As more than 10,000 people flock to Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale this weekend for the Scottsdale Film Festival, founder Amy Ettinger will be breathing a well-deserved sigh of relief.
Since the festival’s inception in 2001, Ettinger and her passionate team have worked tirelessly to bring the Valley hundreds of captivating films from across the globe, continually raising the bar of audience expectations each year. In an early-morning phone call with The East Valley Tribune, Ettinger discussed the painstaking process of choosing each year’s films, how the festival has grown since its humble beginnings and what movies she’s looking forward to both this weekend and later this year.
To begin with, could you take me through the process of how you choose what films will be featured at the festival?
It’s really a labor of love, in the sense that you look at the overall scope of the festival, and it’s going to be 38 or 40 films. You know that going in, it’s not going to be hundreds like some of the other festivals – maybe someday it’ll be that big but right now, you know that the scope in terms of the overall count is going to be 38 films that show at 65 or 70 different times, something like that. Each film, on the most part, plays twice, except for some Hollywood premieres and some studio fare.
You know that going in and you know your audience is comprised of certain groups of people who are going to expect to see certain things, like we know we have a huge French core of followers that love French films. A very large portion of our audience is Jewish, so you know, Israeli or Jewish-themed films are going to be important for such a big core of our audience that’s there. It sort of sets the tone in terms of, “Well, we have to remember to pick French films or these Jewish and Israeli-themed films” so we know there’s going to be at least three of each of those.
It’s really a subtraction process. Now you’re left with, “Alright, now I’m left with 32 more films to find and then it just gets fun, because I actually, with a team – it’s not just me – go out and get foreign films that are playing at international film festivals around the world. We start in January and we start reading up and looking at the films that trend well at festivals that may never make it to the big screen in terms of a Hollywood release or a distribution field, but there are a lot of films out there that are playing well across the world for many, many months and we want to show them here before they light up…who knows where.
We do a lot of chasing down films that are getting a lot of buzz at festivals but will never see the light of day otherwise. Often, just to put a capper on it, we try to find something to do a sidebar, like a spotlight to focus on each year that isn’t the Jewish or the French film. This year we’re doing a GLBT, you know, a lesbian-gay-bisexual-transsexual spotlight, and we got four films that speak to that, and next year, I know already we’re going to do an Italian sidebar.
Then it’s just a case of, “Okay, now we’ve got literally the whole world at our fingertips, we need to find a balance between religion, ethnicities, continents, countries, and languages, which is a pretty tall order for the remaining 36 films. Then we start asking for films we’re interested in, we see hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of films that we either fall in love with or can’t have, or fall in love with and can have, or don’t fall in love with.
In the 12 years since the festival’s beginning, how have you seen it grow?
Over the last 12 years, the growth has kind of been like a slow creep – each year, we have just a few more audience members than the year before, you know, maybe another 100 or 700 or 800. Then, about 5 years ago, we got a large underwriter – like angels – a couple that have a foundation who started writing us really big checks and giving us the ability to spend our money in a way that got the word out. We had great programs, but we had a hard time telling people – we just didn’t have enough money to really get the word out. They hoisted our ability to promote and buy more seats, because we didn’t have enough seats and were turning people away.
They’re called the Century Arts Foundation and that was 5 years ago. This is the last year for the festival of the Century Art Foundation’s participation, at least at the level that they’ve been writing the checks at. So we went slowly at first, but then by leaps and bounds. Last year, we grew by almost another 2,500, and I think this year, if I get my way, we’ll grow at least 1,500, if not 2,000 or 2,500. We went from our third year being about a couple thousand to this year being about 10,000.
Aside from some of the fest’s bigger movies like “Eye of the Storm” and “Struck By Lightning”, are there any other movies that you’re especially excited for Valley audiences to see?
I’m glad that we have the closing night film that we have, it’s called “The Sessions”, and that’s kind of an easy one, that’s kind of like the no-brainer. It’s Helen Hunt and John Hawkes, and they’re already being talked about for Oscar nominations, like everybody says, “There’s no way they’re not going to get Oscar nods.” That’s really nice for us to be able to go out on that note.
In between the opening-night film and the closing-night film, we are chockfull of films from Kazakhstan and Iraq – there’s a really powerful film from Iraq – and Albania. There’s films from Italy, France and Germany, and some of the largest films are in there, but there’s a lot of smaller films that we’re really knocked out about. We always have a focus on Latin America and Spain, and this year we have a focus on Latin America, because of where we live and our proximity to the border and issues that are going on and there’s a lot of Spanish-speaking people in this town. I’ve got my babies, and I list in the program guide my five films that I’m glad to have discovered.
Aside from the movies showing at the fest this weekend, are there any other films that you’re particularly excited to see this fall or winter?
I’m very interested in seeing “Amour” because it’s getting huge buzz across all the film festivals, but I’ve got to tell you, there’s a film I have called “Volcano”, which is sort of in the same genre as “Amour”, and there are a lot of people that thought “Volcano” was a much better film than “Amour”. So I’m anxious to see “Amour” when it comes out because of the buzz and I’m very curious to see “Argo” when it’s released, with Ben Affleck, and I’m really looking forward to that new Halle Berry film, “Cloud Atlas”. So those are three films that I have on my radar, but if people are excited to see “Amour”, they should also see “Volcano” during the festival so they can compare them.
Finally, why do you encourage everybody to come check out the festival this weekend?
It’s the same thing I say every year – and if something works, I just keep on doing it. What I’m going to say on opening night, at “Struck By Lightning”, what I’m going to say to these people is, “You came here to see this film, but show of hands if this is the only film that you’re going to see.” Typically, half the audience or more only planned to see the one film. Then my comment to them is, “If it’s because you’re not a fan of subtitles and think that the rest of this festival is just films with subtitles, first of all, that isn’t correct, we have a lot of films that are in English. Second of all, I challenge you all to see one more film in this festival – I don’t care what it is, just see one more film that you weren’t planning to see and if you don’t like it, then that’s it, you’ve gone, you’ve seen one more film. If you do like it, though, come back to see more and tell all of your friends.”
What happens is, every year, several people will email me or find me in the hallway and say, “You know, you said to see one more film and I really wasn’t planning to, but I did and I thought it was so great, and I told all my friends and we’re coming back and there’s six of us and we’re going to see such-and-such on Sunday” or “I bought a whole festival pass” or “Next year I’m going to buy a VIP pass.” All they need is that little bit of encouragement to step outside their comfort zone and try one more film and they’re hooked. All we really need to do is encourage a few people to just see one more film, and the whole thing really starts to take off.
DETAILS>> The Scottsdale Film Festival runs from October 5-9 at Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale. For more information, visit scottsdalefilmfestival.com or call (866) 811-4111.