While waiting for his car to be washed, Lloyd Komesar ’74 had an idea for a new film festival that would target filmmakers who most need recognition.
Otter Creek cuts through Middlebury, Vt., plunging over an old mill works in the center of town before resuming a slow meander past the Storm Café. The noise of the falls drowns out distractions, which suggests one drawing card for a new film festival held there in August far from the world’s film capitals.
Whether or not they paused for contemplation by the falls, attendees at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival surely were also seeking the scarcest commodity for new filmmakers—recognition. Lloyd Komesar ’74, who conceived and led the effort to create this new film festival, targeted first- or second-time filmmakers struggling to get their names out there.
“The festival is about discovery,” he says. “For the filmmakers, it’s about being discovered. For audience members, it’s about going with an open mind and discovering a new work that really impresses you.”
The financial barrier to filmmaking has never been lower. Digital technology has slashed costs so much that many good films are being produced on shoestring budgets. But recognition is another matter entirely. Start with the script. By one estimate from a panelist at the festival, roughly 1 million scripts are submitted every year, though only a tiny fraction merit consideration. As for films, one indie film source suggests that as many as 50,000 are produced annually.
The number of film festivals is itself daunting. A 2013 study found 3,000 active film festivals worldwide. The Berlin International Film Festival is the largest, based on attendance—500,000—but other festivals such as South by Southwest, Tribeca, and Sundance are at least as well-known, and none better than Cannes, which debuted in 1939 with a screening of The Wizard of Oz. Thousands of films are submitted to these festivals. There are festivals for animation, horror films, shorts, experimental films, music-themed films, human rights films, women directors, environmental films, gay and lesbian films, documentaries, and more.
Viewed against these statistics, the decision to create festival number 3,001 may seem audacious.
The idea came to Komesar in 2014 after he had volunteered at a new film festival in Pasadena, Calif., his home for many years when he was a senior distribution executive at Disney—and still his home when the winter bears down hard in Middlebury. “My wife said, ‘You liked working on a festival; why don’t you give some thought to doing one yourself?’”
He had his eureka moment two weeks later, in late February, at a car wash in California.
“I thought that an emphasis on new filmmakers could get some traction. I felt that new filmmakers need a venue, something for themselves. As I was sitting in this car wash, I decided to call one of my closest friends in Middlebury and present the idea that we would make this for work done in the last couple of years by first- and second-time filmmakers, but put no other restrictions on it and take any genre.
“So I called him up. I was waiting for my car and had time. He said, ‘This is great. Let’s do this.’ That was the genesis.
“I thought from the outset that the idea was right. There were no festivals in New England solely devoted to new filmmakers. That fueled me and gave me confidence.”
During the final years of his career at Disney, Komesar had worked in digital distribution with clients such as Netflix, Apple, Hulu, and Amazon. That, plus his many years in marketing research and distribution, gave him an excellent perspective on the changing landscape for new filmmakers.
Komesar also believed it would not be hard to entice people to come to Vermont in late summer. Middlebury is a small town surrounded by farm country, facing the picturesque Green Mountains to the east. Tourism and the presence of Middlebury College give it a cosmopolitan air, with art galleries aplenty, excellent restaurants, specialty shops (think maple syrup), outdoor recreation, Woodchuck Hard Cider, Otter Creek Brewing, and the new Stonecutter Spirits, a maker of high-end spirits established by Sivan Cotel ’05 (and site of a reception for Wesleyan alumni during the festival). B&Bs are lovely, and everything downtown is an easy walk.
Like making a film, creating a film festival requires endless attention to detail. By April of 2014, Komesar had some of the major elements in place. The local paper, the Addison County Independent, had agreed to be a lead in-kind sponsor and provide ample pre-event publicity. The Town Hall Theater, a spacious historic structure fully restored in 2008 as a performance setting, would become the principal venue. And most important, Jay Craven P’04, a film teacher at Marlboro College and a well-known Vermont filmmaker, had agreed to be artistic director. A great deal of work remained to be done—from designing a logo, to securing more sponsors and screening venues, to building a website—but Komesar was now confident that the venture would succeed.
Yet the largest and most crucial unknown, the one that would define success, lay ahead. Whether the festival took root and showed promise for future years depended hugely on the number and quality of films submitted. The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival (MNFF) couldn’t become just festival number 3,001. It had to be an event with drawing power.
Komesar had been told to expect 125 film submissions as a reasonable number for a new festival. The festival received 320 and expanded the planned showing of about 60 films to 93, 15 of which were world premieres. A surprising 42 filmmakers planned to come (without travel support from the festival) from as far away as Poland, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Many were young but by no means all. One 92-year-old filmmaker would have his first screening outside his hometown of Minneapolis.
“It really became a gathering point for a far-flung collection of filmmakers,” says Craven. “The question became, ‘Will we have enough audience to attend this number of films in four different locations?’ It was a very ambitious number of films to program for a new festival.”
The submissions ranged from playful and artistic shorts, some no more than three or four minutes; to explorations of pressing social issues, such as Among the Believers, a full-length documentary about a Pakistani cleric who dreams of imposing Shariah law throughout his country; to The Other Barrio, a stylish film noir narrative about gentrification in San Francisco, told from the point of view of an Hispanic housing inspector.
Submitters included Raphael Linden ’15, whose 12-minute short, Wald, based on a folktale by Italo Calvino, tells the story of a girl who, after encountering a cunning snake, is gifted with powers of material excess and natural beauty that eventually prove to be a terrible curse. Linden traces his interest in filmmaking to age 13 when he became fascinated by stop animation.
“I’ve always been amazed by the power of film as an artistic medium and have devoured movies since an early age,” he says. “When I realized that I could make an inanimate object move—through sheer will and labor—that led to a new kind of creative obsession. Since then I’ve been making short films in my spare time.”
Linden submitted to several film festivals, but MNFF was his first acceptance, for which he credits the support of Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, and Komesar, who came to Wesleyan in the spring to scout possible submissions among senior thesis videos.
For Linden, one of the biggest benefits of a film festival directed toward new filmmakers is that it establishes a creative community. “Getting a film from page to festival is so labor intensive and time consuming,” he says, “that to come together as a group and celebrate our achievements seems like the only logical conclusion to a long and challenging process.”
Community was also important to Casey Feldman ’12, who submitted a short. “Throughout the process of making Posthumanismaniarama!,” he says, “I was reminded of the joy of creating something in a collaborative way. For a filmmaker there’s a lot of solitary time when you’re thinking about your project—writing, revising, playing your movie in your head. I recaptured the fun of working with other people to execute a vision. And in order to do that you have to trust that you’re collaborating with talented people who understand what you’re going for. I was lucky enough to have that every step of the way on this project—particularly starting with Andrew Dominguez and Dan Obzejta, both Wes ’12.”
Brothers Conor ’11 and Tyler ’09 Byrne submitted Foureyes, a polished and amusing parody of American culture that follows the young Bobby Bowersox as he adjusts to his first pair of glasses while struggling with puberty and his newly discovered interest in girls. Jaime Lubin of the Huffington Post wrote that “playful mishmash of elements from various decades—1950s-style Leave It to Beaver parents, a funky 1970s house, 1980s TV and VHS tapes—is intentionally designed to provoke a sense of timelessness.”
The Byrne brothers are examples of a trend among new filmmakers: they first released Foureyes on the Internet through Vimeo, where it became a staff pick and a featured “Short of the Week.” There it picked up momentum (more than 100,000 views to date, including YouTube). With that boost, Conor claimed a “Young Director Award” at Cannes and the film was screened at the Nantucket Film Festival prior to MNFF.
“It’s always wonderful to play your movie in front of a packed house of enthusiastic film fans, but the audience in Middlebury was particularly supportive,” says Tyler. “And the community of filmmakers we encountered was equally as special. For the inaugural year of a festival, we had a tremendous experience, and we really appreciate what Lloyd is doing for emerging filmmakers. Plus, Middlebury feels like a town straight out of all the Frank Capra movies that we love, and it has a great bar called Two Brothers Tavern!”
Foureyes won a VTeddy—the festival’s new award for outstanding films screened during the three-day event. Winners get a prize any new filmmaker would covet: MNFF will book screenings of their films at half a dozen or so theaters in New England.
A theatrical release still counts for a lot, even as more and more filmmakers are turning to the Internet to gain audiences, says David Laub ’03, an independent producer and distribution consultant for A24 film studio. Speaking at an MNFF panel discussion, he stressed that the models for film distribution are changing and that no one has quite figured out how the digital and theatrical venues are going to complement or compete with each other.
“At this moment,” he said, “having some kind of theatrical release gives you exposure. The mindset is that this is a real movie.”
Theatrical release also puts money in the pockets of filmmakers. “People forget that putting something on the Internet is not the same thing as monetizing it,” says Basinger. “The Internet is very good for exposure, very good for showing a response to your work, but you really need a job.”
Craven had additional advice for a crowd of filmmakers gathered at the spacious Middlebury Chocolates, listening to the panel as espresso brewed in the background. “Partner with art houses, libraries, museums. You need to tap arts organizations and colleges. It’s more a performing arts model than a theatrical distribution model. Time and effort pay off. You have to stand behind your picture—whatever it takes.
“Independent films,” he added, “never saturate their audiences.”
The issue of where to find audiences is currently a hot one in the film business, says Basinger, who adds: “In the history of the moving image, venue has always shifted. It shifted from vaudeville to nickelodeons (vaudeville plus short films), to the theater, to the theater with wide screen, to the small screen on TV, to the Internet. But what never shifts is that the audience wants a good story, with good characters, and something interesting or unusual. If it’s good, it will be playable in all venues. What has changed is that the audience can make their own decisions about where to watch.”
New filmmakers are increasingly turning to the Internet for exposure, she adds, but festivals are also playing an ever-more-important role. More people are making films than ever before, and they need outlets.
“To have a festival with an informed audience present in the room for your work is the best experience a filmmaker can have,” she says. “It’s important for a filmmaker’s growth and development.”
Aaron Kalischer-Coggins ’15 submitted All Systems Go, a 10-minute film about a socially isolated youngster who dreams of meeting astronaut Neil Armstrong. “Because it was a festival for new filmmakers,” he says, “there was a hunger present in everyone, as nobody had yet made it as a director. It was great to screen my film in front of a new crowd. Every shortcoming is glaringly obvious to me, and that’s hard, but it’s always interesting to see what an audience reacts to. That helps me to better understand my own work.”
Since graduating, Kalischer-Coggins has become more aware of the importance money plays in filmmaking. He loves the way film can be used to convey complex emotional ideas or themes in a form that’s very palatable. To develop his skills he worked on a documentary last summer that was externally funded, and he began to see how money can control creativity.
“I talked to many filmmakers at the festival and heard how some had struggled with financing, some were fully financed, and others literally had no budget at all, which affected their creative process.”
It’s opening night, August 27, and the Town Hall Theater is packed for a screening of a documentary, Approaching the Elephant, which tells the story of year one in a free school, where all classes are voluntary and rules are chaotically determined by votes of children and adults. Komesar has the microphone and is enthusiastically thanking the many local sponsors of the festival and teeing up events over the next three days, exhibiting the kind of vitality that impressed Craven, his partner in this effort.
“Lloyd is focused like a laser, indefatigable, open with exactly what he thinks, supportive but also critical in engaging an issue,” says Craven. “In this business a minority of people actually deliver and do what they say they will do; Lloyd is one of those people.”
Komesar’s energy remains on display during the following three days as he pops up at screenings across town, attends panel discussions, chats with attendees on the street, and powers on into the night at a festival dance party on the town green.
Any worries about generating audiences for the heavy schedule of screenings fade away as enthusiastic filmgoers scoot from one venue to another. Many of them don’t have experience attending film festivals and, at the end, Komesar fears that the schedule has left some looking fatigued. Perhaps next year, he muses, the schedule should include more downtime so people can recharge without missing films on their list.
And there will be a next year. The doors had barely closed on the festival when several new sponsors approached Komesar about getting involved. Both he and Craven basked in the afterglow of an event that exceeded their expectations in every way.
“To curate a good festival is very challenging,” says Basinger. “What Lloyd has done is remarkable and I’m so happy about it. This particular launch of a festival had Wesleyan written all over it, which is wonderful.”
“I’m really happy with the direction we’re going in,” says Komesar. “We are on our way to creating a persona for the festival that is all about catering to the needs and goals of first- and second-time filmmakers. We will stay focused on that approach.”