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Women Hold Key Positions in Chapel Hill's Film Fest 919

What do remarkably accomplished women in the film and entertainment industry pursue to further their aspirations of promoting the arts? For Randi Emerman (Vice President of Marketing of Silver Spot Cinemas and former CEO of the Palm Beach International Film Festival), Carol Marshall (CEO and publicist of Carol Marshall Public Relations, Inc. and former overseer of talent and publicity for both the Santa Barbara and Palm Beach International Film Festivals), and Claudia Puig (a nationally recognized film journalist and president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.) the answer was simple—take on the challenge of creating a new film festival.

Film Fest 919, named for the North Carolina Triangle, and located in Chapel Hill, began with Emerman and Marshall. Shortly after inception, they brought on Claudia Puig as Programming Director. The trio's vision—to create a film festival that focuses on films that would be talked about and be recognized during awards season. In addition, Film Fest 919 would become part of the filmmakers' journey while also giving the community an opportunity to see these films early, talk about them, and help support their awards platforms.

Speaking directly to each of the founders, filmmakers, and talent who were invited to participate enabled a professional yet relaxed atmosphere that allowed for repeat conversations throughout the five-days. Catching a casual one-to-one or group breakfast, lunch, dinner, or cocktails with filmmakers, talent, staff, and volunteers aided in congregating information from varied perspectives.

Founders Randi Emerman, Claudia Puig and Carol Marshall / photo courtesy Sarah Knight Adamson

Emerman enthusiastically defined why she wanted to start a film festival, "Carol and I had been working together for years on the Palm Beach International Film Festival, and we knew we wanted to host a festival in the fall. We did a lot of research, and Chapel Hill, NC, came up in our searches. We were already familiar with the area and the success of Full Frame in Durham and RiverRun in Winston-Salem, where both festivals ran in the spring. Chapel Hill and the surrounding triangle region had the demographic we were searching for. However, at the time, they didn't have the type of theater we strived to host in, a venue that not only had the latest in technology but one that had astounding film delivery. Jump ahead a few years; I became the Vice President of Programming at Silverspot Cinema when they announced we would be building in Chapel Hill and the stars aligned."

Marshall relayed that screenwriting is a major focus of the festival. She explained the reason for that choice, "When we set out to start this festival, we made a conscious decision to shed light on the artistry of filmmaking, particularly with a community filled with eager film students. The phrase "it starts with the script" is an understatement. Every film project is reliant on the written words. For us, screenwriting was a natural focus—in fact, the number of writers who have a connection to this area [Chapel Hill] that has had their works adapted to screenplay is surprising."

Having just experienced the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I was delighted to view the film schedule and wondered how the founders were able to offer so many buzz-worthy films? Marshall answered my question: "The primary difference is we curate the festival. We seek out titles that have received recognition from festivals such as Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Telluride, and Toronto and are positioning themselves for the fall season and potential award consideration. Our audience craves great movies, and they turned out in droves and were eager to support them. And by being able to see many of these films before they've caught on, they become a part of the Oscar conversation." Aptly, Film Fest 919's slogan, “Catch the Films Before They Catch On,” defines the heart of the festival.

Puig spoke about her curating goals, "It's my intention to program the widest range of films, from all over the world and in a broad variety of genres to satisfy and stimulate our film-loving audience. For instance, in last year's festival, we counter-balanced movies that have a broader, mainstream appeal like "Jojo Rabbit," "Marriage Story" and "Ford v. Ferrari" with lesser-known and artful American indies like "Honey Boy," "Waves" and "Premature," with challenging foreign fare like "Bacurau," "The Chambermaid" and "Beanpole."

"We focus on the best that's out there, the likely Oscar nominees, like Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite," Taika Waititi's "Jojo Rabbit," Céline Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," James Mangold's "Ford v Ferrari," Pedro Almodóvar's "Pain & Glory" and Fernando Meirelles' "The Two Popes," to name just a few.

What sets us apart is the involvement and engagement of our cinema-loving audiences. They are eager to discuss the films afterward and do so in both formal, post-theatre conversations, and informal settings over coffee or drinks at nearby eateries. The more innovative or unusual the film, the more our audiences are eager to ponder, analyze, and dissect it. They embrace our comprehensive spectrum of films with enthusiasm. I think the combination of eclectic programming—culled from many hours of viewing and from attending other top festivals—and sophisticated, smart audiences is what sets us apart from other festivals."

In considering a snapshot of both years, Puig's award-worthy planning is apparent. Opening Night in October 2018 kicked off with one of the most buzz-worthy films of that year, "Roma" from Academy Award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón. The film's stars, Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, attended the opening night festivities. The notable debut year offered 36 films, representing 17 countries. The wide-ranging international line-up showcased 15 feature films that were impressive at recent festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, five from Cannes, and seven from Sundance. More than 25% of the films were directed by women.

Writer and director Angie Wang's semi-autobiographical film "MDMA" screened the inaugural year. Her views on leveling the playing field with the number of women directors as opposed to men are straightforward. Wang stated, "Hire more women for jobs; seriously, it boils down to that. Let go of the ridiculous preconception that women can't handle big budgets or helm a large set. Women are natural storytellers and strong, compassionate leaders. We also thrive on community and collaboration, the secret sauce of a well-run set.

Does Wang see any differences in participating in film festivals led by women as opposed to men? Wang's answer: "Yes, there has been more focus on the celebratory and collaborative aspects of filmmaking rather than competition, and more coordinated social events. In general—I was less stressed and confused—I had a phenomenal time at Film Fest 919. I experienced a true sense of camaraderie with the coordinators, my fellow filmmakers, and the audience.

This past year, Film Fest 919 offered an impressive variety of 38 current film choices, along with panel discussions, seminars, and Q&A discussions. Opening Night kicked off with a screening of Noah Baumbach's heartfelt film, "Marriage Story," starring Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson. A cast member from the film, special guest Martha Kelly ("Baskets," "Corporate Animals"), attended for an after-screening Q&A with Claudia Puig. 

Following the "Marriage Story" Q&A, festival-goers walked next door to City Kitchen restaurant for a lively after-party. Musical entertainment by a local favorite band provided an energetic night of dancing, socializing, and of course, networking. The festival vibe was clear Opening Night—highlight local talent while providing an "enjoyable" interactive time for festival-goers.

Writer and director Lynn Roth of "Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog" provided audiences with a fascinating look at filming on location in Budapest, Hungry. Roth began working in the entertainment business in the early ‘70s as a TV comedy writer and has an impressive body of work. When asked about women and men filmmakers and how to raise the female bar, she answered, "What still needs to happen is to get rid of the label 'women filmmakers,' we are just filmmakers, men, women, transgender, whatever we are.”

“We had the same problem as women writers, we were identified as women writers, once that label doesn't have to be a differentiation that's when we will become mainstream. We're filmmakers, writers, and studio heads."

When asked about what may have surprised Puig during the festival, she said, "I was very happily surprised by the outpouring of support for our festival by moviegoers of all ages—from college students to octogenarians—particularly since we are only in our second year."

As a film journalist, having the opportunity to complete my TIFF 'wish list' in Chapel Hill not only assisted in my preparation for awards seasons—I'm acutely mindful of my heightened film knowledge due to the multiple Q&As, panel discussions, seminars, and interview opportunities. The leaders of Film Fest 919 are highly professional film veterans that care deeply about promoting the arts; it's specifically curated with an emphasis on screenwriting and is additionally supportive of female and diverse filmmakers.

The 2020 Film Fest 919 will take place October 14-18, 2020.

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