As the Chattanooga Film Festival gears up for another year of record-breaking attendance, find out why critics are hailing it the “Sundance of the South.”
“It’s not about how big or well-known the Chattanooga Film Festival becomes. At the end of the day, it’s just about bringing people together through art and film.” Bryan Center, Chattanooga Film Festival Submissions Coordinator, Shorts Programmer, and Box Office Manager
Lured by the sultry, temperate air and low business costs, filmmakers and movie stars alike have begun flocking to states like Tennessee, Louisiana, and Georgia to create their latest masterpieces. In the past few years, growing cinematic interest in the Southeastern U.S. has poured new energy into regional economies (read: New Orleans), tapped the creative juices of local filmmakers, and created general buzz as A-list actors dash about town shooting spots and dominating Moon Pie eating contests.
That’s right – we’re talking about Elijah Wood, the “Lord of the Rings” actor who came to Chattanooga last year to participate in our city’s own film festival. And he’s not the only big name to show up in the Scenic City of late. The months and years before Wood’s trip to Chattanooga were star-studded themselves, marked by visits from Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Harrison Ford. Now with the Chattanooga Film Festival poised for its biggest year yet, it seems such traffic is just beginning.
If You Build It, They Will Come…
The local film community’s vibrant, infectious energy is what first inspired local movie connoisseur Chris Dortch II to launch the Chattanooga Film Festival (CFF) just two years ago.
“Our city is full of hungry cinephiles and filmmakers, it’s just that many people don’t know it,” says Dortch, who is now the CFF’s executive director and lead programmer. “It had become hugely important to all of us to have more options from a cinematic standpoint.”
Up until then, Dortch had been busy growing Mise En Scenesters, a pop-up film club and movie theater he co-founded with Zach Zacharias in 2010. In only a short matter of time, what had begun as a small, grassroots effort to satiate the appetites of local movie buffs – 12 people watching a movie in Dortch’s living room – had taken on a life of its own. As the club grew, it seemed every screening was scoring higher attendance and every fundraising goal was met sooner.
In Dortch’s mind, starting a film festival was simply the next step in nurturing an already active local film community.
“In the beginning, we wanted to prove not only that a festival could exist here, but also that we had an audience, hungry for all types of great cinema,” says Dortch. “There were naysayers, but I still believed we had what it took to create something unique in the film festival world.”
“Chris had the idea for the festival after someone told him it couldn’t be done in town,” says Bryan Center, submissions coordinator, shorts programmer and box office manager with the CFF. “But he was already packing venues with monthly Mise En Scenesters screenings, so we knew it could.”
Bit by Bit, Putting it Together
When it came time to create a vision, Dortch was bursting with ideas. He had attended a wealth of festivals over the years and had long been inspired to craft his own event. The initial vision for the Chattanooga Film Festival was twofold: 1) to show content high quality enough to attract film industry experts, and 2) to include opportunities for students looking to become the cinematic voice of their generation.
Putting it together, though, proved to be quite an animal. Marketing the event and securing funds to grow emerged as the most challenging steps in the process of making this vision a reality.
“I’m a person who would much rather throw money into bringing more films here than buying ads and putting up billboards,” says Dortch. “But the reality is we have a responsibility to make sure people know where and when the festival is happening too.”
And this was just one of many tasks falling on the business side of things. As Dortch delved deeper into the intricacies of hosting the event, he saw that his team would need to wear multiple hats – from film enthusiasts to entrepreneurs to spokespeople for the Chattanooga community.
Fortunately, these were tasks he was more than prepared to undertake. “I love this city as much as I love movies themselves,” says Dortch. “I don’t take the responsibility to promote both lightly.”
You don’t have to look far to know Dortch’s passion has been infectious – the numbers prove it. From 2014 to 2015, Chattanooga Film Festival attendance more than doubled from 3,500 to 7,100. The past two years also saw growth in the number of films shown and in sheer volume of star power. The 2015 festival welcomed well-known actors as well as under-the-radar filmmakers expected to gain significant popularity in the near future.
But Dortch says attracting more stars isn’t exactly the point. “To us, all of our guests are famous,” he says. “We try to strike a balance between folks like Elijah, Bob Goldthwait, and Alex Winter and folks like Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the filmmakers of Spring, and Pat Healy, who we think, given another year or two, will be household names.”Bottom line: CFF’s mission is more about bringing sophisticated cinema to the Scenic City than it is about fame and fortune. The CFF team is driven by true love for motion pictures, a little bit of madness, and focused confidence in endless possibility.
Staging The Scene
What’s next for Dortch and crew? Today, they’re hard at work building their new headquarters in the Arts Building on 11th street in downtown Chattanooga. Called Cine-Rama, the venue is being outfitted to showcase both films and the creative process itself.
“Cine-Rama is the culmination of years of talking about opening an independent theater,” says Center. “We wanted a place where people could come to learn about films and filmmaking. Most importantly, we wanted a place to welcome everyone to come enjoy great films.”
Tentatively slated to open this December, Cine-Rama will screen documentaries and independent films as well as host educational events for budding filmmakers.
“Cine-Rama will serve as a year-round classroom, as well as a full-on indie and art house theater that shows quality films of all eras and all genres to the city,” says Dortch. “I hope it will become nothing less than the hub for all of film and filmmakers in the Southeast. I know that’s a grand statement. But we won’t stop hustling until it’s a reality.”