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The Rome International Film Festival (RIFF) has been a staple of the Rome community for the past 17 years. Things may look a bit different this year, but creative and co-executive director Seth Ingram is confident in the benefits of this event and excited for its future.

 

Q 1: How has the festival changed this year?

Seth Ingram: For obvious reasons, COVID has made it very challenging. First of all, a lot of filmmakers weren’t able to get their films made this year, so we didn’t have nearly as many submissions as we would normally have. Most festivals have gone virtual, and I think most people have grown to have a Zoom fatigue of sorts. 

It’s hard to promote your film when you’re worried about getting attendance, so you have to get kind of creative in your marketing and your approach. We did not want to just cancel the festival, so we decided we’re going to do opening night. It’s going to be an in-person event with social distancing and all the safety precautions, and then the rest of it is going to be virtual. We wanted to give all those film submissions a chance to showcase their work.

Those are the big challenges; obviously there’s lots of other challenges. All the businesses and things are hurting; we depend on patronage and fundraising from businesses and that sort of thing to put on our festival, and that’s been very difficult. We’ve had to get creative with fundraising as well and write a lot of grants.

It’s been a lot of wait and see. We thought we’d make an announcement of whether we’d do a live event in July, and then we thought well, we don’t know where the pandemic is going. You can’t really make a decision until the last minute. Working with the board of directors, we have to get full approval and exercise maximum cautions. Doing a public event, we have to be responsible for our community and for our organization. 

My co-executive director, Leah Lynn, and I put forth different plans of how we could pull this off and then we sent it in to our board of directors. We had discussions and this is where we landed, to do the one live event. I feel like Rome needs a live event and needs at least something to get people out a little bit in a safe way. It was kind of a compromise situation; I think it was the best we could do in the circumstances

Q 2: In your view, what is the community benefit of a festival like this, both in general and in Rome?

Ingram: This is something I want to really drive home. It’s great for the quality of life of the citizens to have a lot of artistic outlets, especially in a rural town where you might normally have to drive into Atlanta or a big city to find something out of the mainstream to go do for art and entertainment purposes. 

Then we have the educational component tied to all of our local universities and K-12 schools that we do with our student workshops and our student film competition. When you bring a celebrity to town, it just has a sort of pep-rally feel for the town. It’s a good feeling to see the town come together and get inspired. We’re not just a little town; we have an identity, and this festival has become part of our identity.

Another thing is we’re trying to do film production here. Georgia is the biggest film production hub in the world, and Rome has hosted a few films here and there but they’ve never really marketed themselves as a film destination. Now we have a new studio opening in town, and I think there’s going to be a lot of energy around film production trying to be drawn to town… I feel Rome is a natural backdrop for independent films. 

If you want to shoot an entire feature film under $10 million dollars and you want to be in the same general vicinity for a long period of time, Rome is a great location to attract those types of films. If we had some incentives at play that…gave us a little more of a competitive edge, it would be great. I thought this was the perfect storm to put all that together and try to motivate the town to want to participate in something like that.

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Q 3: What does the future hold for the film festival and the film industry in Rome?

Ingram: We have a studio called PAM Studios opening in town. Maria Guerra-Stoll came to the festival last year; she has an architectural firm and they’re the architects for Tyler Perry’s studios. She’s been wanting to do her own small-scale studio… she’s purchased a building and they’re opening offices here in Rome, and they’re looking to build some sound stages and do some really big economic development-type things for the community. 

I think with that, if we become a film production town, that feeds into our festival. I think that even this time next year, we may still be seeing effects from COVID and it may still be virtual. I think everyone misses the live events… so I think when it comes back it can all work together. 

Plus Georgia Highlands College, the local state university here, now has a film pathways program. I think we’ll see both of those grow when people in the community see film not just for the art but also as a career choice. I think that that will really work well in helping the festival reach new audiences and hopefully have a lot of locally produced stuff in the festival.

Opening night of the festival on November 12 will feature a screening of Electric Jesus, a film about a Christian hair metal band touring in the 1980s. The film stars Judd Nelson, Brian Baumgartner, and Claire Bronson. Baumgartner and some other members of the cast and crew will be in attendance at the event and offer a Q&A session after the screening. The rest of the festival films will be available to watch online from 7 p.m. on November 12 until November 22. For more information, visit