Heading into their fifth year, ReadingFilmFEST is a fall festival generating a unique smaller more intimate experience for moviemakers.

As moviemakers themselves, the directors at Reading have an awareness of what attendees truly want and appreciate at a film fest and work hard to make it a meaningful experience. With their very own Made in Reading award category, the film festival plays an important role in not only continuing the arts in a struggling area but also reviving the community of the central Pennsylvania rust-belt city. With events often curated around the films selected, this year’s festival which begins on Halloween night and continues through November 3, is sure to be an exciting experience. MovieMaker spoke with creative director, Tracy Schott, to learn more about plans for this year’s festival.

Sara Romano, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did ReadingFilmFEST get its start?

Tracy Schott (TS): ReadingFilmFEST was created by the Reading Film Office about five years ago. The then film commissioner called me and said, “I want the film office to take over doing the film festival and I want you involved.” I had just completed a documentary film and was submitting it to film festivals and going to them and I was really in film festival world. I thought sure I’m a good person to do this because I’m living this right now. We’ve always kind of put ourself out there as a filmmaker’s film festival. We all live in this area and we do work in this area and we know how hard it is to get in to good film festivals. I’d always said I’ve been to the good, the bad, and the ugly. I kind of knew what I liked in film festivals as a filmmaker—I wanted it to be fun, I wanted to have lots of opportunity to meet people, I wanted it to be affordable, I wanted some educational opportunities and I wanted an audience. I kind of felt like because of my own experiences, I had a chance at what filmmakers wanted and that’s really paid off. We’ve evolved as being recognized by the filmmakers who come as being a really good experience for them and my whole thing was if the filmmakers come, the local audience is going to have a much richer experience than if they weren’t here. I always say if filmmakers aren’t at a film festival, it’s just going to the movies.

MM: How many filmmakers are you expecting to attend the festival this year?

TS: I’m expecting probably 45 filmmakers. And that might not be from 45 films, because some films send their whole cast and we include them in that number but 45-50. I think last year we had 48 and every year it gets better, bigger.

MM: As a smaller film festival, what are some of the benefits to having a more intimate sized fest?

TS: You get a lot of personal attention. And you make friends. If you’re a filmmaker and you come to these, it’s very interesting. I was going through all the pictures we have and the filmmakers are hanging out with each other, getting to know each other, they’re sharing information about their films. And when you’re a small indie, especially if you’re not living in a metropolitan area, it’s really rewarding to hang out with other filmmakers who are doing the same kind of work you are. The networking for filmmakers, I think, is incredible. And I think it’s much easier to actually make that happen in a smaller venue than a big one. I was just at Tribeca last month, and Tribeca is awesome, there’s so much going on. But if you walk into Tribeca and you don’t know anybody, you better put on your networking hat and work really hard to make those connections. You don’t have to work that hard at a smaller festival, we really encourage those connections to happen and it’s just easier and friendlier in a smaller environment.

MM: Speaking of the area, I thought it was interesting that you described ReadingFilmFEST as a part of Reading’s Renaissance. What are some of the difficulties Reading has faced? And why is the city an important location for a film festival?

TS: Reading, Pennsylvania is a very old city. It’s had lots of ups and downs. There was a lot of old money here in the 1800s and early 1900s. What that means is there is amazing architecture in this community. Because when you have money and rich people, they build great mansions and beautiful buildings and monuments to themselves. For filmmakers, who are always thinking about locations, when they drive up to Reading, the first thing I hear is what a cool city. But in the last 20-30 years, Reading has suffered. The economy has changed. There’s a lot of poverty here. There’s also been a change in the population landscape. All of that creates some angst and pain for a small city. At one point in 2011, the city was named the poorest city per capita in the U.S., not a distinction that any city wants to have.

That being said, there are a lot of really good people and organizations in Reading that are working to make the city better, to bring the crime rate down, to bring businesses back to town, to bring people back to work, sleep, play. There’s a lot of arts in this city, and that goes back more than 100 years. There’s a lot of really wonderful culture and that’s never gone away regardless of the economy. For Reading Film Festival, we’re another cog in that wheel. We’re another asset that the community has to offer to people thinking of relocating their business or their families to the area which is what we want people to do.

MM: Do you think you could explain the importance of the Made in Reading film award category?

TS: Because we are a film office presenting the film festival, we want to encourage local filmmakers. We are trying to build on the production community that is here. For the most part, if your film was made here, we’re going to show it here, we’re going to give you an audience and we’re going to give you that opportunity to be a part of this film community. We have an award for the best made in Reading film. They’re always very well attended—the cast and crew are close, mom and dad, and everybody else comes out. We started it thinking, oh this is a good way to get people to come to the festival, and then realizing it’s so much more than that, it really was an important way to support the local film community and help people make connections within that community.

MM: I noticed that Reading also has a new female filmmaker award category this year, how did you choose to include that?

TS: We’re part of a consortium of arts and cultural organizations that are doing a celebration of women in the arts, celebrating the 100th year anniversary of the 19th amendment. I thought let’s celebrate female filmmakers, the time is right and we’re all women who run this festival and I want to do this. We always have female filmmakers represented but this year we’re doing some major outreach. In addition to that, our local AAUW, the American Association of University Women, is supporting this effort and giving us a small grant that’s helping us bring in women—cover their travel stipend to come and speak on a female filmmaker focused panel. I think that’s going to be a really dynamic educational piece for the festival. We’re also going to do a block of films by women.

MM: That’s awesome, especially because you’re a completely female-ran film festival. Are there going to be any other new categories, programs or events this year?

TS: We’re still in planning stages for all of the specifics. Every year something new happens and a lot of it gets dictated by the films that are chosen. In order to help our attendance and make sure that every film has an audience, we collaborate with other organizations. Last year we collaborated with the Reading Symphony Orchestra, who’s youth orchestra performed Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” following a documentary on Samuel Barber. The filmmaker was here, and the Q&A was run by the Director of the Reading Symphony Orchestra. That was a really special event, very well attended and that event came out of making a decision to include that film in the festival. Our films are chosen by a jury. Every film is seen by three jurors and then the highest rated are viewed by myself and the jury director and we put together a program that we think is going to appeal to our local audience. We try to be really fair about it—having multiple people view a film, but then we also have to look at what our audience will like. We do other things as well, we had a block of films on the opioid crisis last year and we brought in representatives from several treatment organizations. We also partnered with Jazz Fest and we brought in a documentary film and speaker, so that became our closing night event and we really like doing that. We like making it celebratory.

MM: For the last few years, you’ve had a special student fest section dedicated to student filmmakers. I was wondering how that got started and why you guys value including student filmmakers at the festival?

TS: Again, it does come back to this idea of growing our local film community. In our county there are five universities and colleges and all of them offer some form of video production or filmmaking. And we all know that media production is a hugely popular and growing job area, so we wanted to encourage local students and give them a venue. We were struggling getting enough submissions locally, so we expanded it and it turned into an international competition. A number of the films that we’ve shown at the student fest, which kind of opens our festival, we do that Thursday night, a number of those we actually replay during the heart of the festival just because they’re so good and topical and fit in with other films.

MM: Opening day of the festival this year falls on Halloween, I was wondering if you have anything special planned for the holiday?

TS: Well, we always end up with a handful of thrillers that come through and we have some jurors that just love thrillers, so I see us doing something on Halloween night. I think we’re going to have to do a late-night group of thrillers and we’ve been bopping around the idea of a little Rocky Horror at midnight for fun. We don’t sleep anyhow for four days so we might as well just go for it. MM

Reading Film Festival runs October 31–November 3, 2019 in Reading, Pennsylvania. For more information, visit their website here.