From the Ground Up: A Reel Look at Creating an Indie Film Festival – By P.J. Starks

When Duane asked me to write an article for Rogue Cinema, I was both surprised and humbled. This site and its creator have been a huge support factor ever since I began my trip, with so many others, down the road of indie filmmaking. I suppose a small introduction is in order. I’m an independent filmmaker from Owensboro, Kentucky. In 2008 I, along with my good friend and Producer Rodney Newton, wrote and directed my first feature HALLOWS EVE: SLAUGHTER ON SECOND STREET. Since then I’ve networked with a myriad of other filmmakers from the region, helping them with their projects by taking on various roles. I’ve also helped some Hollywood alum with their projects, filling in as Producer and Director of Photography. Right now I’m pushing my most recent award winning short A MIND BESIDE ITSELF through the festival circuit. Nevertheless, I didn’t start this article to promote my past and current films. I’m here to give you the brutal details on putting together an indie film festival. And this is its story…

Some back story… Myself, my wife Katrina (my in-house Production Manager and Executive Producer) and cohort Rodney Newton attempted to put together a film festival before. However, it was not to be realized. Our original plans were stripped away when we became involved with some individuals who had plans of their own. We respectfully left the project to those who felt they could run the show more efficiently and consequently it went belly up. Though our original vision was dead in the water, our plans to create a tangible venue for local and regional indie filmmakers were very alive.

What happened next… Rodney and I had many talks about screening our first film HALLOWS EVE as some sort of charity benefit. We’re very community oriented and our projects/ventures reflect this. It’s never about the money. Let’s face it. If we wanted money we’d move to Cali, but we have lives here. Uprooting is not in the cards. We wanted to make something that would be fun and at the same time give back to the community. My most recent film was making its way through the festival circuit and got accepted into a festival in rural Kentucky. My first thought was, ‘cool!’ My second thought was, ‘while it’s great that a smaller town has their own festival, why doesn’t Owensboro have the same. It deserves the same!’

Inspirado… While I was deep in thought during one of my many “auto pilot” moments, at my fun blue collar worker job, I had a spark of inspiration. What good would it do showing a single movie?! How much could we possibly make?! Chump change. Definitely nothing to write home about. So I mapped out a very, VERY rough idea on some toilet paper for turning our single screening into an entire day’s worth of indie film glory. I took the idea to Rodney and he thought it was something we should pursue and seeing as how he had spearheaded the first attempt, he thought I ought to take a crack at it. An entire festival! Obviously it’s an undertaking, not a task to be taken lightly. You need movies! You need atmosphere! You need press! You need baby aspirin to stop the onset of an aneurism! A lot would need to be done before we released this onto the world.

Planning makes perfect, stress… We knew right off the bat that it was going to double as a charity event. Even a trip to the store to buy groceries takes strategy anymore, so while you can jump head first into something like this, baby steps tend to be the best method. We needed to find the two most important aspects, a charity and more importantly a venue. Without a venue you have nothing.

Utilize your contacts… Over the past several years I’ve socialized, befriended and worked with some of the most talented people I’ve ever known. If there’s one thing I can say about indie filmmakers, it’s like meeting family that you never knew you had. It’s very welcoming and most everyone wants to pitch in. I say most because occasionally you run into some prick that only wants to do one thing and if they don’t get it then everything else is beneath them. When promoting your project you always want to have something to show. Artwork or logo’s, no matter how rough, is usually the key to success. If you can put what you’re pushing into their hands then most people will grab hold. Even if the logo is on parchment and no real foundation, they want to at least see some effort being put forth. I immediately got with Brian Bolin, one of the most talented graphic designers I know, he can literally take nothing and make it something. He takes the crap I send his way and makes it into gold. I asked for his help to create a logo for the festival based off a crude concept I came up with on the fly. In mere days he had the logo back to me, polished and ready to be thrown into the spotlight.

Collaborate with people you love, not just people you trust… No project would be successful without a multitude of heads working together to make it something special. While it works best if there’s one captain, everyone needs a say so in how the event is pulled off. Collaboration is the key and I’ve been lucky to work on this project with two of the most important people in my life, Katrina and Rodney. While I’ve been spearheading the festival and taking on the meetings, this would not be possible without their help, insight and constant support.

If you can, get ahead of the game… What we have experienced over the past four years coupled with the opportunities we’ve been blessed with has been incredible. I’m not a very religious man and while I don’t use the word “blessed” ever, there’s honestly no other word that comes to mind when I think about all the good fortune we’ve had. All this networking paid off in that we already had a treasure trove of short films to choose from to get us started on the path to having a festival. These films ranged from local fare to films from some of the industry friends we’ve been so lucky to make along the way. At this point we had a sleek logo, all the details laid out and now we had a majority of the films in place. Not a bad way to start a project that was written on toilet paper.

A chance email… When you do something news worthy and become recognized for your efforts, interested parties and like-minded peers come out of the wood work. Out of the blue I was contacted by someone who wanted my help in fleshing out a concept they had for a reality show. The first meeting went spectacular. They had a great idea and their enthusiasm was through the roof. Said individual also happened to be a big wig with a local hotel chain. We met at a location that was newer and I instantly fell in love. The gears started turning. Rule number one; never let an opportunity walk out the door. When our meeting ended he was very grateful that I had just given up my time, that’s the greatest gesture anyone can give. He made the blanket statement that should we ever need the use of any of their properties he’d see what he could do to make it happen. It was the next day that I was setting up a meeting about the festival. It would happen at the hotel. I just knew it would. The location had flare and a cool factor that I’ve never experienced before. Soon we met and I laid everything out for him. The meeting couldn’t have gone any better. I sold the farm and things went so positive that I felt like I had won the lottery. We had a location for the festival.

Don’t get ahead of yourself… So I open my email one day and find out that we’re back to square one. Unfortunately the Head Manager of the hotel felt that some of the film selections weren’t “family friendly” enough and they were also worried about high traffic in their location. I never tried to sell the festival as family friendly. Some of the films aren’t for kids, but there’s no explicit sex or violence in any of our choices. However, I did understand this fear. The traffic issue left me discombobulated! How can you worry about too much traffic in a hotel? I used to work at a hotel and management dreamed about high traffic flow, but now it was an issue. Your guess is as good as mine. Ultimately we had to move onto looking for another space. Not to mention we were putting on a charity event with no charity attached.

It’s all about who you know… Around this time Rodney began dating an old friend from school, which means she got the chance to come to some of our festival meetings. We racked our brains trying to think of a charity organizations that would bring people out their homes to give to a good cause. Originally it was Make A Wish Foundation and then March of Dimes as their mission hits close to home for Katrina and myself. It felt like a perfect fit. Getting their attention was another story. Sometimes groups won’t even jump at the chance even when you’re telling them they’re going to get money for doing nothing. Amidst the red tape I had to part in order to secure MOD, Katrina and Rodney started thinking local. Since we’re community oriented it only made sense that the proceeds needed to be given back to Owensboro, that’s where Rodney’s new girlfriend came into play. She was involved with a local group called New Beginnings; they help men, women and children who’ve been sexually victimized. They’ve been in Owensboro for some time and have a fantastic cause. It wasn’t long before I was on the phone with their organizer thanking her for accepting our invitation to be part of the film festival. One major issue down, one to go. Rodney’s girlfriend also threw out one of the best ideas as far as a possible venue. Our local mall. After a few phone calls and a meeting, we not only sold the mall on our plan, but they even offered up their largest space available. We now had half the films, a venue and a charity to give the proceeds to. We had a film festival!

What’s next? And what will go horribly wrong… Now that we had all the major elements in place, figuring out the rest of the film slate would be the next biggest hurdle. There were also many unanswered questions. Who or what do we fill the rest of the space with? Where do we start on promotions? How do we find more films? Will anyone donate services or help to our cause? What the hell do we do for a finale? After I calmed my nerves and vomited, I took a deep breath and picked up my cell phone. It was time to find out the answers to those questions.

Check back here next month for PART TWO of this article.