With plans to celebrate its eighth birthday April 3-10, 2008, the organizers of the Phoenix Film Festival must be proud of their young fest. In the eight short years since the event began, it has become the largest film festival in Arizona, a state with a burgeoning cinema scene. “We’re estimating about 25,000 attendees over eight days and we’ll show over 120 films—features, shorts, animation, international, documentary, student and family films,” says executive director and co-founder Chris LaMont.
In the midst of blowing up balloons and finalizing party favors for the upcoming bash in Phoenix, LaMont took some time to answer a few of MovieMaker’s questions, emphasizing the festival’s independent community and quoting Francis Ford Coppola to boot.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): In its short lifespan, your festival has grown pretty significantly. From my understanding, it is now the largest-attended festival in Phoenix. To what factors can you attribute this?
Chris LaMont (CL): The festival has grown because of the sense of community we create. Instead of venues all over the city, we take over seven screens at one of the biggest multiplexes in Phoenix. Next to the theater we put up a 10,000 square foot party tent where we stage our seminars, sponsor booths and throw late night parties with live bands for opening weekend.
Everyone is talking about movies. Audience and filmmakers mingling together day and night—for us it’s the center of the movie universe for one special weekend. Word has spread about how we run our festival and we get a lot of feedback and recommendations from filmmakers, who say we are one of the best they have ever been to.
MM: Your festival really seems to place quite a strong emphasis on young moviemakers. This is apparent in your educational programs that take place throughout the festival, as well as the younger moviemaker categories like Best Grade School/High School Short Film. Why is this so important to the organizers of the festival?
CL: The festival was started by filmmakers. With the new cameras and computers that allow anyone to make a movie, you need a place to show your movies. The young filmmakers of today are the writers and directors of tomorrow. The opportunity to show a film to an audience is the whole reason that someone makes a movie. They have something to say. We are trying to create a place where a student can make a movie and have it shown. Francis Ford Coppola once said that the next great film will be made by a twelve-year-old girl in Iowa. We want to find her and give her a chance to show her movie at our festival.
MM: A few categories that have been around since year one are the Arizona-based awards (Arizona Filmmaker of the Year, Best Arizona Short Film). How important are these to the festival? What kind of response do these categories get from local moviemakers?
CL: Part of the challenge of creating a successful festival in Arizona is educating and exciting the public. When you think of independent film, Arizona isn’t the first state that jumps in your head. Arizona State University just started a film production degree program and the state started tax incentives for filmmakers just two short years ago. For a long time now, the Phoenix Film Festival has been leading the charge for local filmmakers to make movies. The response has been amazing and the quality of the films has grown dramatically over the last few years. We started a filmmaker group, which became IFP-Phoenix (the first new chapter of the Independent Feature Project in seven years). It’s important to build a strong local industry. We’ve got great weather and it’s a lot less expensive to film here than in Los Angeles. We feel that the more movies we make here, the more the industry will see us as a place to make films. What’s happening here is what happened in Seattle and Austin.
MM: Perusing the lists of past winners, it seems that the festival has tried to remain faithful to the truly independent moviemaker instead of beginning to cater to studio fare like many other festivals tend to do after experiencing growth. How and why do this? Has this been a specific goal of the festival?
CL: The only films that get into our competition are the ones that are submitted to us through our regular festival submission process. The bigger films are invitations that come to us through the studios and those films are placed as “Showcase Premieres.” So we’ll show them, but they aren’t eligible for our competition awards. Frankly, the films that need the awards are the smaller films in competition. Why give another award to the latest actor vanity project when they have distribution anyway? This festival is about giving independent filmmakers a chance to find an audience and that’s been our mission from day one. It’s great that the film community is recognizing what we do out here and the quality of films that we get continue to improve.
MM: What are some events taking place at the upcoming festival that you are looking forward to?
CL: Saturday night is my favorite time of the festival. We top out on Saturday night when every theater is sold out. You walk through the theater knowing that there are over a thousand people watching movies they’ve never seen before and filmmakers enjoying the fruits of their labors; it’s the best.
I always love watching the seminars, seeing the student filmmakers at their screenings and the parties. I can’t forget the parties. We go all out.
MM: With the festival on its way to hitting the ten-year milestone, what do you think the future holds for Phoenix Film Festival?
CL: We’re not satisfied. We want more. More screens, more films, more attendees. We’ve been successful because everyone involved—filmmakers, audience, community and corporate partners—all believe that film is the art and culture of the 21st century. Our festival is the best at what we do and the professional execution is one of the best film festivals in the country. And the bigger we grow, the more people that benefit from what we do. That’s what it’s all about.
For more information, visit www.phoenixfilmfestival.org.