From the Ground Up: A Reel Look at Creating an Indie Film Festival: Part 2 – By P.J. Starks

"My name is Wid Winner and I believe in unreasonable things."

What does that even mean you might be asking yourself; obviously I’ll get to that soon enough. When putting together an event such as a film festival there are an insane amount of tasks that need to be done. Phone calls that need to be made. Emails that need to be sent. Constant work that needs to be done to ensure that whatever you’re putting on, will happen exactly as you envision it. This is part two of my insight into putting on an independent film festival.

Filling the gap… At this point in the process we had our venue; which after we worked out the track lighting, we realized how insanely awesome the space would look when finished. We had half of the film selections locked in. We also had a charity attached. After looking the space over we all got together to discuss what needed to be done in the event space. Who or what would take up all the emptiness? That’s when we decided on giving the space away to vendors as well as local filmmakers and production companies. Let’s face it, indie artists have the most difficult time not only finding opportunities for showcasing their work; but also getting the chance to promote what they do. That is something we wanted to offer. A free chance to say ”Hey world! Here I am and here’s the shit I do! Represent!” Did I mention it was free? Indie means “by cheap means” or “flat broke”, so anytime something comes along with no dollar signs attached we snatch it up like a fat kid in Twinkie town. I began to research groups, organizations, artists and companies that all have Kentucky or regional ties. That was the easy part. Email is your best friend. Use it like it’s going out of style. Whether you plan to make them pay or you’re giving away the venue, make sure that you have something cool to say. Effectively sporting what you have is the best way to get people to latch hold.

Create a working team… If you’re reading this you’re just one person. You cannot do everything yourself. The only way to create anything successfully, whether it be a film or event, you need a passionate group of likeminded people standing beside you. My wife, Trina, signed on as Events Floor Coordinator and Rodney was Screening Room Coordinator as well as helped with various other things as they came along. Trina was absolutely amazing through this process. She literally dealt with all the organizations and vendors as they came along over the course of the planning stage. She was truly a godsend. The most important thing to remember, which sometimes can also be the hardest, is to treat everyone like a friend and not an associate. Unless you’re doing this to make cash then you’re doing this for fun. So unless you can pay people to bark orders at them, no one will stick around for long if you do. Remember that everyone who’s volunteering their time is doing so because they want to help you, not because they want a boss. Everyone involved has something at stake; whether it be reputation, their ability to care or just donating you their time. That means give those onboard the time they need to achieve their assigned tasks. Deadlines are essential, but can also be fluid. They won’t shit on your parade if you don’t shit on theirs.

Sponsors and donors are key… No matter what you do there will be amenities, supplies, promo items, decorations and the list goes on and on. There will be things that you need that you can’t pay for yourselves. We knew that we needed things the Mall couldn’t provide; like easels, banners, posters, cool stuff to fill in boring spots on the events floor. We began looking at local businesses, individuals and organizations and hit them up to see if there was something they could do help out our cause. We never directly asked for money. This was not a profit making venture and asking for money only turns people off. For example we knew that we needed banners. Brian Bolin and my brother Ross Gilles put together an amazing full color banner that I never thought would get printed. There are costs associated with EVERYTHING! Even items that are donated. So on a whim I approached a local organization called Signs By Gina. I pitched them our event as well as our mission within the community. I spoke directly to Gina, who I found to be an insanely cool and generous individual. She loved the idea and the concept and agreed to not only donate one banner, but three 3 foot by 8 foot banners. Of course they weren’t entirely free. There was some quid pro quo; nevertheless, we worked out an agreement that was mutually beneficial. However, I cannot thank them enough nor any of the other businesses that helped us out. Lesson here is if you can come up with an idea for something you need, all you have to do is ask. Not everyone will say yes, but if you’re persistent enough or keep searching you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Use your connections and don’t be afraid to ask favors… Early on I knew that I wanted to get a couple big screen plasma’s to show hour long loops that would play the entirety of the festival. Who do I call? How did I make this happen? You won’t know what someone will be willing to do to help unless you ask them. I have a longtime friend who works for Aarons. So I simply called him up and gave him the rundown of what I wanted to accomplish with the televisions. He in turn pitched the idea to his boss. Before long he put me in touch with someone who could make things happen. I not only secured Aarons as an official contributor for the festival, but also had 2 60 inch TV’s for the events floor. The moral here is: you never know till you try. If you have an idea and it falls flat on its face, keep trying till you accomplish your goal or till you have no more options. It’s okay to fall short, but it’s never okay to give up.

Know your limits… This has become a personal motto. Something that I tell everyone when discussing their pursuits into indie filmmaking. If you have a micro-budget, or like us no budget, there’s no use in overstepping your bounds. We’ve learned in the past that there’s no sense in starting a phase of the project if ultimately you cannot afford to see it to completion. When going into The River City Festival of Films we wanted to keep it small. Keep it grounded. Just show local and regional films, giving the filmmakers a viable venue to screen their projects as well as create a chance for the public to learn more about these local artists; see their films and meet them face to face. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. However… I can be a dreamer! At one point my wife was in contact with a local horror author and was actively trying to secure him a table. This opened up a realm of possibilities. Obviously we were a film fest, but now we had a chance for those in attendance to see another side of artistry in Owensboro. A local author. So why not look at other areas as well? Films aren’t just visual; there are so many facets in the final product. There’s writing, acting, the production side, post-production side which also includes music. When we had the DVD release party for HALLOWS EVE, we held a live concert that showcased six local bands from the films soundtrack. Being a dreamer and always wanting to add more to a project, I pitched the possibility of us having a local artist hold a live concert the final hour of the festival. Trina’s first thought, “can’t you just keep things simple?” We had almost an entire meeting dedicated to making this work. Rodney would make the necessary phone calls to find a business to donate the equipment needed to pull this off. Assuming we could find one (and we did thanks to Gordy Wilcher at Owensboro Music Center) and the artist I wanted said yes, we’d have a new element we could promote. Game on!

Promote, promote, promote… This part of any project always becomes the most nerve racking and time consuming. After working tirelessly to push my projects, I’ve learned some of the ins and outs with promoting. The internet will be your best friend. Getting locals to actually leave their homes and help support your cause is always the most difficult task. That’s why it’s always important to make connections with local media; such as newspapers, TV stations and radio. Let’s face it, if no one shows up then what’s the point of holding an event. Especially one like our festival, that’s ultimately a charity event. I did not want to hand the charity a $45 check. I wanted to make this whole thing worth everyone’s time and expectations. Sacrifices will have to be made. You might as well come to terms with that right now.

Expect the unexpected… In the process of making phone calls and sending out emails, I was fortunate enough to come across some individuals who were willing to take the time to push our festival. These individuals were from outside our area. Obviously this was a pleasant find. An example of an amazing opportunity that fell into our laps was, one day I came home and found an email from an organization called Promofest. This group was out of Spain and somehow heard about what we were planning (this is why promotion is so important). They look for international venues for their films. We never discussed having any short foreign fare in the festival. Mainly because we didn’t know of any. I contacted the group back and before long they were sending us nine Spanish short films. This was an incredible opportunity for us. It’s not every day you have the chance to screen international works and very high quality, award winning ones at that. It just goes to show you that you never know what sorts of doors will open when you put yourself out there.

Expect something to disappoint you, something WILL fall through… After nine months of stressing, promoting, conceiving, and planning; it’s only a matter of time before something falls apart. If it hasn’t already. We were lucky, because things didn’t go south until late in the game. Literally a week before the event was taking place our largest vendor The Talent and Crew Network had to cancel. While I completely understood the reasons, I was still sweating bullets. They not only covered the talent agency angle, but also professional photography and modeling as well. Trina had already gone into the space and mapped out where everyone would be placed. The Talent and Crew Network were right up front and held the largest spot. After some deliberation and moving vendors around we got things worked out. However, we still had an open space. Luckily one of the filmmakers I had been in contact with knew of an organization that worked with children on video production projects. The Appalachian Media Institute came into the fold, literally, at the eleventh hour and filled that spot. It was a group that I had never heard of before, but had a great program and fit into our event perfectly.

Hope for the best, anticipate the worst… The last week is always the most stressful. Things will literally keep you on your feet every moment. The day before our festival was to take place, I still hadn’t heard back the business that was making our volunteer t-shirts. Our musical performer that was ending the night had a sudden family emergency and was probably going to have to cancel. I still hadn’t heard back from the delivery guys to make sure that the 60 inch TV’s were going to be delivered. I was an emotional wreck. I was crapping stress! Nevertheless, by the end of the day most everything had worked itself out. This isn’t always the case, but ultimately there’s no reason to freak over elements that you cannot control. You will at first, but after a calming period you’ll realize that there are more important things that need your attention.

The festival went off without any major problems. The worst situation we dealt with was one of the Spanish films didn’t have subtitles. There were about fifteen people in there to see it and they sat the whole twenty minutes without leaving. I can only assume that maybe someone translated for them. When it ended they all left without complaining. Somehow we averted anyone throwing a fit. It was nice. All in all I cannot think of anything we could’ve done differently to make it more successful. It wasn’t jam packed wall to wall with people all day, but we had a decent turn out and were able to give the charity more money than we thought. We had some sellout screenings, the filmmakers all networked with one another and everyone had a blast. Nathan Morris played his live concert and the event ended just as it had begun. Alex O. Gaynor, the writer and director of WID WINNER & THE SLIPSTREAM, and I spoke after the screening of his film at length. He told me that he had been looking for a venue in his home state where his friends and family could see his film. He told me that our event couldn’t have come at a better time and gave him exactly what he was looking for. Between that and the networking, I couldn’t have been more satisfied. Much like the character Wid Winner, artists believe that boundaries need to be pushed to create. Whether it’s the creation of a cake, or a novel, or even a film. This festival was no more different and came with its own sets of challenges and rewards. The journey of creating this event was about as unreasonable as it comes. My name is P.J. Starks and I believe in unreasonable things.