Festival Travel: SIFF 2017

June brings a wave of summer movie watching on the festival circuit. A few festivals sneak on the calendar after Cannes in May (one of three seasonal “tent poles” of festivals, the others being Sundance in January and TIFF/Telluride in September) to grab audiences before the summer really hits.

As previously mentioned on this blog, this year I joined the programming team for the 43rd annual SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival). With newly appointed Executive Director Sarah Wilke, Interim Artistic Director Beth Barrett (a friend of several years) took the helm this year after veteran Carl Spence’s departure from the festival. After a few conversations last winter, Beth brought me on to the team to help cull through the thousands of film submissions they receive.

SIFF is the longest film festival in North America: 25 days! A whole ‘nother kind of marathon event. E and I had planned a trip to Seattle for mid-June for my sister-in-law’s graduation from Seattle University, which luckily coincided with the last week/weekend of the festival. Since this trip was a mix of business and family time, I didn’t get to experience SIFF in full. Our mornings were spent exploring the city and drinking a lot of coffee.

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Sunny days in Seattle. The weather is always like this right?

Much of that coffee was from La Marzocco, a cafe and showroom located with Seattle’s hip radio station KEXP. La Marzocco is known for their high-end espresso machines, but opened a speciality cafe in Seattle where each month a renowned coffee roaster takes over the space and implements their own special menu. It’s a remarkable feat to consider. Our close friend, Amy, manages La Marzocco and she filled us in on how she and her team curate a new, unique experience every four weeks (long story short: it’s a fast-moving environment and no easy task). We tasted many incredible drinks, but our favorites were the Cafe Miel and the affogoto. Amy was so kind to give us a “backstage” tour of the KEXP studio and office space, filling us in on the history of the station. (The music library was impressive and I loved seeing how they are slowly and methodically digitizing all their materials – an epic job on its own.) If you’re ever visiting Seattle, I highly recommend checking out La Marzocco for a truly unique coffee experience.

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The KEXP music library
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KEXP’s live studio space

Back to festing, we stopped by the festival lounge where E and his sister tasted tequila from a festival sponsor and I got to catch up with friend and SIFF’s Director of Philanthropy, Ben McCarthy. By the time the staff is on day 20+, many are running on a mix of autopilot and few hours of sleep. Seeing a fresh, friendly face is a delight and laughter helps a lot.

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The great team behind the movies…

Later in the week, E and I watched The Grifters (1990), one of several tribute films to SIFF honoree Anjelica Huston. Beth Barrett introduced the film and spotted me in the audience (we hadn’t seen each other yet), which created a hilarious improvised moment in her introduction of the film. It was the first time either E or I had seen this film and we were curious. Huston is great (as she is with pretty much every role) and the film’s ending is dark. So much so, I actually laughed out of uncomfortableness with the twisted, climatic moment. Annette Bening is also a standout (as usual). Both ladies made this noir story work for me. John Cusack, not so much.

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Showing off the bump with SIFF Interim Artist Director, Beth Barrett
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Lounge with SIFF’s Ben McCarthy

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After the screening we ate dinner at Momiji and sang karaoke at Rock Box (which I highly recommend) to celebrate E’s birthday. We then headed to a favorite college bar of my sis-in-laws, in which E, Amy, her husband and I were very much the oldest people in the room by ten years. (Being the sober, pregnant member of this party I was stuck out two-fold.)

Much of the remaining trip was with family and close friends as we celebrated the graduation. Since I only had a small slice of SIFF, I hope next year I’ll be able to spend a little more time with the event. With the long length of the festival, attending an earlier weekend would likely have a different feel since filmmakers or guests can’t stay for the entirety. From an industry perspective, the last weekend is a fun time to attend since the staff are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and the vibe is a little looser. I’m excited to see how the festival will grow and change under the leadership of Barrett and Wilke. The Seattle film community is in good hands.

In my next post, I’ll be sharing this past weekend’s travels to Palm Springs ShortsFest (spoiler, it was CRAZY hot) where I was one of the panelists for the festival’s forum. Stay tuned. In the meantime, have you seen The Grifters before? I need to talk to someone about the ending!

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

A post shared by Dallas International Film Fest (@dallasiff) on

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.