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The Festival with a Heart

The programming director for the 28th annual Florida Film Festival gives us a look behind the curtain.

Matthew Curtis’ interest in movies started early. When he was 3 years old, his dad took him to see Pinocchio at the drive-in and, he says, something just clicked. A revelation: this was something he wanted to be a part of.

In the 1980s, he cut his teeth at a New York film company and then in ’87, he came to Central Florida where he started consulting for Orlando’s homegrown arthouse movie theater, the Enzian. When he was eventually offered the dual role of being the theater’s programming director and heading up the selection committee for the Florida Film Festival, he jumped at the chance.

Now, going into his 23rd year overseeing programming for the festival, Curtis says much about the event has changed. It’s bigger, for one thing. This year there will be more than 180 features and shorts shown and about 23,000 attendees. And the caliber of the movies has heightened with filmmakers from all over the world attempting to get their pictures screened here.

But although the prestige of this annual event has grown, it’s still retained its quaintness. As Curtis and festival-goers will tell you: This is the festival with a heart. The one where filmmakers come to receive an honest reaction to their work and commune with the passionate movie lovers of Central Florida.

Ahead of this year’s festival, which runs from April 12 to 21, Orlando Family Magazine caught up with Curtis to learn about how the films are selected, what’s new and exciting this year, and why Central Florida has been the right home for this cinephilia event.

I understand you get a lot of submissions from filmmakers for the festival. How many submissions would you say you got this year?
We got 2,014 submissions this year. And those 2,014 submissions were from 102 countries.

Wow. Do you and your team watch all of those?
Yeah, I have many teams. … So, I’ve got a narrative features committee, a domestic shorts committee, domestic documentaries committee, international committee, a midnight committee [and] people that specifically watch music films for me or food films. So there are many different people that really work hard and volunteer gracious amounts of their time, over many months, to make this happen.

… So, I don’t watch every single thing that they are watching but in some cases I do. And often I am the tiebreaker or I’m seeing the things that they’re in agreement about that we should be considering or things that they’re split about. … There’s not enough hours in the day for me personally to watch everything, which is why I have eight different committees to do that.

So out of these 2,014 submissions, how many get accepted?
There will be 184 total films this year. Out of that 184, there’ll be 54 features and 130 shorts and those films are going to represent 41 countries.

When you get the chance to screen some of these shorts and features, what excites you personally about one over another?
I think if it’s something that shows some originality, has its own vision. … There’s things that I have an emotional reaction to; there’s things that formally and technically may be so outstanding that even if it’s a plot that maybe we’ve seen a variation of before, it’s so well-made and so well-acted or shot or scored, directed, whatever it is, that it just stands out above the rest. … It’s always a wonderful surprise when something feels fresh the whole way through and succeeds on its own merit. … Just from having watched thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of movies between shorts and features in my life, you know it in your heart when something is right.

This is the 28th year of the festival. How has the event changed over time?
I mean obviously we used to be much, much smaller. When we started out in ’92, we got 300 submissions. It was a small group of us. We’d get together for dinner three nights a week and watch everything. [laughs] And that doesn’t happen anymore. Obviously, it’s much more organized and we know how to pull this off in the amount of time that we have … and be able to get the films that we want, which you still don’t get everything you want. There are things we can’t get because [the Tribeca Film Festival] is after us and a filmmaker is holding their U.S. premiere or their world premiere for Tribeca. And the Cannes Film Festival is in May and some things are held for Cannes. … That stuff happens so you always have to be ready to go with alternates. … And over the years the submissions have gotten better and better. The reputation of the festival has gotten better and better and, of course, we’re accredited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in all three shorts categories for best live action short, best animated short and best documentary short. And we’re still the only accredited festival in the state of Florida.

What does that accreditation mean?
So accreditation means that if the film wins a grand jury award at your festival, it’s already clear that they qualify for next year’s Oscars. There are different groups of festivals that are accredited but there are not many in the world that are accredited in all three categories and we’re the only festival in the state of Florida that’s accredited in any category, let alone all three.

What can you tell me about this year? What are you excited about?
Well, we have our first Florida feature as the opening night film in a very long time called Woman in Motion, which is about Nichelle Nichols, Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek, [and] the role that she played in diversifying the NASA space program and the shuttle program, which is fairly amazing that people will have no idea about this and she’s probably the single most important person responsible for women and minorities in the NASA space program. And it’s a fascinating film; it’s a terrific documentary. It’s by local filmmaker Todd Thompson, who’s had many shorts over the years play in the festival. … This will be a first-look screening for the film and we’re very excited about that.

… It’s our second year of our avant-garde experimental program which is called Sunspots: New Visions of the Avant-Garde. … We’ve never had an avant-garde program for the first 26 years of the festival, and last year we tried it for the first time. It was very well received. People were excited about that and it’s kind of for the films that don’t fit anywhere else in the festival and now they have a home.

What else can you tell me about?
It’ll be a 20th anniversary celebration of The Blair Witch Project, which is the most influential film to ever come out of Central Florida and one of the key and most influential films, especially horror films, of the last few decades. And of course Blair Witch was made by University of Central Florida graduates and it went on to spawn and inspire dozens if not hundreds of filmmakers. So we’re going to be doing a showing of The Blair Witch Project and having a lot of the cast and crew here for a discussion after the screening.

Can you tell me about some of this year’s forums?
We have a forum featuring Elizabeth Weitzman. She was a film critic for the New York Daily News for 15 years and she’s a film critic for The Wrap. And she is doing a forum called Turning the Tables: Renegade Women of Early Cinema. And Elizabeth just had a book published called Renegade Women of Film and Television and it’s all about the pioneering women in cinema. So for this forum, she’s going to be presenting five films from the most early famous women silent filmmakers between 1911 and 1923. … She’s going to be talking before the program, and then doing a book signing after the program.

We’re doing an animation forum for the first time in maybe ever, or many, many years: Sketches Insane: The Wild World of Animation. And Bill Plympton is going to be on that panel. He’s been nominated twice for Oscars. Andy London and three other fascinating and talented animators and filmmakers [will be on the panel as well].

What else can you tell me about the programming?
I think people are going to be surprised this year. You know, we try to offer something for everyone and we have a fairly diverse program but this year even as I was proofing the copy for this program, I noticed how many of our films are international productions. … And I don’t think that was a deliberate aim of ours, I just think it was the osmosis, the natural development of things where so many of these films we’re getting have universal subjects but international ties.

And we have some films representing these countries that we’ve rarely, if ever, have had before. We have the first horror film from Tunisia ever playing in the midnight section. We have Egypt’s official entry for the Oscars this year, Yomeddine. …We’ve got films from Serbia, Macedonia and Indonesia, all kinds of interesting places that you just don’t see.

… We also we have a ton of premieres: Of our 184 films, 150 of them are at least a Florida premiere and … at least 35 of the films are U.S. North American world premieres. So we’re showing fresh, new films. … There’s a ton of festivals in Florida now and a lot of really good ones and somehow we’ve been able to put together this program that’s both exciting and new and I definitely take a lot of pride in that.

Why do you think it’s important for independent films to have a place to exist in the world where people can go see them?
Well, I think these movies obviously represent original voices and perspectives that you wouldn’t get if you just went to the megaplexes and saw what the studios were cranking out, which we know are sequels and retreads and tons of superhero movies. (laughs) We’ve always said that our independent films are a window into the world and you would not get these windows into all these other cultures and perspectives if all you saw were studio films at AMC and Regal.

Why do you think Central Florida has been a good home for a festival like this?
I think Central Florida has always been very supportive of the arts and very supportive of Enzian and independent film. … Orlando is a top 30 market in the country, yet nobody ever comes here and feels that they’re getting anything other than an honest reaction to their work. The people here are not jaded at all by living in the big city. Filmmakers get a much more honest reaction to their work than they might get at a higher profile festival where there’s so much pressure to sell their movies or make an impression and things like that. … And we’re still small enough where people can feel like their film is a big fish in a little pond as opposed to some place where they’re just going to be totally overwhelmed. …The community is just very supportive and appreciative of what these filmmakers do. They know they sacrifice for their art and they know they have something to say and we’re willing to listen. And I think that’s part of what makes art in our town special and our area special for the festival.

What suggestions do you have for someone coming to the festival for the first time?
Take a chance on something you normally might not see. … Everybody has different tastes so if you like family films, we have a couple of great family films. If you like food films, we have a couple of terrific food films. We have really amazing music films this year. So whatever your interest is, there’ll be something for you. But also I would highly recommend taking a chance on something else. Go see something you wouldn’t normally be interested in or have at the top of your priority list and just check it out. …You know the theme this year is “one ticket is all it takes” and it’s true. You have no idea what buying one ticket for $12 can expose you to.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s April 2019 issue.

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