Interview: Phoenix Film Festival Director Jason Carney

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The 15th Annual Phoenix Film Festival occurs this year from Thursday, March 26th to Thursday, April 2nd. Continually breaking attendance records since its inception, last year’s festival saw over 25,000 attendees, and there are hopes to pull in even more film enthusiasts this year.

We’ve had some great experiences of our own at the Phoenix Film Festival over the years, and I recently sat down with festival director Jason Carney to talk about the continued growth of the event, and what we can expect this year.

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One thing I notice about the Phoenix Film Festival is that it seems to grow almost exponentially every year. As the director of the festival, does that give you a certain sense of pride?

Oh yeah, it’s awesome to see that growth, and the quality of films. That’s the big thing for me, to see the quality of films get better every year. That means we’re doing it right. There are festivals that have been around for 30 years, in similar-sized markets – they’re kind of our peers – and even with a 20-year head start, we’ve already caught up to a lot of them, and even surpassed some of them.

And that just speaks to our commitment to our filmmakers, and the audience members, to bring them quality films. That’s what separates us, and it’s also the way we take care of our filmmakers while they’re here.

Yeah, there are plenty of filmmakers – like Zak Forsman, Paul Osborne, and Gary King – who I’ve spoken to personally, and who have nothing but great things to say about their experiences here.

That’s really high praise, especially from guys like that who have played dozens of festivals. They’ve seen a lot of different festivals, big and small, so for them to keep coming back and calling us their favorite, that says a lot about the hard work that we put in. Sometimes I just wonder… I don’t know what it is that we do. What’s the trick? What are we doing? And I think it’s just the fact that we treat them with respect, and we take care of the independent filmmakers, the competition filmmakers, just as well as we take care of any celebrity that comes to town.

And I think they really appreciate that, and the fact that they get face time with the people that run the festival. A lot of times the festival directors are off with sponsors or off with celebrities, and they’re not focusing on the filmmakers who have put their hearts and souls into these films. We think it’s important that they get our time, and they feel like the stars of the festival.

Has the International Horror and Sci-Fi Festival always been a part of the Phoenix Film Festival?

Originally it was a standalone event, for the first five or six years. And then both festivals kind of got to the point where it was too much to run them as standalone events, and both events kind of suffered. Trying to run one event in October, and the other in April, it was hard to give both events the attention they deserved. So we wanted to bring them together, not only to put the horror and sci-fi on a bigger stage, but also help make both events better logistically.

Have you given any thought to how you might handle the continued growth, and how the festival might be expanded?

Yeah, there are a couple of ideas we’ve talked about. Right now during the weekdays, we just have evening screenings, and we’ve talked about adding daytime screenings during the weekdays. And maybe a little further down the road, when we have the infrastructure, maybe we add another weekend to make it a 10-day festival. But that’s a little further off in the future.

How involved are you with the programming of the festival?

Our competition films are all chosen by programmers. We have program directors for each individual category, because the sheer scope of us getting in 1200 to 1400 films is just crazy. So all those films are previewed by a committee and  narrowed down, and the program directors choose from the cream of the crop – they put their stamp on those selections.

The program directors are mostly volunteers that have been with us for awhile, and the ones that have come on more recently, I’ve developed a comfortable rapport with them and I trust their choices. All of our programmers are really unique people, and so you kind of see that variety in the films that we program for the festival.

My focus is on the showcase films, the non-competition studio films. That’s where my focus is, and the other guys do their thing.

For those showcase films, do you make it a point to go after certain titles? Or do you wait for films to come to you?

We do a little bit of research. We’ll go through and see how films have played at festivals, how they’re reviewed, and we have relationships with certain distributors that will give us some options. For some of the higher profile films, we’ve got to go on their reputation and what we know about the film, because we don’t get screener copies. But some of the smaller films, we’ll get a chance to see them and make our choices based on that.

Once again, it comes down to having that variety. Trying to get some higher profile films that will appeal to a mainstream audience, and then also getting some good random stuff that you otherwise might not be able to find.

Tell me a little bit about this Noah Baumbach retrospective you’re doing this year.

The distributor, A24, actually came to us. We have a great relationship with them – last year they gave us Locke and Obvious Child, the year before that was The Spectacular Now. They were kind of planning to do this in several cities, and they came to us first to do something here in Phoenix. And they were really excited that we were willing to give up festival time for these screenings.

It’s really cool to have these films – Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, and Frances Ha. A lot of people just didn’t see them on the big screen, they discovered them on video or whatever else. So I think it’s cool to be able to bring this to another audience, especially with such a high profile film, While We’re Young, closing out this Baumbach series – and the festival.

With as much time as you put into the festival every year, when do you find time to actually watch movies?

Summer. After the festival ends, I won’t go near a theater for like a month. I just don’t want to have anything to do with a movie theater. But once we get into May, I’ll start going out and playing catch-up. I try to catch something about once a week or so, from May til about the end of the year. Fortunately, at this time of the year, there’s not a lot of great content out in theaters, so I’m not missing too much.

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The Phoenix Film Festival runs from March 26 – April 2. For more information, visit PhoenixFilmFestival.com

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