Like most arts groups the Prescott Film Festival has had a rough two years in putting together an annual event that many found themselves afraid to attend during the peak pandemic. But for the twelfth festival, says Director Helen Stephenson, “We feel like now we’re really back.”
Volunteers have returned in force, and the festival will feature a full slate of films at Yavapai College. The 2022 festival, set for Sept. 27-Oct. 2, will include the Manhattan Short Film Festival, a restored silent film with live music from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, social events, and educational workshops from the pros.
In 2020 the festival went online because the pandemic made it impossible to safely do an in-person event. In 2021 it took place at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center, and while it was more subdued than in past years, the cinephiles who attended were excited to see films in person, albeit sitting farther apart than usual, and even picked the same top films as the jury voters, a first for the festival. Committed film aficionados presumably possess similar sophisticated tastes.
Stephenson said this year’s festival will feel familiar to attendees from pre-pandemic years, returning to details such as a horse-themed poster, inclusion of a Western/horse film premiere, and access to a range of passes. The celluloid-film bookmarks used to publicize the festival can also be found throughout the city again.
One of the fresh additions to the event is the involvement of Greg Paul, Yavapai County’s new film-resource coordinator. Paul comes from New York, where he ran that city’s office of international film-production company NoBrainz Productions, which also has offices in Manzanillo and Calgary, and since his move to Prescott he is now running the Phoenix office as well.
Paul will be hosting a workshop on Wednesday, Sept. 28 called “The State of Film in Arizona: We Have a Tax Credit — What Does that Mean?” He’ll help aspiring filmmakers learn how they can use available public resources to help fund independent productions.
“I’m glad to be here. I spent the last ten years in New York, and came out here during Covid to be near family,” Paul said. Like most artists he had a day job to support his filmmaking habit, working at the Hudson Yards entertainment complex as a security specialist. When everything shut down his family urged him to come to Prescott, and he says he’s happy he did. Now he works as an on-air personality for KQNA radio and does his film work, too.
Paul’s involvement in the festival is just one more sign of how it has grown up over the years in helping educate Prescottonians on filmmaking. For example, one of the most popular features is the Manhattan Short Film Festival, something Stephenson says she wouldn’t have imagined when she launched it twelve years ago. “When I first got to town people didn’t know what a short film was.”
For this event, screening attendees in 500 venues during the same three-day period vote on the films, and the film festivals share the results so local audiences can compare their votes with those of the national audience. Stephenson expects this year’s featured horse-themed film, The Long Rider, will attract locals who love the inclusion of films that fit with the area’s ranching and rodeo aesthetic. She expects that the two showings will sell out, as usual.
“I’m not a horse person, but I was on the edge of my seat,” Stephenson said of the film. She also thinks it fits the type of film most viewers want to see in Prescott. “Our people really love uplifting movies. In the end, people want to feel good.”
One of the most heartwarming events took place during the tenth festival, when it screened the 2019 film Wish Man, about Frank Shankwitz, founder of the Make-Awish Foundation, Stephenson said. A girl who benefited from the program (and survived her illness) read a letter about her experience onstage and thanked him publicly. Shankwitz was moved by the experience, and put his cowboy hat on the girl. A Prescott resident, Shankwitz died in February of this year.
Horse-themed movies get an extra boost from other arts groups, too, like the Arizona Cowboy Poets, who helped promote the festival its event this year. Stephenson praises the “kindness” of the group in helping attract attendees.
Longtime volunteers, too, continue to help the festival grow in richness and professionalism, she said. Volunteers like Director of Curation Mike Simonyi, Marketing Director Ellen Harp, and Special Events Coordinator Rita Toikka keep everything running smoothly. This year a grant from the City of Prescott helped bring on a social-media specialist, Britny Jenkins. Even Stephenson’s husband Don Haxton has been an active supporter, creating a computer program called Film Fusion for volunteers to use in rating films, eliminating the need for managing hundreds of pieces of paper. He helps set up digital screenings, too.
This year’s remastered silent film, Steamboat Bill, Jr., features Buster Keaton in a madcap comedy. The Colorado-based Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will play live during the film, which thrills audiences. Attendees can buy tickets for a Roaring ‘20s-themed party in Yavapai College’s sculpture garden, with appetizers and wine, prior to the screening.
After the last film on closing night, the organizers host an afterparty with desserts, then announce the audience-choice winners.