The Long Island International Film Expo had the honor of being deemed one of the coolest film festivals in the world by our readers last year.

What sets LIIFE apart from the myriad of other film festivals (aside from its really cool name) is its community, says director Debra Markowitz. Now in its 17th year, LIIFE, in conjunction with the Long Island Film/TV Foundation, prides itself on building a familial atmosphere in Nassau County, with filmmakers from all around the world returning every year to reunite with festival staff and attendees. MovieMaker Magazine spoke to Markowitz about the festival’s growth – from a 12-week rush job (eek!) to the 100 film-strong showcase of today.

Ally Sheedy 2013 LIIFE

MovieMaker Magazine (MM): This is the 17th year of LIIFE. Can you talk about how the fest has changed over the course of those 17 years?

Debra Markowitz (DM): Seventeen years ago, the Nassau County Film Commission was approached by the Long Island Film/TV Foundation to begin a little film festival. We were going to attach our name to an existing festival, and basically just support it by having an offshoot in Nassau County. Things changed quickly, and we ended up having to create an entire festival in 12 weeks. We found 45 films and began what became LIIFE. Every year we started getting more films, a great celebrity presence and began adding panels and events. Now, 17 years later we get about 500 films, of which we accept about 150. We now have panels on acting, tax credits, film financing distribution, a filmmakers breakfast panel as well as other parties and occasionally a studio tour.

MM: Our readers named LIIFE one of the coolest film festivals in the world last year! What do you personally look for in a “cool” festival, and what do you think is the coolest thing about LIIFE?

Debra Markowitz headshot

Debra Markowitz

DM: The coolest thing about LIIFE is that it has become not only an event to bring great short and feature-length independent films from around the world to our movie-going public, but that LIIFE has become a film community. We get many alumni who submit year after year, who sometimes come even when they don’t have a film so that they can network, and sometimes work on each other’s projects. We’ve had filmmakers say they made another film, just so they can come back and be a part of LIIFE again.MM: How would you describe the filmmaking community and culture in Long Island today, and how do LIIFE and the Long Island Film/TV Foundation nurture this artistic community?

DM: Nassau County is a popular filming area for film, TV, commercials, video and print. We have in excess of 700 production days a year. The industry is here already, and LIIFE itself focuses on independent films. The Long Island Film/TV Foundation offers some competitive finishing fund grants, holds a few Filmmakers Connection Meetings a year where filmmakers can network with business and industry executives as well as other independent filmmakers.

MM: What films are you most excited about playing this year, and what events would you particularly recommend to visitors?

DM: There are so many great gems at this year’s Long Island International Film Expo. I’m a big fan of the short film blocks, including the closing night film block where we have some stellar short films. The Historian, our official opening night feature has some incredible performances by William Sadler and John Cullum. Cigarette Soup is a film that was shot locally and features some great local talent. There’s so much to like at LIIFE that it’s hard to just pick out a few. The panels are incredible too. The film financing and distribution panel moderated by entertainment attorney Marc Jacobson is very highly attended, and recommended. And it’s free! A new panel that I’m very excited for is Joseph Halsey’s acting panel, “So You Want to be an Actor.” I get asked all the time how to get a start in the industry, and Joe is such a talented actor and has a lot of information for actors no matter where they are in their careers.

MM: The festival has played as many as 155 films in previous years. What is the selection process like? Are there particular things (genres, themes, etc) that programmers look for?

DM: The selection process is brutal for sure. We have to turn away four out of every five films, and it’s difficult when there’s a film you really love, but it’s nixed by another judge. You have to compromise. LIIFE is very different in that we will consider every genre. You get a total film experience at LIIFE, and some people will take the entire week off to watch everything LIIFE has to offer.

MM: What have been some of the most memorable, funny, or exciting moments in LIIFE history for you?

DM: My favorite LIIFE moment was about two years ago when an Italian filmmaker, Giulio Reale, flew in and was very concerned he might not be able to answer the questions in the Q & A. I knew that the movie theater owner knew a little Italian, so as I was going to get her, I hear this full-fledged Italian conversation happening behind me. One of the filmmakers at the bar was from Canada, but had lived in Italy for many years. Alino Giraldi became Giulio’s translator and fast friend for the week. It was such an amazing experience to watch. Another favorite moment is when, almost every year, our filmmaker friend Janice Villarosa, who is originally from the Philippines but now lives in California, walks in the door of the filmmakers lounge and says, “I’m home.” And she is. I also loved when I sat a filmmaker with a film distributor many years ago, and before the evening was over, the filmmaker had a distribution deal. There are so many LIIFE stories, and I always look forward to what is going to happen at each festival – because there are magical moments every year.

LIIFE Exterior

MM: What are the biggest challenges LIIFE faces these days?

DM: The very biggest challenge for LIIFE is the fact that we’ve gotten so large, the amount of work is monumental and the reality is we’re a small team and all of us wear many hats – it has been critical that we stay focused on the big picture, while still maintaining the personal touch, which is what makes our festival special. It’s a balancing act. We received 100 more films than we did last year, and it threw our whole schedule of how we do things off a bit, but now we will be better prepared for 2015. MM

LIIFE runs from July 9 – 17, 2014 at the Bellmore Movies. Get more information about the festival at their official website, here.