Arts & Leisure

Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival wraps up its 5th successful season

MNFF ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Jay Craven, right, asks legendary film director and screenwriter Paul Schrader a question about his career during a Q&A after the screening of his film “First Reformed” at Town Hall Theater during the recent Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. Schrader, writer of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” was given a VTeddy Award for Sustained Excellence in Cutting Edge Filmmaking.

The Paul Schrader discussion was wide ranging and very engaging. People got quite a bit out of listening to him talk about his career. I think (the event) can be considered a homerun.
— Lloyd Komesar

MIDDLEBURY — The fifth annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival (MNFF5) was a rousing success by virtually all barometers. It broke attendance records and drew some of the best quality films in the history of the four-day event that has become a major attraction for Addison County’s shire town.
Festival Producer Lloyd Komesar said MNFF5, which kicked off with a Kids & Family Day on Aug. 21 and wrapped up with the screen of the documentary film “Ernie & Joe” on Aug. 25, filled more cinema seats than ever.
Based on a preliminary count of seats filled at five viewing venues, Komesar estimated 4,500 people attended the screenings. That’s up 25 percent from last year’s 3,600.
“That’s an all-time record, by far,” Komesar said. “That’s huge, for a small festival like ours.”
Festival organizers this year sold 260 festival passes, a 26-percent increase compared to the 207 sold last year. But even more impressive was the three-fold jump in individual movie tickets sold in advance this year: 467, compared to the 160 that folks ordered last year prior to MNFF4.
Spectators had 52 movie screening options at their disposal during the festival. Of those, 15 were sellouts — a 29-percent bump from last year, Komesar noted.
Area restaurateurs, lodgers and merchants received a nice boost through MNFF-goers. Some filmmakers came from as far away as the United Kingdom, Hawaii, San Francisco and Texas, according to Komesar.
“It’s very robust,” Komesar said of the MNFF’s growth. “I kind of sensed it early on, with so many people here. And the sales metrics back it up.”
Komesar and MNFF Artistic Director Jay Craven were also pleased with public interest in the festival’s special events and panel discussions.
“Our festival has grown each year, in direct response to the mandate our audiences and filmmakers provide,” Craven told the Independent in an email exchange. “They make it possible for us to try new things and find new ways to connect emerging filmmakers to a discerning audience here in Middlebury. I find a palpable sense of discovery present each year — and it’s that energy that keeps this experience fresh for me. Each year’s festival edition takes on a life of its own.”
Panel discussions this year included “Navigating the PBS Programming World — Producers and Acquirers Tell All,” and “Independent Film Distribution — Where is the Business Headed?” The panels were stocked with PBS and independent film industry experts.
Around 60 people attended the independent film discussion, according to Komesar.
Also proving nice draws were special salutes to veteran, celebrity filmmakers and actors. Among them: screenwriter Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”), Ricki Stern (director of the documentary “Reversing Roe”) and actor Bruce Greenwood (“Star Trek” and “Capote”).
The Schrader event sold out, Komesar said.
“By all accounts, the Schrader discussion was wide ranging and very engaging,” Komesar said. “People got quite a bit out of listening to Paul Schrader talk about his career. I think (the event) can be considered a homerun.”
MNFF5 also brought news of a new grant program that will help MNFF alums get future film projects off the drawing board. Seeded by Cornwall’s Churchill and Janet Franklin, the “MNFF Franklin Film Development Fund” is designed to stimulate the making of feature-length dramas and comedies. Each year, the fund will award $10,000 grants to two filmmakers whose narrative scripts are selected by a panel of judges. Each recipient will need to match the $10,000 grant for a total of $20,000 to use to breathe life into their respective projects.
Komesar confirmed the film production company Sundial Pictures — founded and led by Middlebury College grad Stefan Nowicki (class of 2002) — will each year work with one of the grant recipients to further develop their film project toward potential fruition.
“We’d love to see a script come out of our alumni,” Komesar said. “It gives our festival further distinction and cachet to be able to say that within our closed universe of filmmakers, there will be two scripts giving grants and one of those scripts will be selected for further development on the path toward making an effective movie.”
While the festival is over, Komesar and Craven are busy making sure the festival remains in the movie going public’s collective consciousness.
The duo will pick three MNFF5 feature films to tour seven Vermont towns during the weekend of Feb. 7-9, 2020.
“We’re in the process of negotiating deals to take them out,” Komesar said. “They’ll be films we feel are representative of our festival.”
Festival officials are also finalizing “MNFF Selects,” a series of eight biographical films that will be shown at Town Hall Theater at a rate of one per month, beginning on Oct. 17 with “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.” The series will resume on Nov. 15 with “David Crosby: Remember my Name.” Then on Dec. 8, folks will get a chance to see “Amazing Grace,” a documentary about the legendary “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin.
“We will present strong biographical films of both women and men of great distinction,” he said.
For more information about MNFF5 — and for submission rules for next year’s festival — log on to

MNFF5 award winners
• Best documentary short: “Maria,” directed by Shiri Paamony Eshel.
• Best documentary feature: “Don’t Be Nice,” directed by Max Powers.
• Best narrative short: “Sophia,” directed by Jared Rosenthal.
• Best narrative feature: “The Return of Richard III on the 924 a.m. Train,” directed by Eric Bu.
• Audience award — short: “Topanga,” directed by Aycil Yeltan.
• Audience award — feature: “Busy Inside,” directed by Olga Lvoff.
• VTeddy award for sustained excellence in cutting edge filmmaking: Paul Schrader.
• VTeddy award for sustained excellence in acting: Bruce Greenwood.
• Vermont Symphony Orchestra Award for best integration of music into film: “Sophia,” directed by Jared Rosenthal.
• Hernandez/Bayless Prize for the feature film that best captures the triumph of the human spirit: “Ingrid,” directed by Morrisa Maltz.
• Clio Visualizing History Prize for the Advancement of Women in Film: “This Little Land of Mines,” directed by Erin McGoff. This award is presented to a woman filmmaker whose feature film boldly portrays a person or event of historical significance.
• Gaia Prize for Environmental Filmmaking: “The Pollinators,” directed by Peter Nelson.
• Shouldice Family Prize for best Vermont-Made Film: “Major Arcana,” directed by Josh Melrod.

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