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5 Years of Oxford Film Festival: A History and Interview with Directors

February 6, 2008

5 Years of Great Film: Just the Beginning

By Melanie Addington

Originally published in the Lafashopper

I admit that though I have lived in Oxford since the commencement of the Oxford Film Festival, I found that I knew very little about its origins or just how much work was required to make the event a success. As Volunteer Coordinator this year, I have had the opportunity to watch the three co-directors diligently work night and day to put the event together. Taking part, even in such a small way, has intrigued me to find out more about what goes into creating a film festival. So, on the eve of the fifth annual Oxford Film Festival, I turned the spotlight on co-directors Michelle Emanuel, Molly Fergusson, and Micah Ginn as they discussed memories of past film fests and what they are looking forward to in the future.

The Oxford Film Festival began in 2003 as the brainchild of former Yoknapataphwa Arts Council director Elaine Abadie. After attending the Magnolia Film Festival in 2001 and 2002, she “realized how much we needed a film festival here,” said Ginn. Fergusson added that at the Magnolia Film festival, “she saw Neil White [Creative Director of Nautilus Publishing Company in Oxford]. They started talking about how an event like that would be great in Oxford and decided to get the ball rolling. From there, volunteers began meeting and the planning for the First Annual Oxford Film Festival began. The first festival was in June 2003.”

During the second year of the festival, Abadie asked Ginn, Fergusson and Mary Ann Percy to take on the roles of co-directors. Other volunteers became involved with the screening committee and other organizational duties. In 2005, Percy left for law school and a volunteer, Michelle Emanuel, took over her duties. Emanuel had been on the screening committee and was the ticket booth coordinator when the film festival was held at the Ford Center.

Another major change occurred in 2005 when the film festival was moved from June to September. According to Emanuel, however, it was soon discovered that the scheduling conflicts presented by football season and the pleasant weather were too much. February was deemed the best fit for Oxford, and the festival was moved.

In 2008, the three have gelled well. Working “collectively, the co-directors all contribute to the heart of the fest by pushing for (and against) the films that are selected. We each have different tastes, which creates a good mix of films,” stated Ginn.

Ginn is in charge of the film equipment and projection. He also puts together the TV promotional spots and the awards show footage. Fergusson says that her specific role is a bit fuzzy, but that she puts out fires, promotes the film festival, and solicits funds from sponsors. She half-jokingly responds that she also “mediates between Micah and Michelle.” Emanuel’s role is that of entry coordination, “from acknowledging submissions, to coordinating screenings, to notifying filmmakers of our decisions, then managing the travel arrangements of those who attend, explains Emanuel, “and hundreds of other small details that will hopefully go unnoticed but keep the festival from completely falling apart.”

However, film festival planning is a year round job. “Each director of the festival works tremendously hard all year round, without compensation, to bring quality people and programming to Oxford every February. You won’t find more dedicated, talented and interesting people than these directors!” said Anne Pitts, CLE coordinator. Emanuel explains the typical work schedule.From March through September, I probably only think about/work on the film festival around 10 hours a week. In September, when screening season really kicks in after the submission deadline, October and November, when we’re writing our tourism grants and screening entries and pursuing sponsorships and meeting more frequently, it’s more like 30-40 hours a week. Then from December through February, it’s roughly every waking moment, minus about 3 hours a day.”

But the directors can’t run a film festival alone.The volunteers are very helpful to us, but at different times of the year. The screening volunteers help us trim down the entries, and their brutally honest feedback helps make the festival what it is. The volunteers at the event itself are invaluable. They are the public face of the festival, and it is because of their hospitality that filmmakers want to return each year. We literally could not do it without them. Also, their enthusiasm reminds us of why we’re putting forth all of this effort,” said Emanuel.

The credits page on this year’s film festival booklet lists over 70 individuals that have significantly contributed to the film festival. Moreover, this year they have an additional 85 volunteers to work at the festival, 25 of which served on the screening committee. A bevy of other volunteers also contribute a wide variety of skills. Pitts, this year’s coordinator for all of the panels and the CLE conference, said, “Deciding on topics for the film festival panels really comes from the filmmakers themselves. We all keep tabs on current issues that affect filmmakers and what questions they have, especially independent filmmakers and regional filmmakers. Once we decide on the topics, we do our research to find the most energetic, knowledgeable speakers on the topics. Getting the panelists together takes a lot of time, but the reputation of the film festival now makes it pretty easy to convince guest speakers to come to Oxford, Mississippi and enjoy themselves at the festival.”

Q: How do you feel the film festival has grown since the beginning? Even since last year?

Micah: Growth is measured in various ways when it comes to this fest. In terms of films, we actually show fewer now than we did in years one and two. We realized in year two that in order to give the films we selected the best audience and our utmost attention, we needed less films in fewer venues. We went from a three venue festival to a one venue festival and in doing that have had the festival grow by leaps and bounds. There’s cohesion now that we struggled to fully obtain early on. Of course, that is the nature of maturity. We’ve definitely gotten better with the years.

Molly: [We’ve] grown in audience and public awareness. We have gotten better with volunteer organization. We have had quality films since the beginning. Our web presence has increased – thanks to Michelle [Emanuel] and Melanie [Addington].

Michelle: The film festival has definitely grown. Each year it gets a little easier to get the types of films we want to show. And we have definitely made the effort to make contact with some more established festivals in Austin, Dallas, Birmingham, Fort Lauderdale, etc. to pick their collective brain, and to go after audience favorites rather than just juried award winners.

Q: What changes are you looking for in the future of the film festival?

Micah: I just want continued growth. I like how we approach the festival and how we do things, but I hope we continue to learn and improve at the same time. We strive for consistency, but we also push ourselves not to let consistency be confused with treading water. I believe each year the festival has improved by huge strides and that is what I think will continue to happen. Michelle and Molly work extremely hard to make to outdo “last year” each time.

Molly: Looking forward to getting more people involved and creating a more solid structure foundation ….

Michelle: I think our programming is strong and we will continue on the path we have set, but it would be great to bring in more celebrities to attend the films they star in over the weekend. To do that, however, costs a lot of cash, especially since big celebrities prefer to fly first-class, and they almost never travel alone.Q: Best memory so far from all the film festivals?

Micah: The Jones Sisters singing on Thacker Mountain Radio in year one as a kick-off to the fest. It was electric.

Molly: Year two was a lot of fun for me because we had the filmmakers from “Blackballed” here and they were so much fun. We had great films and filmmakers attend and the parties were cozy and everyone had a chance to really get to know each other.

Michelle: They are all from the awards ceremonies. Micah never gives us advance warning of what’s in store at the awards ceremony, so on the one hand I’m always nervous about what he’s going to do, but then on the other hand, I get to enjoy it for the first time along with the rest of the audience. A lot of his awards show short films are on our webpage so that we can attract new people to the festival, but I’ve probably watched “It’s Mooo-vies!” about 900 times.

Q: What are you most excited about for this year’s film festival?

Micah: Meeting the filmmakers. We have so many talented filmmakers attending this year, and that is what really makes the film festival a unique venue to enjoy a movie. The chance to interact with the filmmakers and artists who put their work on that screen, it’s a wonderful opportunity for the filmgoer.

Molly: All of the filmmakers that are attending!

Michelle: Putting a face with the filmmakers I’ve been emailing for the last few months. It’s always great to make new friends, and catch up with those who come back year after year.

Q: Anything I haven’t asked that you want Lafayette County to know about?

Molly: The festival would not be what it is and where it is without the people of Lafayette County. The hospitality of the locals and the generosity of our sponsors make our event possible. Every new volunteer that comes on board is appreciated. We work on the festival pretty much every day of the year and start planning next year’s event before the current one even ends. Yes, we are already working on 2009. The success of each year is built upon the success of the last and we are still at the beginning.

To find out more information about this year’s Oxford Film Festival, visit www.oxfordfilmfest.com or pick up one of the booklets distributed to most restaurants, shops, dentist offices, etc around town.

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