Dixie Flicks: How Justin Wheelon Persuaded Skeptical South Carolinians to Embrace Southern City Film Festival

How does a Southeastern film festival land a spot on Film Freeway’s top 100 best-reviewed festivals list after its first year?

“We took Southern hospitality to the next level,” says Southern City Film Festival founder Justin Wheelon, a writer/director/producer of multiple indie productions and film, TV and stage actor in Southern ComfortThe Spitfire Grill and other works. “We made sure the filmmakers didn’t want for anything while they were here. That’s our shtick going forward.”

Southern City, a three-pronged operation (consisting of the festival, an educational institute and a production department) based in the small town of Aiken, South Carolina, just wrapped its first year run in November 2016. Wheelon’s venture has taken cues from both the mission of the Sundance Institute and the festival’s geographically dominant predecessor, Atlanta Film Festival. Aside from being perceived as “nicer” (a perk not to be underestimated) than fests held in, say, New York or California, SCFF nurtures local talent with access to facilities, studio space and free rental equipment, as well as hearty hands-on training of both students and teachers.

Speaking with MovieMaker, Wheelon discusses some of the misperceptions of Southern cinema (ones he’s sought to counter with the festival), what it took to win over the skepticism of Aiken and the local school board to launch Southern City, the multitude of voices and eclectic backgrounds welcomed by the city, and more.

Emily Reach White (Producer) Chris White (Director) deliver a Q&A for their film Cinema Purgatorio at the Southern City Film Festival

Max Weinstein, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What are some of the biggest misconceptions about films and filmmakers in the American Southeast? How does Southern City correct those misconceptions in its programming and through the institute?

Justin Wheelon (JW): A big misconception is that filmmakers in the Southeast are maybe not as good as those in Hollywood or New York. That seems to be a big debate going on around the area: “Do we hire people from L.A., or do we go to Atlanta?” That wasn’t a deciding factor on our program. We didn’t really take into account where filmmakers were from. We had our judges’ scores, and we took the best films. They came from 26 different countries, mostly U.S.A., but everywhere. Our Best Short winner was a Southern-based film and the director’s from around here, and then we had another winner that was from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and another guy from Atlanta. There was no thought or consideration to where people were from when those decisions were being made.

We’re the first film festival ever in our community. Aiken, South Carolina is pretty progressive as far as culture and arts go, but a lot of the town was a mix of excited and skeptical. They didn’t know what a film festival was—which I always thought was funny because the name was self-explanatory, you know? I’d ask, “You ever heard of Sundance?” “Yeah, I’ve heard of that.” “Well it’s like that.”

We knew that if we were to try to hurry it together it wouldn’t be what we were picturing, and then the town would be soured to the idea of a film festival. They’d just say, “Ah yeah, I remember that it wasn’t that great.” So, we postponed the inaugural year from 2015 to 2016, and we went all out. We brought in critic Jeffrey Lyons to be a judge, musician Edwin McCain, artists, athletes and actors, everybody. Every big city has a film festival: Atlanta, Charlotte, Charleston, Greenville. All those cities knew exactly what a film festival was and they already had them, but we did do really well in Aiken and Augusta, too.

In fact, the festival has a category called the Homegrown category. It’s for what we call the CSRA, the Central Savannah River Area, which includes Augusta, Mansfield, Aiken, different places around where we live. The Homegrown category is only open exclusively to those people. So that’s something we’re doing for filmmakers in our region.

MM: You mentioned Aiken’s skepticism about the economic or cultural benefits of a film festival, as well as the challenges of getting the participation of the school board. Talk about some of the hoops that you had to jump through in order to earn the support of those groups. 

JW: Most people thought it was good idea, they just didn’t know what this would look like. I had won a couple of Emmy awards [for two PSAs], so they trusted me. They all knew me from different stories in the paper, so I leveraged my relationships and told them, “Look, these things make lots of money for the city, not even just for the organization.” I told them about, for instance, Sundance—look at their economic impact study; they brought in over $100 million just to the cities, and that’s nothing to do with how much the organization made.

The mayor and the president of the chamber were on board. They told the city, “You need to support this.” People came in, they bought out hotel rooms, they ate breakfast, lunch and dinner here, they shopped downtown, some people rented cars. It gave the city an economic boost, which is what some people wanted to see. That was their dog in the fight—”Will this do anything for the city?”—and it did.

The second question was the school board. There’s 20,000 kids in the school system here and they get zero exposure to anything film-related. Film is this huge industry that exists, but they have no knowledge of it. Classes and workshops are where they get to have a greater exposure to it. We train the teachers on how to make a film and assembled a booklet for them so they can go make these films in their classrooms. We’re the first and only people to really try that in this city. It goes for Augusta as well; our reach is further than Aiken.

MM: What is Southern City’s relationship to the marketplace? Is the fest a place where young up-and-coming filmmakers are going to expect a lot of talent to take meetings, or do you expect a mix of industry audience attendees and filmgoers?

JW: It’s going to be both. We had a good relationship with a distributor this year, whom we gave free rein to watch the movies, and said, “You can offer deals to whoever you like.” We have no dog in that fight. We don’t get any commission, we don’t have any say, they get to choose who they offer that to. It takes a little time to prove yourself before a lot of the distributors will take you seriously. Obviously I wish we could have a Netflix guy here, but one of the Atlanta people told me that [distributors] don’t take film festivals that seriously until they get to about their fifth year, because they’re popping up everywhere. Some people are doing them really immorally, by trying to be a cash cow by taking submissions from Film Freeway, and then the festival doesn’t happen, or it’s so crappy it just wasn’t even worth the $20 entry fee. We do need to prove ourselves a little bit in due time, but we’re making all the right choices to set us up, when the time comes, to be an industry leader. I think the timing is right as the Southeast and the whole U.S. wakes up to the Atlanta area. It becomes a real power player and there’s no signs of slowing down. The incentives are getting great and there’s studio space popping up left and right and nobody sees any slowdown for that. We’re geographically positioned to be a good player.

Edwin McCain (I’ll Be, I Could Not Ask For More) plays at the Opening Night Gala of the Southern City Film Festival

MM: Talk about the fest’s curatorial sensibility. What are your curators coming to understand as the identity of the fest, and how is that understanding of identity playing out in the submissions process for next year’s event?

JW: We didn’t want to limit ourselves to any sort of particular theme. There’s genre film festivals and stuff like that that exclusively deal in horror, or minority filmmakers, or something like that. We did ask filmmakers whether they were black, white, women, Latino, first-time directors, stuff like that. That data was pretty varied, which was cool, but we really try to judge the film on its own merit and not try to look at too much other data. I think our filmmakers appreciated that we didn’t try to play politics. Not that that’s bad, but we just didn’t really let politics into it. We wanted to take the work for the way it was.

MM: There have been increasing calls for a further diversification of voices and backgrounds among filmmakers. Is that something Southern City aims to do—facilitate an environment that responds to those calls? Or is it just a happy accident that the right films came in?

JW: It was a happy accident in that we did get women directors, first-time directors and minority directors. And I don’t think it’s [because of] us. It might look like white guys lead the pack, but I think the cheaper the equipment becomes, as everything becomes more accessible, and the more industry expands well outside the Hollywood zone, more people will flock to filmmaking. Hopefully our line-up looked like a little snapshot of the state of the industry now.

Aiken is typically conservative and our opening night film Happy was about gay visual artist Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman, so in the back of my mind I was like, “Oh goodness, how is the audience going to perceive this? I don’t know…” But it wasn’t even worth thinking about. Everyone loved the film, they loved Leonard, who was in attendance, and people cried, laughed, cheered and clapped afterward.

MM: How would you characterize Southern City’s short-term goals? What would make for a successful run this year?

JW: Short-term, if we can just exceed the bar that we’ve set after the first year, that would be amazing. We had about 40 films, which might be considered low, but they had some big stars in them. One thing we would like to do is bring in more films. One theater in town is very small, with eight screens; they only get the movies that they know are going to make money: Transformers, superhero movies, children’s movies. But it did play most of last year’s Best Picture nominees, so there’s a big market here craving that. People want films that make you think and challenge you and they just aren’t getting it. That’s a niche we’re fulfilling as well.

Film critic Jeffrey Lyons moderates a Filmmakers Roundtable with Southern City founder Justin Wheelon (Right) and Director Chris White (Left) at The University of South Carolina-Aiken. Photograph by A.P. Gouge

MM: What are some of the biggest challenges and concerns that face young filmmakers today, according to the filmmakers you’re working with?

JW: One challenge is a lack of a knowledgeable base of teachers, because just like any sort of economic policy, it takes a while to see the fruit of [education]. Aiken and Augusta haven’t been nurturing these filmmakers before. There’s not this huge pool of talent to pick from. I think the biggest thing is finding qualified instructors. Yet everyone around here is knowledgeable and has very good credentials on multiple film sets. Everyone in the institute knows that Georgia has some of the best tax incentives right now, but [people are starting to value film in South Carolina]. We say, look, if you want to go on a film set tomorrow, take this class. It’s free. You can watch people, learn a little bit, make a little bit of money. We get them acclimated a little bit. That’s how we’re helping people get their first taste of the film business. MM

For more information about Southern City, visit here.

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