Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
For whatever reason, spring is the time of year when Arkansas's crop of film festivals blossom along with the daffodils. This year is no exception, with old favorites being joined by a new, well-funded and very diverse festival in North Arkansas.
The biggest news in Arkansas film so far this year has to be the new Bentonville Film Festival, which will run May 5-9, with a stated goal of "championing women and diversity in film." Academy Award-winner Geena Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, is a founding partner in the festival, which has a number of big-wheel sponsors — including ARC Entertainment, Walmart, Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods — and a busload of influential folks on its board of advisers, including Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Julianne Moore, Carrie-Anne Moss and Natalie Portman.
Specific details about programming and which stars will be in attendance at the festival are scarce at this point, but festival organizers promise at least 50 films in competition, all featuring women and minorities either on- screen or in prominent roles behind the scenes. The films that take home the three biggest prizes — Audience Award, Jury Award and Best Family Film — will receive $25,000 and a distribution agreement that guarantees they will run on at least 25 screens at AMC Theaters. There's also a screenwriting competition (deadline March 31, with a $50 filing fee, or April 13, with a $70 late filing fee) with the grand prize winner receiving a $1,500 prize and an award presented by actor Bruce Dern. Scripts must be feature length (between 85 and 135 pages long, in standard format). For more information, go to bentonvillefilmfestival.com
Also on deck for this spring is the annual Ozark Foothills Film Festival, which will screen 28 films starting April 3, over half of them Arkansas premieres. Now in its 14th year, the OFFF has made a number of changes this year, including Judy Pest taking over as executive director for her husband, longtime director Bob Pest. Judy Pest said the scheduling of the festival has also changed, with films shown on two consecutive weekends instead of one. Half the films will be shown April 3 and 4, and the other half April 10 and 11. All screenings will take place at Independence Hall on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Batesville.
"We've had a challenge trying to get folks in this area to do things on Sundays," Pest said. "So this year, we're doing two consecutive Friday/Saturdays. That gives people two options. If they're not from the area and they want to come in for the festival, they can kind of scope out which weekend has more films they'd be interested in."
Another change is the awarding of prizes for best Arkansas narrative film and best Arkansas documentary film, which will both be awarded the weekend of April 4, the day devoted to Arkansas-made films.
One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the OFFF's tradition of screening a silent film with live classical accompaniment. This year, it's the 1928 film "Lonesome," a recently restored feature about a couple's Fourth of July trip to Coney Island, by director Paul Fejos. The film will screen at 8 p.m. Friday, April 10, at the University of Arkansas-Batesville and will be accompanied by an original score by the Doug Talley Quartet.
Pest said the festival lineup this year is particularly good, with over 20 filmmakers scheduled to attend. In the narrative category, she recommends "Northern Borders" by director Jay Craven. The film, which stars Bruce Dern, is about a 10-year-old boy sent to live on his grandparents' Vermont farm in 1956. Craven, who Pest said is a strong proponent of "micro-budget" and community-based filmmaking, will be in town for the screening, and will host Q&As about both the film and community-based filmmaking.
In the documentary category, one film that looks good (and has a connection to a famous Arkansas narrative film) is "Misfire: The Rise and Fall of the Shooting Gallery." The doc tells the story of the ragtag, independent production company that contributed mightily to the rise of the indie film scene in the 1990s, producing "Stand By Me" and the Arkansas-filmed "Sling Blade," among other movies. "They had a sort of meteoric rise," Pest said, "and a number of circumstances combined to contribute to an equally meteoric fall. That's interesting in terms of the history of independent film."
For more information about the Ozark Foothills Film Festival, including a full schedule and information about buying tickets, visit ozarkfoothillsfilmfest.org.
The other big daddy of Arkansas film festivals is the Little Rock Film Festival, which runs this year from May 11 to May 17. Little Rock filmmaker Gabe Gentry is the new director of the festival. Gentry, a UCA grad who has worked on documentary projects with festival founders Craig and Brent Renaud, previously served as the festival's media director. Gentry said that though he has only been on the job about four-and-a-half months, his goal from the outset has been to work on the fundamentals that will improve the experience of attending.
"For example, we have a technical walkthrough that's going to happen next week, with the goal of really professionalizing the [screening] spaces," he said. "We'll be putting up pipe and draping. We'll have the most comfortable chairs that we can that are still portable. We're looking at laser projectors, and professional sound, professional projectionists — really trying to perfect the experience."
Another move toward improving the festival experience, Gentry said, is to consolidate the venues. Other than a few screenings at the Clinton Presidential Center, every film will be shown within easy walking distance of the festival's base, the Ron Robinson Theater. Venues for 2015 also include the Butler Center, the Clark Room at the River Market, Stickyz Rock 'n' Roll Chicken Shack and the third floor of the Cox Creative Center.
"We're trying to keep everything — with the exception of the Clinton Library — within about 100 feet of the Ron Robinson Theater," Gentry said. "Rather than stretching out into the Main Street area or to downtown North Little Rock, we've really tried to consolidate the festival to recapture some of that energy of running into one another."
Gentry, who has been a bronze-level pass-holder since the early days of the festival, said that one of the new features he's most proud of this year is a planned tally system that will reward bronze pass-holders who attend more than 10 festival screenings between Monday, May 11, and the festival's annual party on the Junction Bridge on May 15. He said the plan is to upgrade those bronze pass-holders who attend 10 screenings to the "Gold Pass experience."
A gold pass — normally $300 — is "all access," with priority seating at every film, free drinks at many events, access to the filmmaker lounge and other amenities.
"I want to honor people who really attend a lot of screenings — who go and binge on the films and have dialogue with our visiting filmmakers," Gentry said. "I want to reward them for that.
Gentry said the festival will not be ready to make announcements about which films will be screening at the festival until early April. For more information, visit littlerockfilmfestival.org.