True Life: I Started a Film Festival

By: Brent Lambert-Zaffino (Etowah Film Festival co-founder)

I always assumed I was too introverted, focused on my own films, and skeptical of the film festival industry in general to try and put one on myself. When I was approached by Laine Wood from Canton Tourism about creating a film festival after screening my first feature, The Head, at the local Canton Theatre, I hesitated. The Canton Theatre had everything you’d need for a great film festival, but did I even know what a great film festival looked like?

Fourteen months later, The Etowah Film Festival has just wrapped up its inaugural year and I find myself more optimistic about the film festivals than ever before (and also very tired). My experience has changed the way I think about audiences, not only for next year’s festival, but for every film I make and market as well. Audiences will turn off Netflix to see our weird, star-less, non-extended-universe films, but we have to give them an experience

Relinquished Control

We control everything we watch down to the second. If something doesn’t grab us in three minutes, or if something distracts us from the screen (like another screen), we’re out of the experience. Going to a film festival, especially a small one, shatters those tendencies. We’re sitting in a dark room with strangers for hours at a time with someone curating what we watch, and we barely know anything about the movies! No RT scores, no Twitter spoilers, nothing. 

Being a festival in a semi-rural area, our audience wasn’t full of people hip to arthouse weirdness or documentary dryness or rough-around-the-edges indie aesthetics. I could feel the energy go a little sour when a film would start with lingering stillness or foreign foreign-ness, but the audience stuck with the films because they had to, allowing the films to earn their moments of beauty or devastation or hilarity. We heard over and over again, “I never would have watched this, but I loved it.”

There is something special about sharing a filmgoing experience in a theatre with strangers. The energy of the room changes the perception of the film in a way that resonates with everyone from the film evangelicals to the movie agnostics. We just have to get them in the theatre. How do we do that?

Context Maximizing Content

It sucks that The Rock isn’t in all of our movies, not because he’s a charisma machine whose eyebrows should have Oscars (he is, they should), but because audiences have a context for him. When we see The Rock in a movie, we know him well enough to be comfortable in his screen presence and we can watch his performance in the context of his career. Hobbs & Shaw isn’t out yet, but you and I have 80 thoughts about it. Audiences don’t have the same built-in context for local indie films premiering down the street, we have to provide the context for them. 

The hands-down best moments for our festival happened before and after screenings. Two documentaries, one about a Gambian immigrant inspiring local change through art and journalism and the other about an ex-gang member who has dedicated his life to saving pitbulls from kill shelters, yielded an amazing Q&A where both filmmakers and their subjects shared the stage to discuss everything from filmmaking struggles to how a man can better his life and his community at the same time. It was electric because it was a completely unique experience. 

Every transcendent moment came from context maximizing content. When filmmakers took the audience behind-the-scenes or we programmed films in thought-provoking ways or we were able to show that a film was more than just its surface entertainment value, the audience left satisfied. They didn’t have to love every film to appreciate the experience. 

Our Movies Are More Than Our Movies

In Year One of the Etowah Film Festival, I saw enough to make me think that we should all be considering our movies as experiences rather than standalone art pieces. Audiences might not come out for your Cassavetes-throwback chamber drama alone, but they might buy a ticket if it’s followed by your DP demonstrating how you shot it on film. 

I’m not saying anything new or revolutionary here, but too many festivals take the easy route: Get a venue, cram in as many local films as possible, give an audience award so filmmakers invite their friends, charge their friends, repeat. Moreover, too many filmmakers think that success/failure at these festivals defines their films. I was one of those filmmakers, but I’m not anymore. 

The Etowah Film Festival is coming back next year, and will ideally hue closer to the every-screening-is-an-experience mentality. I plan on treating my next film the same way. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the theatre experience to gain an audience, we just might have to rethink the theatre experience to do it. 

2 thoughts on “True Life: I Started a Film Festival

  1. Etowah was spectacular, Brent. We are so honored that y’all selected Mercy’s Kennel to be a part of your inaugural festival. The film blocks you programmed were tremendous, and that Q&A with Zak and Ebrima (and Carmen!) was very special. Thank you so much for including us!

  2. This is so beautifully worded. You are not only a talented film-maker, but a gifted orator and linguist. Keep up this great work.

    And take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Your hard work and efforts touched a lot of people’s lives.

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