La Isla Bonita: Idyllic Martha’s Vineyard Proves a Perfect Backdrop for International Cinema at This Festival

Richard Paradise, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, is no greenhorn when it comes to the film festival business.

Since building the society from the ground up two decades ago, he’s founded not one—not two—but five annual film festivals, the crown jewel of which is Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, coming up on its 12th year.

A boyhood love of classic film spurred Paradise to run a movie series as a college student in Wisconsin, but a long professional detour into magazine publishing prevented him from pursuing a career in film full-time. Later in life, he and his family fell in love with the tiny island of Martha’s Vineyard after only a weeklong vacation.

“My wife and I sort of looked at each other and asked, ‘Well, why not here?’” he says.

It was here, in his own personal paradise, that Paradise was finally able to devote himself to his first passion. Since starting Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival in 2006, he’s added an environmental film festival to his repertoire, as well as Spectrum, an LGBT+ festival that had its successful debut earlier this spring. We caught up with him to chat about the bumps he’s faced along the road, the allure of the Vineyard, and creating the perfect film festival experience.

On His Long Path to Film Festival Success:

“When I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard 20 years ago, I created a summer film series showing classic films, still using 16mm prints because the boardroom style projectors were very expensive at the time. I did that for about three years, then petitioned to get myself a nonprofit status as a film society. I did this, of course, as a volunteer endeavor while I was still working in magazine publishing. Eventually, it evolved into a year-round weekly series.

Slowly, our nonprofit started gaining steam in the community. We started selling membership. In 2006, I decided to hold the first Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival. Once a week was not enough—there are too many great foreign language films. And to this day we still focus on world cinema. Ninety percent of the films we show take place in other countries and have subtitles. The film festival is a way to see other places, people, and cultures without leaving your community.

The biggest obstacle has always been venues. For many years, from 2006 to 2012, finding legitimate venues was always a challenge. We jumped around. We used a community theater, but it was ill-equipped, so I had to bring everything except for the screen. We sort of went around the island utilizing spaces that weren’t necessarily made for movies, but were set up for public gatherings. Some of them were quite large. I remember one time we had 1,000 people show up for a locally made film in an open amphitheater. We tried to use the local downtown movie theater that was only open seasonally to show commercial movies, so getting them to let us show film festival movies was always a challenge, and then it closed. Year to year, I never knew if I would get this venue or that venue.

Audiences fill one of MVIFF’s theatrical venues

Five to six years ago, our organization completely changed when we were able to raise the money and work with a private developer to build the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. It’s state-of-the-art: DCP projections, stadium seating, great lobby, great viewing. We went from showing films once a week to showing them seven nights a week at the film center. We’ve also in the past few years become operators of two historic movie theaters that are totally renovated. So we actually run three theaters as a nonprofit film society in addition to doing several film festivals.

In a nutshell, we’ve gone from this little volunteer nonprofit with an annual budget of $80,000 to having a budget of over $1 mil. this year for running these theaters. Of course, five to six years ago, I was able to give up my publishing career—which I was happy to do—and do this full time as the executive director of the film society.”

On the Appeal of the Vineyard:

“We’re not the only ones who have come to the Vineyard and fallen in love with the ambience, the natural beauty, the water, the community. What I’ve found to be true is that the people who work here at the Vineyard are serious people. They’ve traveled around the world, but they’ve found that Martha’s Vineyard is the place they want to be. Maybe it’s only a couple of weeks they can be here, but it’s a special place. Culturally speaking, the people here are very curious. They’re also very financially supportive of the arts. There are several cultural art organizations on the island that are supported by donors, and it’s because this island is so supportive of the arts that our film center has succeeded.”

On His Ideal Audience:

“I want to attract people who love world cinema, people who are open to explore films from other countries and cultures. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want to read my movie,’ meaning they don’t want to watch a movie with subtitles. But what I always tell people is that if you’re not open to watch a foreign language picture, you’re missing out on 90 percent of the movies produced in a given year. You’re missing out on some fabulous cinema if you’re only sticking to English-language films.”

On Curating the “Film-Plus” Experience:

“I work with a whole host of small boutique distributors and sales agents to provide what we hope are cinematic gems from around the world. Some of these films do go on to get nominated for an Oscar in the foreign language category. These are film festival winners. These are films that have been shown in 15 to 20 different film festivals internationally, and they’ve won awards. I go to Sundance, Tribeca and a Latin American film festival each year in Colombia to find films that I think our local audiences will absolutely love.

My main concern is to provide the best possible world cinema experience for our audiences. If we can help expose them to new artists, filmmakers from other countries, and if those filmmakers can join us here, even better. I’d say we’re an audience-centric festival.

We try our best to provide a film-plus experience. We utilize local resources when we can. If we had a film related to death and dying, we’d reach out to our local hospice, and invite someone to come and talk after that film. If we had a film dealing with the environment, we’d reach out to local conservation societies, and get spokespeople to talk about that film. On [May 18], for example, we showed [What the Health], and we teamed up with a local café that’s vegan and a proponent of clean health. We did dinner and a movie with them, and they were there to talk after the film. We try to add some extra element to every showing.”

Paradise with Sharon Stone, recipient of the 2016 Martha’s Vineyard Film Society’s Global Citizen Award

On Alternatives to Festival Workshops and Panels:

“During the festivals, we’ll often have a filmmaker lunch. Sometimes we can bring in industry people—directors, actors—on vacation at the Vineyard to be involved in something casual. We’re having lunch in a beautiful home on the ocean, say, and we might get three or four industry people. Last year, we had lunch at a house overlooking the Gay Head Cliffs. We had four documentarians, including Morgan Neville, who won an Academy Award two years ago for 20 Feet from Stardom. We had some other people who fund documentaries. And it was just this casual picnic lunch. We do stuff like that, but it’s not a formal workshop where we’re trying to get people to come to sit in a class.”

On What He Wants the Society to be Known For:

“I think as a body of work—with the film society, festivals, film center and historic movie theaters—we want to be known as the organization that provides the cinema experience for people visiting and living in Martha’s Vineyard. Over the last five to 10 years, it’s been amazing, the outpouring of goodwill that’s come our way from people who have attended our festival or attended our screenings or listened to a speaker or gone to a youth program. We just did our first LGBTQ festival at the end of April; that was a big success. We brought in a whole new community of viewers and interested people.

We consider ourselves blessed that we are well-loved and respected and appreciated. This is what I hear all the time: we provide a fabric of the cultural life at the Vineyard, and if we weren’t here, we would be greatly missed. That gives me the most satisfaction. It’s not about how many people show up at a festival on a given night or even how many members we have, though that is a reflection of it. But to hear people say that their cultural life would be less without our organization, that is what’s most satisfying to me.” MM

Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival runs September 5-10, 2017. For more information, visit its website.

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