Dallas International Film Festival 2017: Recap part 2

Last week, I posted a few highlights from the first weekend of DIFF. Today, I’m continuing my recap of the 11-day festival.

As the first weekend of the event comes to a close, I move into the awards and jury process of my job. Coordinating multiple juries is no easy task. The invitation process takes months. I asked over 35 people to fill 12 spots during that time. There are different personalities to juggle and travel itineraries to communicate. In the end, we had one of our best group of jurors yet (you can read about them here).

Screenings continued as Monday kicked off the week. The jurors who were not local to North Texas began arriving on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, all screenings were being balloted and DIFF programming coordinator, Daniel Laabs, was leading a team of volunteers to count ballots following each morning’s staff meeting.

@stradstylemovie director Stefon Avalos at the Q&A! #stradviolin #diff2017 #filmfestival

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We set up private screenings for the jury in the morning and they watch a few with the public. Every year is different based on what is allowed between schedules of both people and films, available screeners of the films (vs. encrypted DCPs) and the venues themselves.

After viewing all the films, the jury comes together to deliberate. It is during these two hours that my world begins to spin. I try to communicate next steps with several departments at once. Time is of the essence. This day is an adrenaline rush and always surprising. Then I am deep into spreadsheets for DFS Honors, finalizing show flows and seating charts. You can read about all the DIFF 2017 winners here.

DFS Honors became our awards presentation a few years ago, the idea being a Golden Globes style dinner with awards that would act as a fundraiser for the non-profit. I think it’s a mix-bag event. Lots of moving parts with different egos involved, constant last-minute changes, expensive and typically more money spent than raised. It is another event where I’m also playing a kind of stage-manager role – this time without a headset – while a show host. Because it typically includes several different speakers both from sponsors, jurors and other special guests, there is only so much you can control once the show begins. The event usually runs long and by the end almost all the filmmakers, jurors, guests and sponsors are happily…drunk. Then the party moves to the festival lounge for late-night karaoke, where the staff tends to finally cuts loose after a long nine days/nights. Of course, you party hard only to get up and start screenings again at 11:45am with honorees, winners and late-to-the-program films.

On the last weekend, I snuck away from the theater after my final intro for a sunset walk around my old stomping grounds at SMU. Even though I lived near the campus for some six years after graduating, I never went back and never properly showed Eric where I spent those “formative” years. It was a quiet night on campus, barely any students walking around (they were all getting ready for their greek parties I told Eric, as we saw the buses lining up near sorority row later). Wandering the halls of my old class buildings felt like a relief, a strange feeling of nostalgia combined with closure. It seemed like a proper way to end my two weeks in Dallas and this particular film festival.

DIFF 2017 was a tipping point year. We succeeded in the usual places – a strong program of films and making filmmakers feel welcome – but the years of a struggling budget showed in a way that could not be avoided. Changes need to be made and I think there are opportunities to refocus the festival that will only improve it. It is something James and I discussed often during my time in Dallas and we’ll continue to chat about throughout the summer. Venues, length of festival, major fest events, marketing, and, at the core, fundraising – all key elements that must be addressed before the fall.

There are a lot of people who care about this event and I truly believe it is an important cultural part to the city of Dallas. It is a disservice to continue on the same path we’ve been on, thinking it will somehow improve without actually making the necessary changes needed. I realize this may sound vague, but the discussions are still in the early stages. (Happy to chat offline to anyone interested.) My hope is that some of these ideas get a chance. Time will tell.

Below are more of my favorite photos from this year’s Dallas International Film Festival. Back with our regularly scheduled program next week! Thanks for reading!

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Q&A following Shorts 3 program
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James and I actually sat down together one night to eat dinner. This is incredibly rare. Not sure when the last time this happened in eleven years of the festival.
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One night in the DIFF 2017 Lounge.
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WHILE I WAS GONE filmmakers chat with coordinator Daniel Laabs at the SAG Indie Filmmaker Party.
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Director of Operations, Scott Rosza, and Operations Manger, David Jeter, take a break after building the DFS Honors red carpet.
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DIFF 2017 Shorts Jurors on the DFS Honors red carpet.
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DIFF 2017 Narrative Feature Jurors at the DFS Honors red carpet.
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DIFF 2017 Documentary Competition Jury at DFS Honors.
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Filmmaker Noel Wells accepts the Texas Grand Jury Prize from Panavision and the Texas jury for her film, MR. ROOSEVELT.
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Dallas Star Award Honoree, David Gordon Green, at DFS Honors.
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Beastie Boy karaoke after DFS Honors.
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Epic post-DFS Honors Karaoke: Power of Love with a dancing Lea Thompson!
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With Eric in town for the second weekend, we had to go back to Pecan Lodge to pick up BBQ with friends Claire (a former coordinator at the fest in town to visit) and Karen (DIFF marketing manager).
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Garland HS step team before screening of documentary STEP.
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Highlights from the Denver Film Festival

I’ve been in Denver for over a week now and it’s been a great trip. As a curator consultant for Denver, part of my responsibilities are to host filmmakers and audiences. I float between screenings and help fill in when needed. There are always small fires to put out and tricks happening behind-the-curtain. I can’t give alway all the secrets to what’s happened so far in Denver, but in today’s post I’m sharing highlights of my festival so far.

Tuesday, Nov. 1 – Day before Fest
Upon landing in Denver, a volunteer driver takes me to the SIE FilmCenter where the staff is having their traditional kickoff cocktails. I walk in with big luggage in tow to see friends. Hugs abound. Toasts from the veteran leaders, Britta Erickson (Festival Director), Brit  Withey (Artistic Director) and Ron Henderson (Fest Co-Founder) remind the staff how far we’ve come and what great moments lie ahead. 39 years in the festival world is no small feat. This team has something to be proud of. The evening winds down quickly as we all have days of work and parties ahead. As any veteran staff will tell you, it’s a marathon and not a sprint.

Wednesday, Nov. 2 – Opening Night/Day 1
I spend a long lunch with programmer Matthew Campbell to catch up on life and work. I met Matt almost six years ago at Sundance and he has become one of my closest friends and confidants on the circuit. After splitting to get “fancified” (Opening Night is the only night I wear heels to a festival if I can help it), we meet up with Britta Erickson for the calm before the storm as she slips into her velvet, burgundy Jimmy Choos. A volunteer festival driver takes us and PR guru Katie Shapiro to the pre-film VIP party at The Crimson Room. Denver Board members and donors schmooze with champagne in hand and I meet a fellow SMU alum. We check the clock and Matt and I walk over to the Ellie Opera house to check on the red carpet. Film fans stream in pass the carpet dressed in their Denver chic attire. Local filmmakers are walking the red carpet, while others wait phones in hand to get a glimpse of Emma Stone who is due to arrive in a few minutes.

People watching at a red carpet is always fun. I enjoy watching the faces of people as they walk up, registering what is happening around them, feeling the energy in the air.  Loyal patrons of the festival stop and say hello to the programming staff while other staff (like development, box office and operations) work furiously to get everyone seated and the show started on time.  Emma arrives and as she approaches the red carpet flashes go off everywhere. The crowd moves in closer to the carpet and flashes continue. I’m always amazed to watch a celebrity at that level work. Because that’s exactly what she is doing. She stays focused on whoever is interviewing her while people scream her name and phones and cameras six-people deep go off all around her. The press team help direct her to the next interview. More flashes and screams. She’s posed throughout, never breaking focus on what she is doing. I always find watching a well-ran red carpet to be fascinating. The entire movement is controlled and organized. An image and brand is being showcased and captured. Don’t be fooled by what you see in magazines or online. PR is serious business.

While La La Land gets underway, some of the staff walk across the street to a bar for dinner. It is another moment to spend time with your festival family. You’ll be in the trenches for the next few days. Game 7 of the World Series plays nearby and the staff ends up watching it before hurrying off to the Q&A and Opening Night Party.

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Emma Stone on the DFF39 Opening Night red carpet for LA LA LAND

Friday, Nov. 4 – Day 3
E has arrived in Denver today to spend the weekend at the festival with me. After working a few hours at a nearby Starbucks I meet him and we hit up Bubu for lunch. This place hits the spot – we order the OG Colorado bowls, mine with rice and salmon and E’s with noodles and steak. I’m sure I’ll be back at this place again before leaving town.

We swing by the Lyft Lounge and the Festival Annex next. E tries out some of the VR setups while I speak to the festival alcohol sponsor from Argonaut’s. Later, E convinces him to try out the VR too.

After hosting my first intro of the festival, E and I sneak out of the neighborhood for a proper dinner at Meadowlark Kitchen. The wait for a table was one of the stranger experiences we’ve had dining, but the hostess managed to seat us fairly quickly. For dinner: the Denver Nuggets (fried chicken thighs) and a BLT (with tasty candied bacon). We watched the couple at a nearby table who are clearly on a first date, but seem to be hitting it off well. We cheer them on from the sidelines. We pack up the leftovers and move on to the Reel Social Club party for Folk Hero & Funny Guy inside the bottling area of Great Divide Brewery. Matt Campbell happily eats the leftover chicken and BLT (there’s always a staff member who hasn’t eaten yet) and we chat about the day’s highlights. Later, I catch up with actor/filmmaker Chike Okonkwo and Kevin Polowy from Yahoo Movies. They are on the Maysles Brothers Documentary Jury this year (the same jury that brought me to Denver for the first time five years ago) and we chat about documentaries and cool things to do in San Francisco. Next thing I know it’s nearly 1:00am and time to catch a Lyft to my “home” at the hotel.

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DFF39 Reel Social Club Party at Great Divide Brewery

Saturday, Nov. 5 – Day 4
An “early” intro at the theater for me takes me to the UA Pavillions around 11:00am. Festivals shift your routine. Suddenly 11:00am is early and lunch is around 3:00pm. E and I sit in to watch Donald Cried, a film about a 30-something Wall Street banker that returns to his hometown and is forced to meet up with his childhood friend Donald. Getting to see a film (and a comedy at that) helps to perk up the day. Later, we grab a table at a nearby bar to watch part of the LSU v. Alabama game while I duck up to the theater to do my intro of another Shorts program. Filmmaker Isabella Wing-Davey has arrived for her short The Rain Collector. She shares some of the artistic influences of her short and a fun production story from the shoot with the sold-out audience.

I run over to the next auditorium to see filmmaker/programmer Mike Plante. His short The Polaroid Job screens before the feature Fraud. E and I stay to watch Fraud which I’ve been hearing about for months. After viewing, I admit I like the concept and thought-provoking conversation the film creates. But after a comment by the filmmaker in the Q&A, I feel there is a cheat that breaks the rules of the film/concept, my trust as a viewer and ruins the film for me. E and I discuss it at length as we walk to the Annex. The more we think about it the film feels like an experimental narrative and not a documentary (though it seems the filmmakers want the film to be thought-of as a doc), but the film makes us think and that is good with me.

At the Annex, we watch SAGindie Director Darrien Michele Gipson school programmer Matthew Campbell in beer pong and chat with filmmakers Isabella Wing-Davey and Brianne Nord-Stewart from Beat Around the Bush. Thank goodness we get an extra hour of sleep with the end of Daylight Savings. We all need it.

Sunday, Nov. 6 – Day 5
E and I call around town to find a good breakfast spot, but by 8:30am the four places we’ve called all have an hour wait at least. We decide to grab take out from Denver Biscuit Co. and walk our meal to the City Park to enjoy before watching the 50th anniversary screening of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the SIE FilmCenter. It’s my first time to see this film in its entirety. It’s a doozy to watch before noon, but I am glad I finally got to see it in a theater. We catch a shuttle back to the Pavillions and I host the Shorts 1 program again with Isabella. A few patrons pull me aside in the Lyft Lounge later to discuss the program and share how much they enjoyed it. While on a spell of quiet downtime, E and I debate on what to do for dinner. We decide to try Finn’s Manor. The place had a Southern vibe: a large patio with different areas for sitting, the bar decorated with moss and beads with small food trucks in one section of the patio. Our mission: to try the BBQ at Owlbear food truck. We chat with the woman serving and discover that the owner of Owlbear is from Colorado and spent time previously working at Franklin’s in Austin. She knows how to answer the key questions about brisket and serves up the last of it for E. I order the pulled pork sandwich. We are in heaven. This BBQ is legit and outside of Texas. An amazing find. PLUS the bar serves Bayou Rum. I have yet to find anyone outside of Louisiana that serves it (Bayou is distilled just outside my hometown). Finn’s Manor is now my new favorite place in Denver.

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Brisket and pulled pork sandwich from Owlbear BBQ in Denver.

All in all, the festival is going well and I’m finding a few food gems too.
Drop me a note in the comments if you’re curious to see any of the films I’ve mentioned above or have a recommendation for a restaurant in Denver.

I’ll catch up with the remaining highlights next week!