Mill Valley Film Festival Marks Three Decades of CInema


For the last 30 years Mill Valley, California has welcomed moviemakers and audiences with open arms to its annual 11-day film festival. The long-running and well-loved event sells more than 40,000 tickets and attracts more than 200 international moviemakers each year. Hosted by the California Film Institute, the Mill Valley Film Festival focuses on featuring films that have yet to secure U.S. distribution. Its program has a little something for everyone, from the Children’s FilmFest to a daily shorts program called “5@5.”

Before this year’s event, which will be held this year from October 2nd – 12th, MovieMaker got the inside scoop on what to expect from festival founder and director Mark Fishkin.

Jessica Wall (MM): MVFF is a self-proclaimed “filmmakers festival.” In your mind what aspect of the festival contributes most to that idea?

Mark Fishkin (MF): The first look for any filmmaker is an incredibly important moment in the life of their film—the presentation must be excellent. For example, we have devoted immense resources to ensure that the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, one of our two main festival venues, is the ideal environment for film. 

As part of our long-term strategy, we have recently facilitated the purchase of the Sequoia Twin theaters in Mill Valley, our original venue for the MVFF. We will not be the operator at this time; however, our long-term vision is is to provide similar standard of excellence at the Sequoia as we do at the Rafael. 

Our commitment to the filmmaker goes beyond the physical and economic to something much more personal. Program director Zoe Elton and (as well as the other programmers) encourage conversation with filmmakers before the festival; we ask what do they perceive will be the outcome from their involvement with the festival? We encourage candid conversation regarding the possibilities during and after our festival or the festival cycle. 

The symbiotic relationship between the FIlm Center and the Mill Valley Film Festival is also unique: For some festival films, their future might include theatrical distribution at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael FIlm Center. As one of our yearly goals, we target a specific number of MVFF alumni to have a theatrical run at our venue.

MM: What are the three key elements that you look for in a film when choosing which submissions to screen?

MF: First, excellent production value appropriate to budget. If there are actors who have speaking roles, those performances need to be believable. Second, the film must resonate truth. Third, an original voice. As an aside, I would suggest to first-time directors, if you can’t afford good actors, it’s best not to include speaking parts! I’ve seen many well-crafted films that are executed beautifully without uttering a single word. Take a look at Carroll Ballard’s early shorts for an excellent example. 

MM: The 2007 festival featured all kinds of interesting events from movie labs to live music. Which of this year’s planned events are you particularly excited about?

MF: You’re absolutely right, there are so many interesting categories. Last year, a big highlight was our “Dylan Interpreted” music program, which was in association with Todd Haynes’ film I’m Not There. That’s not the first time that we have combined a film with a music event; it creates a beautiful interlude. We have a long history of combining films with music events; our tribute to Hal Willner, music producer for “Saturday Night Live,” Bill Graham, GE Smith and others. This year, I can’t talk specifics at this point, but look for somewhere between two to three top-notch music events associated with a film. 

I can tell you that we are proud to be able to able to screen Mike Leigh’s new film Happy Go Lucky and to present our Spotlight Award to its female lead, Sally Hawkins. In the trades, she is already touted to be on the short list for Oscar consideration. We are also introducing a new program this year called “Insight;” this will involve a format similar to a master class. We are delighted to welcome back director Joe Wright to kick off this new program; he has been here with both of his previous films, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement.

MM: This year is the seventh time MVFF has featured a Young Critics Jury ( a group of seven girls and boys chosen from a summer crash course who are responsible for judging youth-produced films at the festival). How does this younger peer jury fit in with the overall feel of the event? How important are young moviemakers and critics to the festival?

MF: Not only have programs for youth been part of the festival for seven years, programs for our youngest audience have been around since its inception. It’s no accident that CFI Education is one of the primary components of the California Film Institute, along with the Smith Rafael Film Center and the Mill Valley FIlm Festival. As education has a symbiotic relationship with CFI, so do the young jury members and moviemakers with the Mill Valley FIlm Festival. This year, we are hosting a special private event to promote education and the young adults who are involved in CFI. This event will be attended by the students, their teachers, visiting filmmakers, donors and board members. 

The effects we have on young minds is integral to our organization. When you talk about cultivating relationships, one of our former participants of “My Place,” a digital storytelling workshop in which young people create short film about the places they live, was recently accepted to the Telluride Film Festival. In many respects, we have had a tremendous effect on this special kid, who incidentally was also a participant in the Young Critics’ Jury. Who knows, maybe his first feature film will make its debut at the Mill Valley FIlm Festival!

MM: This October will mark Mill Valley’s 31st birthday. In what ways has it evolved since it first began? As director (and founder) of the long-running festival, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned over the years?

MF: The heart of the Mill Valley Film Festival has always been the celebration of the art of film, and remains so to this day. It comes down to the mission: To celebrate film as art and education. 

For more information, visit http://www.mvff.com.

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