The charm of Broad Street and the respect Rome has for art makes this community a great place to screen a flick.
From around the world, they come – film directors, international and regional, each armed with cinematic amazement. Digital footage replaces the reels of old, but together the actors and actresses, scores, and lighting become the stories that make up the Rome International Film Festival, where creative dreams stand out on silver screens.
Over the years, RIFF has hosted films that were later distributed by HBO, Miramax and the Starz! Network. It has also been touted as one of the 20 best film festivals for its price of admission by Movie Maker magazine.
Each year, roughly 10 times as many films are submitted as screened, but only the best are spotlighted on the three-and-a-half day weekend in September – one RIFF Executive Director Seth Ingram hopes is becoming a source of community pride.
“RIFF could become a premiere attraction for its home city one day, like Cannes and Sundance (Park City, Utah) have become,” he says. “Rome could explode into a destination for the film community for festivals.”
This year’s festival will take place Sept. 15-18, but organizers have been hard at work since the spring as they prepare for the annual event.
“We don’t finalize the program until after the July 17 late [submission] deadline,” says Ingram, who is in his second year with RIFF. “It wraps up your life!
“[Throughout the year], I visit other film festivals for noteworthy submissions and talent,” he adds. “A Board of Directors, 25 members strong, plus an extended Advisory Board oversee our screening process, which calls for as many volunteer viewers, or ‘screeners,’ as possible.”
Planning for hospitality and the hosting of film makers from around the globe also begins early. Volunteers open their homes for up to a dozen international visitors; four times that many filmmakers and up to 1,500 guests finally converge for the three-day event.
“We’ve streamlined the schedule and moved the viewing to just two locations, the DeSoto and the City Auditorium,” says Ingram. “[This] makes the festival feel more organic. It’s all downtown, so guests can walk to all the locations. There aren’t that many places ideally suited to film screenings, but since we have use of the classic DeSoto Theatre, we thought we’d make it central.”
Founded by Atlanta director and Turner employee Barry Norman, RIFF originated as the 2002 Dahlonega Film Festival. In 2004, then-Rome Area Council for the Arts Executive Director Allen Bell worked with Norman to accommodate the festival in Rome. The DeSoto proved a successful anchor theater in an area with a plenitude of restaurants, shops, hotels and hospitality hosts.
“Harry Musselwhite took over as executive director until 2011 and he still has an advisory role,” says Ingram. “He started as program director under Mr. Norman in 2004-2005. Then, Ryan Simmons, with his wife Helen’s involvement, was executive director for the next three years.”
The printed word can hardly do Ingram’s exuberance justice; the festival has become a household way of life for his family.
“I was visiting my friend, Shea Bentley Griffin. She moved to L.A. in the ’70s. After a few years in the industry, she did the casting of ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ and ‘Matlock.’ Shea was instrumental in advising the governor to put together the tax credit [for film production in Georgia],” says In-gram. “Anyway, she and I became friends through the festival. Shea wanted me to take up executive directorship and Randy (Quick) stalked me down at her house. He took two ‘no’s’ before a ‘yes.’”
RIFF provides a unique opportunity for Ro-mans to explore creative works from around the globe while socializing with one another and meeting new people. Who hasn’t had a great discussion after watching a film with friends? And who knows, one or more of RIFF’s featured films may even make it to your list of personal favorites. The work of some fellow Georgians will be among those attempting, with their entry, to become part of our conversations this year. With over five dozen films selected, the September screening festival will create an exciting scene, the air alight with stimulation.
April Ingram serves as the administrative coordinator for the festival.
“April is the hospitality director, who lines up travel logistics and programming schedules for workshops, bringing us the creators of the films,” says Seth. “It’s incredible how through the process, you feel like you know the people when they arrive after so much communication. The festival’s so personable, in a few days [last year] arose a tight-knit community of friends that went to Atlanta afterwards!
“April’s success comes from coordinating the many community volunteers living Between the Rivers, who housed filmmakers personally,” he continues. “From the moment they arrive to the moment they leave, they’re hosted by friends. We have lots of repeat filmmakers as a testament.”
Matthew Darraugh, a New Zealand director, enjoyed his RIFF experience so much last year that he left the following message on the festival’s Facebook page.
“Great films and music, talented filmmakers, an iconic old theater and one of the warmest festival crews you could ever hope to meet,” Darraugh says. “It felt like the whole town went out of their way to make us feel welcome. The Rome International Film Festival has a heart of gold. Don’t miss it!”
Rome’s hospitality and the excitement surrounding RIFF are worth exploring for anyone who is mildly curious and able to spare a few hours for a memorable experience. The goal of the selections themselves are ever to intrigue film buffs, and the accessibility of the filmmakers throughout the festival creates a unique opportunity for anyone who enjoys cinema. Central screening venues in the vicinity of cafes and shops creates a village-like atmosphere, and most agree that is the one of the strengths of Rome.
The late submission deadline is still open. Next month, keep a watchful eye out for the titles you can anticipate seeing in September.
“Selections are announced the first of August,” says Ingram. “We sometimes have to negotiate a licensing fee if (the film’s) picked up a distributor. This happened with, for example, ‘Wildlike,’ a film with a 100 percent Rotten Tomatoes ‘Fresh’ score, and presently, a 74 percent MetaCritic Score, which picked up distribution for limited theatrical release. Frank Hall Green, a Georgia native now living in New York, directed ‘Wildlike.’”
For aspiring filmmakers who want the chance to be screened at RIFF, Ingram has a suggestion.
“For a person who creates animation or comedy, chances are much better,” says Ingram. “This year, they have been very sparse. I keep looking because I hope to find material suited to a general audience. For example, the Boys & Girls Club is bringing over kids for a Saturday morning showing of material they might enjoy. So in that interest, along with whatever’s submitted, I will look at other film festivals to recruit some films, to fill a need for what (we) may not have.”
Georgia’s booming as a place to make films. In addition to the most-watched cable TV episodes in history (“The Walking Dead”), a laundry list of famous films and TV shows have shot scenes in our state. “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” will be filming here soon as well.
“RIFF has real potential for growing; it’s a matter of continuing to seek sponsors to turn a festival into a Sundance or Telluride,” says Ingram. “We aspire to have paid full-time people, like the Atlanta Film Festival.”
“It’s great to see the networking this event brings”, Ingram continues. “The parties will bring people passionate about film together, amid the playground of a diverse array of films for conversation and inspiration. The festival has grown into more scouting of talent, which is critical to its vitality.
So the process continues. RIFF still needs volunteers to man the theater; also, it’s never too early to sign up screeners and hospitality homes for the next year. Seth Ingram gives an apt metaphor:
“There’s a reason there’s so many credits at the end of a film. Just as it takes an army of volunteers to produce a film and it takes an army of volunteers to make a successful film festival.”
Submissions are best sent, here: film-freeway.com/festival/RIFF and on the official RIFF website. To volunteer, find information at firstname.lastname@example.org.