Cincinnati

Third-year event turns into one of the 'top 25 festivals worth the entry fee'

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By year three, one would assume that an annual event of some scale and magnitude would attempt to steady itself, straighten up on its still relatively wobbly legs to test for newfound strength and stability. Thanks to the disastrous economic climate, the Oxford International Film Festival (OIFF) had to go from barely standing to boldly leaping forward all at once — and so it leaves behind the intimacy of the Oxford, Ohio, community for the lure and greater risk/reward of increasing the scope and appeal of what MovieMaker magazine recently dubbed one of the top “25 Festivals Worth the Entry Fee.”

The festival, which opens Friday and continues through July 30, is moving to West Chester and Cincinnati this year.

“We decided immediately after last year’s festival,” OIFF founder/Executive Director J.C. Schroder says of the move south. “There were a couple of reasons. The first was that, honestly, we were just outgrowing Oxford. Last year we had to spread so many things out across so many different locations that it was becoming logistically unfeasible. Because of that, even though we had a couple thousand people in attendance, it didn’t feel like it because everybody was so spread out over so many venues.

“Second, most of the people attending were from out of town. We got responses last year — even before the festival when gas prices rose so quickly, and even though attendance was up by about a third — that people were concerned about traveling to Oxford, which they felt was too far away. The majority of the people coming were from the Greater Cincinnati area anyway, so we felt it would be easier to cater to the attending audience.”

Originally, plans were in place to move the entire festival to the Savannah Center in West Chester as an intermediate jump, more in line with the notions of gradual growth. The Center will serve as a showcase site for special events including the new Family Day on July 26 (featuring a performance by Radio Disney artist Savannah Outen and a special live presentation by veteran Disney animator Travis Blaise) and a series of concerts in addition to a host of workshops and panels. The festival announced last week that the majority of the screenings will take place at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton.

Schroder felt the squeeze, as most likely did a number of smaller to midsize festivals, and took a gamble by moving, and in some ways re-branding, an already new festival. Even in the best of situations, it would be comparable to the Field of Dreams model (“If you build it, they will come”). But would film fans make the journey when already tight budgets have constricted even further?

There was no choice but to move ahead. Months of venue scouting throughout the region eventually led to the Esquire, which was the best match in terms of the size and scope of the event, especially when considering community support and having a strong base for ongoing sponsorship in the future. The festival team has been out canvassing the Clifton community to get it on board as quickly as possible for this year, with an eye towards keying in on more active engagement in the coming years.

The seemingly sudden switch to Cincinnati for most of the primary screenings has led to an outbreak of teaser posters hyping the arrival of the festival (with little more than the logo, a tagline — Experience Film Live — and the dates/locations), but the focus of the marketing and publicity seeks to draw attention to the Web site, where the full scale allows potential attendees to find the elements and attractions that will appeal to them personally.

It’s a sound thought process that doesn’t force festival organizers to draw a tight bead on one event or one special screening that might alienate some potential festival goers unfamiliar with either the particular attraction or the nature of a weeklong film festival.

It’s smart thinking for a third-year event that boasts in press releases of “more than 70 of the best new short and feature-length independent films from around the globe, amidst 7 days of screenings, workshops, industry & celebrity guests, 3 days of indie concerts, filmmaker panels, parties & receptions, and an awards gala.”

It becomes obvious after taking a look at the festival calendar that this is not a nichedriven event, which means that the target audience for OIFF naturally remains uniquely and comfortably broad. The festival can use events like Family Day as an opportunity to hook children and then grow with them over time. And a fascinating bit of synergy developed in process as the festival’s viral marketing campaign was able to capitalize on the online popularity of Outen, the young singer-songwriter who gained fame and attracted the attention of Radio Disney fans through her video posting on YouTube where she has more than 4 million views and close to 150,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel.

The first annual International and Regional Teen Contest, intended to promote and support new artists, kicked off three months ago and was announced on YouTube with an introduction from Outen and the winners with the opportunity to open for Outen and attend screenings and awards presentations with her during the day. Early rounds of the contest performances and the voting for winners took place online with entrants from around the world and will likely serve as a model for ongoing viral efforts to spread the word about the festival.

It's an intriguing complement to a schedule of programs striving to reach beyond its grasp, to provide a vision for how to leap forward while remaining true to its roots. Who knows where the Oxford International Film Festival will land, but Cincinnati would do well to consider hanging on tight to this up-and-comer.

The OXFORD INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs Friday through July 30 at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton and the Savannah Center in West Chester. Go to www.oxfordfilms.com for a complete list of films and events.

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