By Sheena Barnett
OXFORD – Long lines, full theaters, happy audiences: That was the 2014 Oxford Film Festival.
The festival, now in its 11th year, has grown from a small-town festival into one of the most respected film festivals in the state, with hundreds of quality submissions, famous and up-and-coming filmmakers in attendance and theaters full of moviegoers.
Festival Director Molly Fergusson has been a part of the festival since its inception, and she’s pleased at its growth.
“I’d hate for it to ever get too big. It’s a good size. You can come to the festival and talk to any filmmaker you want to. You can stop people at parties, even,” she said. “That’s what makes it feel personal. You can actually get to know somebody.”
And that’s a big part of the festival. Local filmmakers get tips from their more famous peers; film fans get to meet the filmmakers behind the shorts, animations, documentaries and feature films they see on the big screen.
And for the filmmakers, they’re getting their pet projects in front of packed audiences.
Actors and filmmakers Richard Speight Jr. and Jason Ritter attended this year’s festival after attending it last year, and they brought along their friend and often co-star Rob Benedict for his first Oxford Film Festival.
Ritter, best known for roles in “Parenthood” and “The Event,” came to the festival to showcase his indie film “Teddy Bears.” “Supernatural” stars Speight and Benedict were there to showcase their short comedy “The Sidekick,” which also starred Ritter.
It was through word of mouth the actors landed at the festival; a friend told Speight about it, and then he recommended the festival to Benedict. Both stars told their “Supernatural” co-star Misha Collins to submit his short comedy “TSA America: Level Orange,” to the festival, and it screened on Friday.
Speight is also a judge for the festival, and all three actors spoke about their craft at a panel on Friday.
“Everybody you have here is real – there are no ulterior motives,” Speight said. “It’s more about movies and art than about business.”
Benedict was impressed with his first Oxford Film Festival.
“So far, so good,” he said on Friday. “I love that everything’s here, and that a party was at someone’s house. Everyone’s so sweet and nice. It’s nice to go somewhere where it’s not based on the industry.”
Fifty-eight of the 78 movies screened at this year’s festival had a filmmaker in attendance, a record for the festival. Panel topics included film scores, how to make short films, and animation, which was helmed by “Adventure Time” and “Spongebob Squarepants” writer and storyboard artist Kent Osborne. Lee County actors Kenny Cook and Casey Dillard were a part of the “Mississippi to the Big Screen” panel.
Dillard also helped write “Killer Kudzu,” the Oxford Film Festival’s fourth annual Community Film Project.
Jack Barbera, a professor emeritus of English at Ole Miss, said that’s one of his favorite aspects of the festival. He’s been a judge for the festival since it began.
“The community film is an example of getting the community involved; there are a lot of people in Oxford who are interested in making films,” he said.
He’s seen the quality of films submitted and screened at the festival grow in its 11 years.
“Once you’ve been around for a while, more filmmakers know about you and you have a wider pool to choose from, and the quality goes up,” he said. “I think this is the best one we’ve ever had. Every year I’ve been saying that, and every year it’s been true. We get better and better.”
The Oxford Film Festival had 525 submissions this year, and was able to show the best films from that bunch, Fergusson said.
The quality of submissions and bringing in the filmmakers are the two keys to making a good film festival, she said. The festival pays for the filmmakers to attend, including airfare, food and hotel, and that’s not cheap. The festival relies on sponsors – the list of sponsors includes arts organizations, local businesses and individuals – and tireless volunteers to keep the festival going.
“Money is always a struggle. We always sit down and talk about where we want to go. We’re realistic about what we can do and we focus on quality,” Fergusson said. “I think a lot of our (success) is our hospitality. We focus on the filmmaker. A lot of people have made connections (at the festival). They tell their friends, and word gets around.”
The festival worked like clockwork on Friday, with fans lining up to get into theaters – although no one had to wait for very long. They were attentive, quiet audiences who never let a cellphone go off. Ritter, Benedict and Speight didn’t just take quick photos with fans, but had conversations with everyone who stopped them.
At the end of their panel on Friday, Speight thanked the fans for being there.
“Keep making movies,” he said. “This festival is fantastic. We’ve been here before; we will be here again.”