When audiences file into the Harkins Sedona 6 for the official opening of the Sedona International Film Festival and Workshop on Feb. 23, it kicks off four days of happy discovery for fans of independent films. But by that day, at least three and as many as five of the 30-35 volunteer screeners have been there and then some, having waded through somewhere between 900 and 1,000 submissions to identify the cream of the crop. They watch the dross, so you don’t have to.
For the rest of us, the Festival is about sitting back, grabbing some popcorn, and hoping what unfolds on screen makes us laugh or cry or think. But without the “back room” operations, from processing the growing number of submissions, to watching and rating them, to ultimately programming or rejecting them, there’s an intense effort to make the lineup rewarding, by a dedicated group whose main reward for giving their time is knowing that one little gem they discover might make someone’s weekend.
“It’s not just one or two people sitting in the film festival office making these decisions; it is a group effort,” explains Film Festival Executive Director Patrick Schweiss. “We have about 35 screeners who work diligently every single day, all volunteers, putting in their time and energy to pick the 125 films they think are appropriate for the Sedona audience. Each film is seen by at least three people, but some are seen by four or five because we can’t pull them out of circulation fast enough” for the eager viewers.
Debbie Williams, the Film Festival’s Operations Director, claims a little space by the window in a small office at the Chamber of Commerce building for her chair. It’s late October, and closing in around her are stacks of bulging looseleaf notebooks, DVD cases, filing cabinets, mountains of paper, and, most important for her sanity, two computers that hold a database.
With a month to go before the final, final (more or less) final deadline for submissions, she’s juggled paperwork and/or discs for about 600 films. She’s grateful about 500 so far had come from a Website called Without a Box, (www.withoutabox.com), an online clearinghouse that, for a fee, allows indie filmmakers to enter information about a film just once, and send it to any of 1,700 participating Festivals with one click. For Debbie, it is a lifesaver; info from Without a Box feeds directly into the Sedona festival’s database, developed by her brother, Tim Owen, drastically reducing the need for data entry. The 100 or so submissions that come into the office by other means require Debbie to enter all particulars into the database by hand, and there’s lots of it: Is it a narrative feature, documentary, short, or, in one of the Sedona festival’s fastest growing categories, animation? Is there a press kit? What format have they submitted in? Was the processing fee paid? And that’s just a start. Films are color-coded by category, and labels, and a master score sheet and tracking number generated and filed in a notebook. All applicants receive a note saying their film was received and is in consideration, a courtesy that sets Sedona apart and generates good will among filmmakers.