Festival Spotlight Friday: Queens World Film Festival
by MM Editors

This week’s Festival Spotlight goes to Queens World Film Festival—a fest that has seen it all.

Queens World Film Festival has bounced back from financial ruin and what could have been the decimation of their reputation to a complete rebirth, coming back better than ever. They now share their love for film with people young and old, whether they are a filmmaker, film lover, or interested community member, and have become a champion of the arts in their eastern New York borough.

MovieMaker had the pleasure of speaking with QWFF Director—and savior—Katha Cato, who enumerates on the fest’s tumultuous past, forcing them to rebuild from the ground up, rules filmmakers should follow before submitting a film to any festival, inspiring young artists, screening films to older audiences and how to submit your film for next year’s QWFF (the regular deadline is September 30 – so get it in soon!). The 2014 QWFF takes place in (where else?) Queens, New York from March 4-9.

Queen's World Film Festival

Katha and Don at QWFF.
Photo Credit: Joel Webber, Beechtree Images

MovieMaker (MM): Can you tell us briefly how you got involved with QWFF in the first place–your journey from entering the festival as a participating filmmaker, to your current position?

Katha Cato (KC): In 2006 there was another festival in Queens and we entered our film. We won Best Drama and enjoyed our time there immensely. We believe that if an organization honors you, you should become some sort of benefactor, so we started volunteering through their already existing Youth Initiative which at the time was a panel for young filmmakers. Over the next three years we grew the program into a filmmaking boot camp that included three schools and 72 families.

In 2009, two days before opening night the festival director (FD) asked for our help in paying for the venue and for some advertising, with the promise that we would be paid back out of ticket sales. The next day the press hit. The FD had a past, aliases and many outstanding bills with very angry vendors.

When the festival opened, everything unraveled, screenings didn’t take place, DVDs and equipment were lost and the press came out in force. We were horrified, on constant damage control and when the festival ended, the FD disappeared.

Along with a few others, we thought starting a new festival was a good idea and we all began to work in that direction. As the others dropped away and the dust settled and we became the driving force behind QWFF, we resolved that we would never put a filmmaker through those types of experiences. Our record keeping is detailed, thorough; the filmmakers are supported at every juncture; screenings are on the best quality equipment; there are always audiences and if we can’t afford it, we don’t buy it.

MM: QWFF has had an unusual and storied history as a film festival. How would you describe its journey to the success it is now, and can you tell us about the process of repairing its wounded reputation?

KC: To this day we often have to explain that we are not the same festival, we were not privy to the economics or the planning of the previous festival, etc. We are entirely different. We lead with our earnest commitment to create a world class film festival in Queens.

I believe that people can quickly see that we believe in the culture of gathering to watch films, to discuss them, to argue about them passionately. We believe in the moving image and that comes through in how we talk about the festival. It is discernible and it’s not an act. There is no other agenda.

MM: Every so often we hear a story about a film festival that turns out to be less than legitimate in its practices. As someone who has been on the other side of the fence, how would you advise moviemakers to identify these scams, and find what you call ‘honorable’ festivals? 

KC: There are thousands of festivals, so shop around and be a savvy consumer. Find the festival that will position your film correctly. Here are some things to consider and ask yourself before you submit to any festival:

a. Google the festival director(s), what is their aesthetic, background. When interviewed, what kinds of things do they speak about? Are the filmmakers featured in any stories?
b. Contact the festival and find out how easy is it to get a response from a human. Are they responsive? Can they answer questions? Do the answers match their website and Facebook information?
c. What kind of traffic does their Facebook page get? Is the website informative, updated often?
d. Check out the quality of work presented in previous years. Check out the programming philosophy.

e. What kind and how much press do they get?
f. Is the festival charging filmmakers extra and are there hidden fees for participation? Red carpet fees? Fees to meet press? Producer’s meetings?  Paying to see the screening committee’s critique? If the answer is yes to that, I personally would not participate.

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MM: What are important deadlines coming up for moviemakers interested in submitting to QWFF next year?

KC: Sept. 30 – regular deadline on Withoutabox (WAB)

October 31 – late deadline on WAB

November 30 – extended deadline on WAB

We will announce the schedule, the selections and nominees in January. Keep in mind, we never accept films before the final deadline closes. So, don’t be afraid to submit after the regular deadline.

MM: What about QWFF do you think makes it worth participating in/attending?

KC: Firstly, we get good equipment and hire projectionists who will make your film look and sound as best as possible (indie films sometimes need a little extra love in that department). Additionally, we group the films in thematic blocks and designate a host who can speak intelligently about the block’s film and lead the Q & A afterwards.

We also do year round encore screenings of films around the borough, giving the films extra exposure and bringing the films to audiences who might not be able to attend the annual event. We screen in alternative spaces: on a closed street (Jackson Heights Play Street), on the Beach (Rockaways), etc.

We are very well covered by the press and the community attends the screenings. In 2013, we garnered 77 items in the press, everything from features on the festival, filmmakers, and venues, to quirky pieces about our encore screenings and alternative venues. We aim to partner the right filmmakers with the right media outlets and target our outreach to bring specific blocks of films to the attention of the right niche in a pretty noisy market. We court bloggers, local community newsletters and special interest writers.

We care.

MM: How do you see QWFF inspiring, empowering, enabling young aspiring artists and others in the artistic community?

KC: We constantly remind our audiences that storytelling is crucial to the survival of our communities—that artists are to be recognized, supported. Getting into a festival is encouraging and attending a screening of your film is invaluable. We make that happen for as many filmmakers as we can.

A successful panel that we have done in the past brings the previous year’s winners back to speak about how they used their QWFF experience to the benefit of their own career or the festival career of their film. We want filmmakers to be proud of their experience with us and we want filmmakers to develop and grow

We run a thriving Young Filmmakers program in PS 69Q, an elementary school in our neighborhood. It is important to us to give children the opportunity to experience this collaborative art. Even if they are not interested in a life in the arts, the experience is full of life lessons: collaboration, preparation, creativity, technology, sequencing, cause and effect, etc. etc….

If they are interested in a creative career path, we feel that we model to them and their parents that a creative life doesn’t have to be one of heartbreaking disappointments. Our message to the families of young artists of any age is very clear: “Don’t worry, being an artist is indeed challenging, but it doesn’t have to be feared. Artists are crucial to our community—and quite often artists have no other choice but to be artists. We are both artists and our kids went to college, we pay our bills and look at us!! Your child is an artist? It will be OK, but you must must must be supportive of that, get them the best training you can, put them in programs where they are surrounded by teachers and guides who provide them with the right skills, get them pay attention to the business end of their work them OR your worst fears will come true for them.”

We hope that we make it possible for a young person to say “I want to make films” and be supported.

We also run a screening event called “Old Spice: Films for our more seasoned audience members”. It’ss a free event that we get sponsored by the local elected officials of four hours of programming perfect for older film lovers. We mix it up with vintage films, docs about subjects that matter to their demographic, and edgy films they would never get the opportunity to see otherwise. Traditionally, our Festival Associates have thought it was a nice event, but not anywhere near the guts of the festival. This year, for some reason more of the Festival Associates went than usual and one of them told me, with tears in his eyes, “When the people waiting for Old Spice came into the screening and they were so happy to be there. I finally got it—how important this screening is. None of these people would be gathering to do anything like this unless we made it possible.” He’s right. 125 Senior Citizens would have been watching these films if we didn’t do these types of screening. We get the privilege to provide the experience and the magic of sitting in the dark with strangers while having a collective emotional experience.

Making all of this accessible for community members is encouraging to the filmmakers. It reminds them why we make films and how important our audiences are, at every age.

MM: Where do you see the festival heading in the future, both as an event on the U.S. festival circuit and as a part of the culture and community of the borough?

KC: We believe that the borough can support a world class film festival and we believe that we are the folks to do it. I see our niche as a fiercely independent festival that is not pandering to the lowest common denominator. We will become a festival to consider when budgeting for and planning for the festival life of an indie film. By choosing that first week in March, we know that New Yorkers will have a quirky, interesting world class festival in their own backyard that:

a. creates community around the films and where filmmakers meet their audience.

b. takes care of your film and does what we say we are going to do.

c. is staffed with people who share the desire to provide a quality product with integrity.

The festival has already become a catalyst for community building. Three filmmakers from the March 2013 event are about to shoot their next feature—crewed largely by people they met at QWFF and I am sure there are more of those kinds of stories, we just don’t know about them.

This coming Tuesday we will be speaking at the Queens Economic Development Corporation about how all of the major businesses can work together to make the entire borough more user friendly, how to market the borough as a destination for filmmakers and film lovers and how to make the festival more beneficial to the entire borough. We are determined to make this festival something that everyone can benefit from and be proud of.

If you want to screen your work in Manhattan and you don’t live in our area—you have to land in Queens. If you want to see the iconic sky line of Manhattan, you have to be in queens. We have two airports, world class facilities, we have wonderful restaurants and hotels all ready to welcome the world. We have the legendary 7 train that is ready to connect you to everything you will need—including Manhattan! The entire world is represented in Queens with over 50 nationalities and languages are spoken here. Films from all over the world will find an audience here in any language you want to work in.

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MM: I love how emotional your connection to the festival is—what a big part of your life it is. What would you say is the most important life lesson the festival has given you?

KC: In our opening remarks at screenings, I always say:

“From the beginning of time we have gathered in darkened caves around the flickering lights to share our stories. Tonight is no different, the cave has been upgraded and the flickering lights are not the communal fires, they are now zeros and ones. But our need to gather remains crucial to the survival of our communities and it is an honor to gather with all of you to share the stories of tonight’s filmmakers.”

We have learned how important this gathering is. In a streaming world that Tumbles, Yelps, and Tweets to distraction, the gathering to experience stories via the moving image knits us back together. Those darkened caves and camp fires gave our species the opportunity to reflect and to ponder the bigger questions and that is crucial to survival. Being part of that matters to us and we work hard to preserve that experience, not only for today’s audience, but for generations yet to come.

The journey with QWFF has been one of the great adventures of our lives. MM

For more information on Queen’s World Film Festival, click here.

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