By James Dungeon
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Helen Stephenson, founder and executive director of the Prescott Film Festival. The ninth annual film fest is is June 8-16. Individual tickets are $12 ($6 for students). For a full schedule of screenings, workshops, and other events plus ticket packages, visit PrescottFilmFestival.Com.]
How did the Prescott Film Festival get started?
It started with an idea — which is how most things start, especially creative things — which was to bring independent film to Prescott. Then I formed a nonprofit. Elisabeth Ruffner helped me with that. Doing all the business parts of this, the marketing, all of that, too, makes it a left brain/right brain endeavor. You have to figure out how to bridge that creativity, the fun, the education into something that’s still got legs as a business. You have to write grants. Fortunately, we have a handful of granters, but you can’t rely on that and you have to constantly do grant applications. You have to sell tickets, and you have to do marketing. I didn’t have Facebook until I realized the Prescott Film Festival needed to be on Facebook.
How has the goal of the film festival changed from its inception through today?
The original end goal was to bring filmmaking back to Arizona. Arizona has a long history in film. And, in 2009, when we started, Arizona still had the film tax credit. A year and a half later, the tax expired and the state chose not to renew it. I thought, OK, so now what do we do? We still want to support Arizona films and filmmakers. We do still have films that come from Arizona every year, but they’re submitted just like other films, so there’s nothing really fancy about that. So, at first, we thought, let’s put out as many films as we possibly can for our audience to chose from. After a few years of that, we discovered we were just dividing our audience. We learned that our audience trusts us to bring them the best films. In Phoenix, their film festival has 300 film screenings. And that’s great for them. But what we want to do in Prescott, instead, is bring the highest quality films we can get our hands on and then provide added value with Q&As with the filmmakers and things like that. … As an example, last year we screened “Lost in Paris” and afterward we Skyped in the filmmakers, who were actually the stars of the film. When they came up on the screen and people realized they were the same actors from the film they just saw, they were delighted. You could hear the “ohh, it’s them,” and it was really fun. We screened one film that ended up nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. During the Prescott Film Festival, he Skyped in from Jordan. Later, when I watched the Oscars, I saw him on TV before they announced the award and it was, hey, there’s that guy we saw at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center. He didn’t win, but it was an honor to speak with him. As far as added value goes, we also do wine tasting. We’ve got an amazing wine industry starting in Yavapai County. It’s really taking off. We also have El Gato Azul cater the closing-night party every year. This year there’ll be an opening-night party as well.
What’s changed about film, itself, since the first year of the Prescott Film Festival and how’s that changed the festival?
The most dramatic change in the industry of filmmaking has to do with Netflix and Amazon and Hulu. There are so many different platforms now. Today, filmmakers make their films, do a really short festival run, then go straight to Netflix. If a film’s on Netflix, there’s no reason to pay us $12 to see it. So, we’ve compressed the time that we look at films and review them and program the festival to make sure that doesn’t happen. We used to start in the fall for reviews. We only had DVDs then; we didn’t have Vimeo, like today. When we started, you had to go to Cattleman’s and exchange your DVDs. Chuck Roberts was one of the directors, so he let us do that at his restaurant. With Vimeo, it’s more convenient, but the window is much smaller. Instead of 20 reviewers, like we started with, we have 60 right now. And they push through about 200 films, and they have to watch them thoughtfully and score them. We used to do all of that on paper. At one point, my husband, Don, saw me surrounded by huge stacks of paper. He said, you know, I could write a program for that, so he did and since then it’s been a lot easier. I wish I’d taken a picture of all those stacks of paper — it was pretty funny. The focus on added value has changed, too. We’re always trying new things. Last year, we screened a movie about swing dancing and had one of the dance studios in town come in with live dancing and music right afterward. We had to kick the dancers out — they didn’t want to stop dancing and it went late. It was a really good experience.
What are some things you’ve tried that haven’t worked?
Early on, having films compete with each other for viewers. Those first couple of years, before we were at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center, we were at Elks Theater and the Prescott Center for the Arts and the Mile High Middle School auditorium. So, with those three different locations, we had a split audience. We also had to get extra equipment from Phoenix to be able to screen at all three locations. That requires driving, setting it up, breaking it down, and taking it back, so that takes more time. It was really time-consuming. The people who work on this, the core people, have been there since the beginning. They’re people who have real, full-time jobs and doing the film festival is something they just do because they believe in it. It was just too difficult to sustain all of that.
What can you tell us about that first year?
It started as a monthly series. Every Wednesday we’d go to the old theater at Frontier Village and have a free screening. They let us use the facility for free and sold popcorn and snacks. It’s funny: My husband, Don, has been so supportive. If you think about it, I I just came home and said I wanted to do a film festival one day and he said, OK, let’s go. In 2010 we decided to pull the trigger and have a real festival. I was nervous, but we did it. That year we were in the old bank building on Cortez and Gurley, the use of which was donated. We just opened the doors and hey, saw what happened. We were shocked when a bunch of people came in. We’d gotten coverage from The Daily Courier, which at the time was the only way to get the word out in print, but that was it. We were a little overwhelmed. I remember John Bigelow running downtown to print tickets and cutting them up. It was just on card stock. For programs we had a local printer and we were just bleeding money, running in to print a handful, 10 at a time, for something like $2 a piece. We realized right away that Prescott really needed a venue for alternative, art house films. And I do consider what we do as art house cinema. Frankly, I was a little surprised it was so successful. Here we are, in our ninth year. We’re almost at our 10th year, and I can tell you only a small percentage of film festivals make it 10 years. And we’ve done it on an all-volunteer crew. It’s just passion that keeps it going.
Because of the collapsed timeline, I know it’s hard to talk about the 2018 event, but what can you say at this time?
Well, at this point, we don’t know all of the films that will be in the festival. Some of the ones we’ve looked at include one about the 1963 riots in Birmingham. There’s also a Holocaust documentary. There’s also a documentary about a man who was shot down in WWII and how he survived. I mention those because it’s important that we don’t forget our history. We’re also looking toward the future and what’s happening to the environment with some films. There’s also some films involving food and wine. Mental health is always a big thing. So are horses. This year, at least four films about horses have been submitted so far, so we’re winnowing those down. Two dog films have been submitted this year, too. That becomes the challenging thing about programming. We can’t have all those horse films. We need to balance history with comedy and mysteries and dramas. The scoring system for the programmers is A+ through F, and we have so many A+s right now. It’s going to be a good year. … The updated schedule will be on our website, PrescottFilmFestival.Com, and individual tickets will be $12 for regular admission and $6 for students. The workshops are free and there’ll be packages for extra events and the parties and things like that.
What’s your pitch for art house films vs., say, Hollywood blockbusters and the like?
Putting on my academic hat, there’s an idea put forth by Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey, and you can look at any blockbuster film and they’re all based on that formula. You have the inciting event, the call to adventure, all of that. Blockbuster films are afraid to gout outside of that box. Part of that’s because those blockbusters are made by committee. An art film isn’t made by a committee; it’s made by an individual or small group of individuals. They have different motivations. Maybe they just want to tell their story or maybe they wrote a script that they wanted to create that’s not so simple. With the hero’s journey, once you know the story, all blockbusters are ruined for you. I can go to a movie and see exactly what’s going to happen. I don’t do that to Don anymore; he doesn’t want to read up on it and would rather not know. In Yavapai County, as a whole, we’re a group of older, more educated people and we wanted to be entertained in a way that blockbuster films just can’t do. That’s the pitch for independent films, what I’ve been calling art house films. People are hungry for that kind of storytelling.
The Prescott Film Festival is June 8-16. Individual tickets are $12 ($6 for students). For a full schedule of screenings, workshops, and other events plus ticket packages, visit PrescottFilmFestival.Com.
James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.