A brief search courtesy of the Internet Movie Database gives readers a sketch of the historic highlights of the Sundance Film Festival, which assumed that name in 1991, although its first incarnation can be traced back to 1978, when the Utah/US Film Festival kicked off in Salt Lake City. Back then the event focused on the exhibition of "retrospective films and filmmaker seminars."
Of course, then, as now, it was all about attracting attention and building an audience for independent films (i.e., those made outside the Hollywood studio system).
While the overriding goal hasn't changed, the Sundance phenomenon has become a force unto itself, transforming the way in which film festivals are conceived in the United States. No longer simply gazing backward, film festivals have peered into the future of film as the information highway has propelled us all forward. Festivals now link and network beyond the confines of film — there is just as much music and mixed-media art, if not more, than there are films projected on screens at these events.
So much for retro thinking, you might say.
And with the arrival of the second Oxford International Film Festival and its four days of programming that will include more than 100 new films and 60 local, national and world premieres, we should anxiously consider the rise of this upstart Midwestern festival, one that seeks to join the larger events around the country.
(See festival details below this story and a preview of one of the festival's higher profile films, The Tracey Fragments, here.)
There are indie niche market festivals springing up all over, from the Nantucket Film Festival (which caters more to writers and specialty producers) to the Austin Film Festival (which has made a name for itself and its city thanks to an indie vibe as well as the best and hippest collection of movie lovers outside New York and Los Angeles).
But to be a major festival, an event has to do more than set up shop and show a couple of films a night.
(For a related take, see Steven Rosen's CityBeat recent cover story on whether a major film festival could work in Cincinnati.)
The nature of the major film festival beast now includes being able to draw filmmakers of all levels to events, and as JC Schroder, the Oxford fest founder, explains, "Most film festivals, especially new festivals, rarely have all that many filmmakers attend, mainly because of the expense and the nature of what festivals are. This year, we're showing 25 features and we have filmmakers coming with 22 of them. And even more amazing, it's not just one filmmaker coming. For many of the films we have the director, writer, producer and five leads coming with the film. That's very surprising."
In its second year, Oxford is projected to be three times larger than its inaugural event. Schroder points out that, "Not only have we added multiple venues, but we've also added a concert series featuring new bands, more panels and workshops. Things we wanted to do last year, but were unable to, primarily for budget reasons. This may be a second year, but we're growing by leaps and bounds and people in the region and outside are picking up on that."
Which, of course, begs the question: What is the market for the Oxford festival?
"We're a new event and we're actually still trying to figure out who we're targeting," Schroder says. "The festival was started with the notion that we're trying to bring more people and new people in to not only get excited about filmmaking but to bring awareness to filmmaking on a larger scale that doesn't exist in the area. So our focal group is the local filmmaking population and people who might be interested in becoming filmmakers or getting involved in some other fashion and giving them an outlet to network and interact with each other."
Based on the festival committee's target demographic (a diverse cross-section of people between the ages of 18 and 35), it should go without saying that a technological bent shapes the means in which the festival will reach and expand its audience. And Schroder delves into how the tools allow participants to define their needs and get exactly what they want and need from the event.
"We are constantly learning, in our second year, and the Web site is something that was really important to me and our staff. When we were talking about our demographic and where we wanted to be in 10 years, all of our discussions centered on the whole live, interactive element, which is what is really important about film festivals."
Schroder follows this up with an anecdote about his appearance at the International Film Festival Summit, a trade show for festival directors held in Las Vegas every year.
"I thought they were joking (when the sponsors asked him to address the group), but they wanted to get the perspective of someone who had just created a new and successful festival to see what they were doing, what was working, and where they were going with it," he says.
Besides enjoying the experience of meeting a host of big-time film festival directors, the summit and his address forced Schroder hone in even more on his focal points and goals for Oxford's fest.
"It's not just about fitting in with the local public, but figuring out how to cater to the local community and how we can have a national and international presence," he says. "That is really the focus, and so how do we hone in on the filmmakers that are really the core and keep the event live and interactive."
Thus the best way to find out about this year's Oxford International Film Festival is to go online and check out the program. Audiences not only can explore the full four-day program but also develop an individualized daily schedule.
Of course, all the schedules and computerized perks can't replace the live experience of sharing a great new film and a discussion with the filmmakers and a spirited collection of likeminded film fanatics. That's a major attraction that seems likely to only get better with age.
About the Oxford International Film Festival
When: Movie screenings begin at 1 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. Saturday (Filmmaker Brunch is at 10 a.m.) and 11 a.m. Sunday. There's an opening night premiere screening and reception at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and a closing night dinner gala and awards program at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Films are shown in two venues, the Marcum Conference Center (351 N. Fisher Drive on the Miami University campus) and the Oxford Arts Center (10 S. College Ave.)
Tickets: A full weekend pass is $70 ($40 for students), a one-day pass is $30 ($15 for students) and individual screenings are $8 if available.
There's also a related concert series at Uptown Park (High and Main streets) featuring free live music by Cavashawn (formerly Marking Twain), The Ark Band, Eat Sugar and many other acts. Music begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
The Oxford International Film Festival is a program of the Miami Film Association, an independent non-profit corporation that builds support for and addresses the needs of filmmakers in the region by creating programs to support high-school and college students, new independent filmmakers and established filmmakers.