How to start an awesome festival in 7 easy steps

Well, maybe not easy.

Created in 1989, the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival is celebrating its 20th year this October. 672 films and 349 hours of screening time later, they’ve become one of the most important and consistently exciting festivals in the province.

They’re so good, in fact, that their story might as well be a model for how to start your own festival.

Here are some wise words and a look back from some of the people who have poured their hearts into the fest.

By Shawn Hayward.

1. FIND YOUR NICHE

When the festival began in 1989, there was no annual film festival in Newfoundland and Labrador, and few in the world devoted to women filmmakers.

“That criteria has made us unique,” says Kelly Davis, who has been executive director of the festival for the past five years. “There are few other opportunities where women filmmakers can come and feel supported and celebrated. They all leave here totally inspired to make more films and come back to this festival.”

The people who originally started the festival did it to support women filmmakers in an industry dominated by males. Only three women have ever been nominated for best director at the Oscars, and in 2006, only seven per cent of the top 200 films were directed by women.

A film must be written, directed, or produced by a woman to be shown at the festival, though male collaborators are allowed. It gives women filmmakers an audience to show their work.

Peg Norman, who was a member of the festival steering committee in its early years, says there was a strong group of women filmmakers in St. John’s when the festival began, partly thanks to the Newfoundland Independent Filmmakers Co-Operative (NIFCO), which supplies training and equipment to those interesting in making a movie. Their help gave the first festival a solid selection of films to show in its first year.

“There’s an appetite here for a film festival and I think there always was,” Norman says. “The women who organized the first one knew there was an appetite. There was a burgeoning women’s film community here, and having a venue to show their work was really important.”

In the past 20 years, the festival has screened 672 films made by women from this province, other parts of Canada, and all over the world.

2. FIND A SUPPORTIVE COMMUNITY

A film festival can’t thrive just anywhere. It needs the love and attention of an active artistic community, which St. John’s has proven itself to have.

“St. John’s is a fun city and very supportive of the arts community,” says Davis. “The festival has lasted as long as it has because it is in St. John’s, and it has been so well supported.”

The festival gets funding from all levels of government and corporations, as well as NIFCO, which donated $10,000 this year.

It’s the support people show filmmakers by going to screenings that sets St. John’s apart, according to Norman.

“We’re out in the middle of the cold Atlantic surrounded by water, and there’s something about island cultures where we do rush to support those kinds of endeavours,” she says. “We’ve got such a vibrant, thriving arts scene here, and it’s got a dedicated audience.”

3. THINK BIG, STAY INTIMATE

The festival has become much bigger since 1989, occupying multiple venues and showing more films than ever. But Davis says it’s kept its intimate atmosphere, which bring people to the festival year after year.

“Filmmakers have a chance to meet with industry representatives face to face, whereas with the big festivals that’s a rare opportunity,” she says. “That’s another reason people keep coming back.”

4. TREAT YOUR PEOPLE LIKE ROYALTY

Davis says it’s important to give the filmmakers all the luxuries of home, making sure they get rooms in good hotels and are entertained during their stay in St. John’s.

“Treat your filmmakers like royalty,” she says. “We make them feel special. They really felt like they were being celebrated, whereas in most festivals you’re just one of many.”

5. WORK YOUR ASS OFF

Most people who help with the festival are still volunteers, and they’re responsible for everything from decorating to collecting tickets. Norman says volunteers are essential for a non-profit organization like the festival to keep going.

“It was amazing what the festival could do with little money,” she says. “It required many hours of volunteer time. They’ve been so dedicated.”

6. GROW, GROW, GROW

For the first time, this year’s festival will open and close with full-length feature films by Newfoundland filmmakers. The festival will present 93 films this year, in formats ranging from animation to documentary, which organizers selected from a pool of 440 submissions.

Norman has seen the festival evolve from a small event at the LSPU Hall to what she says is one of the most important festivals for women filmmakers in the world.

7. STICK TO YOUR GUNS

The spirit of 1989 hasn’t been lost at the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival, according to Norman, it’s just expanded so more people can experience a week dedicated to the celebration of women in film.

“It was exciting that there was a women’s film festival, and how cool it was,” she says. “There were so many women filmmakers doing such fabulous work. It just made sense, and it worked.”

The St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival runs from October 20-24. Check their website at www.womensfilmfestival.com