A family reunion for Dayton filmmakers and the regional audience
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
From Dayton/For Dayton is the theme for this year’s FilmDayton Festival, but you could just as easily think of it as FilmDayton’s family reunion. The focus of this event is the film community; the film family born and raised in the region. The FilmDayton mission is to “cultivate, support, and connect our film community to opportunities in the film industry,” with an eye towards drawing more film project to the area, all the while building and sustaining work for our filmmakers.”
That sounds like a standard economic development mantra, but in the context of FilmDayton and its members, what that mission truly speaks to is a desire to create a deeply rooted network; the kind that may send filmmakers out into the world at-large, but where those who left are never truly gone because the doors and arms at home are always open.
Executive Director Eva Buttacavoli graciously broke bread with me at Butter Cafe (in keeping with the theme of family and good nourishment) and discussed the festival and the organization’s direction for this year and the future. As a first year executive director, Buttacavoli brings a combination of eager camaraderie and support married with the steely planning of a consigliere whose eyes are always on the larger prize. It seems she may be just what FilmDayton needs to move forward.
FilmDayton and its festival are entering their third year, a crucial time, and Buttacavoli is well aware of the stakes.
“This organization was built around celebrating the filmmakers and that first festival was developed to show off, ‘look there are films being made in Dayton, there are things that are connected to Dayton.’ Year two was, ‘there’s enough happening here to sustain another festival and continue some of the stories.’ We’re still in those teenage growing stages, trying to figure out exactly who are we and who do we want to be, because since that festival through now, we’ve strategized and nailed down some things that I really feel strongly about in my history as a person promoting the arts in general, that I think fit Dayton right now. I think it’s kind of a perfect storm for us. The Wright State [film] program continues to generate notoriety and produce great students. In the past year I’ve been able to contact all these past students living in LA, Chicago and Louisiana who are working and I get to hear stories firsthand about what they learned, why they left Dayton and why they’re excited to come back because they’re bringing a lot back this year to the festival. And I also get to hear from my other festival colleagues about what they’ve learned,” she said.
And indeed, it started with the Wright State University Motion Pictures Program; the nationally ranked department that includes Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated directors Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert (The Last Truck). The educational base provided by the program cultivates artistic, production and technical talent throughout the region. The old cliché about the children being the future, as do all of the lasting clichés, has more than a kernel of truth buried in it; the next generation will lead the way, but they must be given the necessary guidance and support, and to know there will be a place where their efforts will be critically evaluated and celebrated.
But, extending beyond the “from Dayton” portion of the theme, what the festival brings for Dayton is a schedule including films like Marwencol (produced and directed by Jeff Malmberg), which won the 2010 Jury Award at South by Southwest and the Truer Than Fiction Award at the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards, as well as events like the Ira Glass Master Class (already sold out) and ScreenCon – 91.3 WYSO Public Radio’s presentation with Glass.
Both of these Sunday events highlight efforts to attract not only film’s major festivals, but key figures in contemporary film and narrative culture.
Buttacavoli explains how this fits into the approach for this year.
“It’s like we’ve become more externally focused,” she said. “The second year was a little internally focused, meaning who are we, what are we doing, but now we’re able to turn that around, meaning how can we give the filmmakers that live here and work throughout the region the inspiration to continue doing what they do, a sense of worthwhileness that they are going to be celebrated, find jobs, make a living, and possibly be able to decide to stay in Dayton or move away and still have a connection here.”
FilmDayton, through its monthly Film Connections meetings, offers a forum for discussion of current projects in various stages of completion. Last fall, one of the sessions showcased the work of students participating in the FilmDayton Film Club at Centerville High School, and other programs supporting high school and first-year university students. And as part of the festival’s ongoing commitment to student filmmaking, Friday night will feature two screenings of Big Lens, the best senior films from Wright State University students who will be on-hand to discuss their films as well as their post-graduation plans.
In the case of Big Lens entrant Immeasurable, Karri O’Reilly (producer), Joe Wade (writer-director), and Adam White’s (director of photography), Q&A will likely focus on their status as elders in this category. The trio began the project over a decade ago and just recently completed it. O’Reilly, a FilmDayton board member, has been involved in every festival thus far and talks about how special it is to have her film play in it.
“It’s an interesting thing to be part of not only the FilmDayton Festival, which came out of the work of FilmDayton that I helped with as an established professional in the film industry, but also part of Big Lens, which I’ve attended from my earliest film school days. After living in L.A. for over a decade, I returned to Dayton six years ago and am based out of Grafton Hill, but I work all over the world,” said O’Reilly.
The filmmaking team behind Ben Lens selection Lifelike (which premiered at the True/False Film Festival in March and is currently making the rounds at other festivals), Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside, will also present their own program showcasing several short political films that have been released online through their production company, New Left Media (these shorts will screen Saturday night at the Neon). To date, those films have been viewed more than six million times on YouTube and have been featured in whole or in part on BBC, Bill Moyers’ Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, CurrentTV, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, the Nation and the Daily Show’s Indecision Blog, among others.
Stoll, during an email exchange, flashed a healthy sense of humor, which is no doubt on display in the political shorts. When asked about being included in the Big Lens lineup, he exclaimed, “I’m so excited I could throw up. But seriously, we’re grateful to show our work alongside that of our colleagues and friends in a formal setting.”
The pair has no active role in FilmDayton, although they have been asked to present work at the Film Connections meetings, but it looks like they are flying the coop. “Chase and I both intend to leave Ohio soon, though as long as the immensely talented and venerable Julia Reichart, Steve Bognar and Jim Klein are in the area, we will likely maintain a close connection to Dayton,” Stoll said.
For that family spirit to thrive and evolve into a functional unit, structure and planning are a must. Too often, we hear stories of creative non-profits with near-genius level talent that fail, and fail in spectacular fashion, because there was no firm hand at the helm, no no-nonsense presence to make sure all the details were covered.
FilmDayton got a huge shot in the arm thanks to DP&L, which sponsored a strategic planning session for the group. Buttacavoli welcomed their support.
“They knew a two-and-a-half-year-old organization that wanted to be a player in the field of arts and community in this town and eventually become a film commission; we’re already running like a film commission, and there’s a strong commission in Columbus and Cincinnati and Akron and in Cleveland and there needs to be one in Dayton. So we are poising ourselves to become that. But when we did this strategy session we discovered, like many young organizations do, that we were trying to do too many things for too many people. The education component for future filmmakers was a big thing and it still is. Building audiences was a big thing and it still is. But what we decided we really needed to concentrate on as the linchpin was the filmmaker, the technical and production crew that lives in this community and is the foundation of everything.
“They have the connection to the commercial films, the independent films, the student films and the commercials. The sound recording engineers, lighting techs and the editors, they are the people who make up the industry and those are the people that are in our community. And they are filmgoers and film lovers. It all springs from them and we want to feed them. I made it a huge mission to meet as many of them as I could this past year. I sought their advice about what they need, what can we do, how can we help? Is it a more centralized database, is it more industry meetings, is it more training, or more co-meetings with colleagues in Columbus and Cincinnati? And it turns out it is all of that, so we took that and created a schedule and a budget and played with the variety – sessions for more seasoned professionals matched with something for a novice alongside something for people who are hobbyists. We’re also thinking and planning for people in the industry who might be willing to come back to the region, for family, and there are lots of them. And when you take all of them into account, that’s a huge part of the audience. That’s the basis for the love of film in the region,” said Buttacavoli.
There is a real need to accommodate these overlapping audiences, though. Buttacavoli is right. Funders, for instance, appreciate them because that helps to drive the economic engine for film in the region. But it goes further than that notion. How do you talk about the craft as well as the brass tacks of production? That’s the internal family debate going public, in a way; the secrets that are supposed to remain behind closed doors, but here, need to see the light of day. Those conversations need to be more open and transparent because the larger audience needs to understand the challenges.
We have reached a point in film culture, thanks to box office reporting, for instance, where nightly news programs and morning news programs tick off the top three or five movies of the weekend and that information is part of the water cooler chat at work or the social network dialogue. So we should be able to narrow the focus from the macro level to the micro, to the point where audiences have a sense of what the realities are for filmmakers in their communities, the students or crew members who live next door to them or down the block.
That is part of what makes FilmDayton and this festival so unique.
Every filmmaker with a film screening here will be available to talk about the process, all aspects of it. This means that audiences will get to know what its like to study and make films and leave the area for more access and then find ways to return, to bring some of that economic magic back to the region to support the next filmmaker in the line, the next generation, to guarantee that next year’s reunion will have even more members from the FilmDayton diaspora.
The FilmDayton Festival will take place May 20-22. The final schedule of films, film descriptions, trailers, guest filmmakers, filmmaker bios and ticket sales can all be found at www.filmdaytonfestival.com. All-access passes are $75, and individual film tickets are $7.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@daytoncitypaper.com