Filmmakers festival is gearing up for year five

MIDDLEBURY — Organizers of the fifth annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival (MNFF) are setting the stage for what they believe will be one of the best-ever showcases of budding cinematographic talent, to be displayed on five screens this coming Aug. 22-25.
Festival Producer Lloyd Komesar and Artistic Director Jay Craven last week reported receiving 340 film submissions. Judges are whittling those down to what they believe are the 75-85 best submissions (to go along with around 20 curated films) that will vie for “VTeddy” awards in several categories, including Best Feature Narrative, Best Short Narrative, Best Feature Documentary, Best Short Documentary, Audience Award Feature and Audience Award Short categories. The festival will also confer multiple cash prizes and in-kind awards to feature and short film directors. This 2019 MNFF features a new $1,000 cash award, the Shouldice Family Prize for best Vermont-made film. 
This year’s 340 film submissions will be easier to manager than last year’s all-time high of 475, Komesar noted.
The 2019 festival, like its predecessors, will include lively panel discussions covering a variety of topics. One of those topics will be about the role of Public Television in advancing films. Ron Bachman, senior director of WGBH Public Television in Boston, will lead that discussion.
Other panels are still taking shape, and will likely follow a couple of themes that are emerging from this year’s film entries, according to Craven. One of theme is “our changing natural world,” driven in part by a film called “The Pollinators,” which explores the importance bees, whose numbers are unfortunately dwindling.
That environmental theme will continue with another 2019 MNFF film titled “The Biggest Little Farm,” which is about a California couple that organizes a communal effort to turn a sterile, 200-acre piece of land into a super-productive agricultural enterprise.
Agriculture is the centerpiece of yet another MNFF film, “The Blueberry Farmer,” about a man named Bernie Ellis and his effort to grow medical cannabis on land in Tennessee, in spite of the federal government’s objections.
Festival passes and opening night tickets went on sale May 20.
Opening night always sells out, and this year won’t be different, Komesar said.
“We’re down to just a few (opening) tickets, then we’ll be going to a waiting list,” he said.
Organizers have raised the festival pass price by $5, from $80 to $85 — if you order it online by the end of July. Beginning Aug. 1, that pass will cost $95.
“It’s still a bargain compared to other festivals, where passes are (upwards of) $200,” Craven said.
Of course, attendees will also be able to purchase day passes and tickets for specific films. For more information on that and all things MNFF, log on to middfilmfest.org.
Festival leaders are putting together a “kids & family day” at the Marquis Theater on Wednesday, Aug. 22. Three family friendly films will be screened, and children will be able to participating in a filmmaking project.
The MNFF’s complete film lineup and related trailers will be featured on the MNFF website by early August. Judging, headed by Craven, should be completed within two weeks, according to Komesar.
As was the case last year, the MNFF venues will be the Marquis Theater, the Town Hall Theater, and Middlebury College’s Dana Auditorium and Twilight Hall. And organizers will have a home base for MNFF operations: The former Diner restaurant on Merchants Row, now owned by THT. Plans call for the alley between the Diner and THT to be decorated and feature tables and seats for moviegoers to take a rest and perhaps purchase food and drink from the Kitchen Evolution food van that will be parked in the alley.
It’s clear the festival is gaining traction by reputation, as opposed to merely through publicity.
“We’re getting a larger number of films resulting from word of mouth, filmmakers who have been here before who are telling other filmmakers,” Craven said. “There is a ‘family’ aspect of the festival that is growing, in terms of filmmakers who have been here more than once. Lloyd is great about reaching out and making sure that family stays intact.”
While entrants lose their eligibility after their second submitted film, some become fans and return for the experience. And film producers have found MNFF a good place to network and spot talent. Among those producers is Beth Levison, a Middlebury College graduate.
“This will be (Levison’s) third year here,” Komesar said. “She’s becoming a go-to producer in the world of independent documentary filmmaking. We’re happy to have her as a staple, because she’s doing high-quality work.” 
The festival each year honors successful, established filmmakers for specific works and/or lifetime achievement. For example, two-time Academy Award winning documentarian Barbara Kopple will be back this year for her fourth consecutive MNFF.
“We’re interested in what our honorees continue to do, so we will bring them back,” Craven said. 
“We want the festival to be accessible, friendly, familial,” Craven added. “We don’t just want to open the door to a retail operation each year; we want to actually advance the dialogue that includes people who have been part of that dialogue for several years.”
It’s a dialogue that Komesar and Craven were confident would emerge after the inaugural festival in 2015.
“Neither of us thought this should be a one-off,” Komesar said. “It’s too much work for a one-off. But we didn’t have a clear sense of how much traction we would get, and how quickly.”
The inaugural festival in 2015 drew great reviews that inspired Komesar and Craven to make MNFF a yearly entertainment staple, and, more importantly, an important means by which aspiring filmmakers can get discovered.
Through trial and error, contributions from volunteers and sponsors, the MNFF has established itself as a bona fide draw on the regional film festival circuit.
“We have found a niche that works,” Komesar said. “The quality of films we’re receiving continues to reflect the value of this niche. There are very few festivals completely dedicated to new filmmakers. So this to us seems like a very worthy place to be, and we’ve stayed as true to this formula as we possibly can.”
Planning for the next festival always seems to start right after the preceding extravaganza concludes. This year’s MNFF team includes a new face: Associate Producer Isabel Merrell. The Middlebury College senior served last year as the festival’s business production intern, which saw her help participating filmmakers pin down housing, get their work promoted on the MNFF website, and other related tasks. As associate producer, she helps coordinate press inquiries and makes sure things are running smoothly at the film venues.
Upcoming work on the downtown Middlebury rail bridges project won’t affect the MNFF either this summer or next, Komesar stressed. No construction work will take place during the festival, he noted, and the scheduled 10-week shutdown of Main Street and Merchants Row in 2020 will have concluded by the time next year’s festival rolls around.
“The show will go on,” Komesar said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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