That’s a wrap: Middlebury’s film fest sets new attendance record

MIDDLEBURY — The fourth annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival (MNFF) on Aug. 26 capped its most successful season ever, with organizers touting a 12-percent increase in attendance and new records set for the number of tickets sold for the five venues at which more than 100 quality shorts, documentaries and feature-length movies were screened from Aug. 23-26.
It was an event that also generated some boffo late-summer box office at many area shops, restaurants and hotels, which have been contending with challenges associated with the ongoing downtown Middlebury rail bridges project.
“With great certainty, this was our biggest, most successful festival yet — by every metric that we can get our hands on,” MNFF Producer Lloyd Komesar said last week.
While he and Associate Producer Phoebe Lewis were crunching some final numbers, Komesar estimated a combined total of 3,600 seats were filled by viewers during the four-day festival, which ran from Aug. 23-26. That’s an all-time high, and a bump of 400 compared to last year, according to Komesar.
“Our base increased by double-digits, which is a really good sign,” he said.
Organizers cited some additional records, including:
•  More than 400 festival passes put into circulation, a 20-percent increase.
•  400 “walk-up” tickets sold to the various films, a 66-percent bump.
•  A 108-percent growth in paid attendance.
•  A 20-percent increase in festival volunteers, who numbered more than 20 this year.
For the first time ever, the MNFF offered early, online sale of movie tickets, selling 170 in that fashion.
“It’s our first year doing that, and I think that’s a pretty good number,” Komesar said of online sales.
Festival leaders expected healthy attendance during the “primetime” film screenings on Friday and Saturday nights. But the 600 who showed up for films during both evenings out-paced expectations, according to Komesar.
The films’ popularity was also on display on other days of the event, organizers noted. A special Wednesday “kids and family day” at the Marquis Theater did very well, and venues also reported a steady stream of attendees during the opening Thursday (Aug. 23) of the festival.
“Kids and family day” made its MNFF debut on Aug. 22 and featured a series of youth-friendly films, as well as a science component. Lewis was the lead organizer.
“It was hugely successful,” Komesar said. “We would do this again, for sure.”
DIRECTOR NANCY SCHWARTZMAN won the CLIO Visualizing History Prize for the Advancement of Women in Film for her work Roll Red Roll. Photo by Mike Conley
But the success of this year’s MNFF can’t be measured exclusively in dollars, cents and attendance, Komesar noted. He believes the quality of the 2018 crop of films — culled from 475 festival submissions — was the highest ever.
“The ‘joy’ factor was very high this year,” Komesar said of the audience appreciation of the product. “My impression was that people had a fantastic time.”
Contributing to the good times, according to festival officials, were this year’s special guests. They included two-time Academy Award nominee Steve James, whose documentary film credits include “Hoop Dreams”; production designers David and Sandy Wasco, who recently received the Academy Award for their work on Damien Chazelle’s 2017 musical, “La La Land”; two-time Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple, who returned to MNFF this year to show her newest film, “A Murder in Mansfield”; Oscar-winner Peter Davis, whose documentary film “Hearts and Minds” helped change the conversation about the Vietnam War; and Pakistani filmmaker Mo Naqvi, who received the festival’s “Courage in Filmmaking Award.”
Komesar and Lewis were pleased most of the festival luminaries were able to linger between and after films, and thus able to network with young filmmakers and audience members.
“I was really struck this year by the number of special guests who came to the parties and were really part of the festival experience,” Lewis said. “That’s not something you get at many festivals.”
THOMAS D. HERMAN, who directed Dateline-Saigon received an award for best documentary feature. Photo by Anna Lueck
“(The special guests) this year were very entertaining and accessible,” Komesar said. “This just leads to my conclusion that Middlebury is a festival where the mingling, networking and the conversations all rise to a level higher than most festivals. Maybe it’s the beauty of our town. It might be that our venues are all walkable; you don’t have to drive anywhere. The energy stays here because a large number of people don’t have to be exported somewhere 5 miles away by car.”
Folks who missed MNFF4 offerings will get a chance to sample some of the movies beginning this fall, through the winter and into next May. The schedule calls for Town Hall Theater to screen one curated festival film per month for a total of seven. More details about those films will be released during the weeks to come.
The top films of the 2018 festival — as decided by a panel of MNFF judges — will go on a special Vermont tour in the near future.
Two days after the festival closing, organizers had already received 40 thank-you letters from filmmakers. Komesar believes those folks will continue to spread word about MNFF and thereby make the festival an even hotter ticket in the future.
And more attendees will not only be good for MNFF. It’ll also help downtown merchants, restaurateurs and lodgers.
Nancy Malcolm is a leader of the citizens’ group “Neighbors Together,” which is looking at creative ways to help minimize the downtown bridges construction disruption for property owners, residents, visitors and businesspeople.
She was pleased with the extra downtown foot traffic she saw Aug. 23-36.
“The last weekend of August used to be considered a ‘dead weekend’ — no one was around as people were off grabbing the last bits of summer and transitioning into fall,” Malcolm said. “I’m a huge fan of the creative economy and the film festival is the creative economy on steroids. It brings hundreds of people into town and with that influx comes a positive, vibrant energy. You could easily pick out pockets of folks enjoying themselves and having discussions about the film they just saw and looking in store windows or, just figuring out where to get a bite to eat before the next event. The main thing was there was plenty of activity. There was so much activity that you were not even aware of the construction in the middle of town. It puts Middlebury in a good light — a definite win-win for all.”
Karen Cox is the innkeepers’ assistant at the Inn on The Green at 71 S. Pleasant St., right across from the Town Hall Theater. She said the 11-room inn was full during MNFF weekend, with at least two rooms booked by festivalgoers. And she noted other guests attended festival screenings after hearing about the event.
“It was quite enjoyed by the guests who were here,” Cox said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
Judges’ top picks
Winners of the Fourth Annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival’s “VTeddy” awards
•     Best documentary short: “I was Here,” directed by Julian Dalrymple.
•     Best narrative short: “Honeypot,” directed by Jill Greenberg.
•     Best documentary feature: “Dateline-Saigon,” directed by Thomas D. Herman.
•     Best narrative feature: “Until First Light,” directed by Kyle Armstrong.
•     Jacob Burns Film Center Creative Culture Award: “Monty,” directed by Margaret Metzger.
•     Mo Naqvi, for “Courage in Filmmaking.”
•     Vermont Symphony Award for Best Integration of Music into Film: “Hidden Blueprints — The Story of Mikey,” directed by Jeremy Lee Mackenzie.
•     The Hernandez/Bayliss Prize: “The Providers,” directed by Laura Green, Anna Moot-Levin.
•     The Clio Visualizing History Prize for the Advancement of Women in Film: “Roll Red Roll,” directed by Nancy Schwartzman.
•     Gaia Prize for Environmental Filmmaking: “Yasuni Man,” directed by Ryan Patrick Killackey (pictured, right).
•     Sustained Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking: Steve James.
•     Sustained Excellence in Production Design: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco.
•     Sustained Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking: Alan Dater and Lisa Merton.

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