Greenwich International Film Festival aims to ‘Make an Impact’


The third annual Greenwich International Film Festival (GIFF), held in early June in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, again offered a wide-ranging lineup of worthy indie fiction narratives and docs, a number of informationally rich panel and post-screening Q&As and, equally important in so storied a prosperous community with give-back instincts, parties and other events to raise money and awareness for important causes.

There are a number of similar fests scattered throughout the country that offer a varied mix of carefully curated specialized films (the Hamptons, Woodstock and Nantucket, among others), but there should be more because it’s win-win all around.

The fest’s menu of film and event offerings this year reflected its “Make an Impact” theme and impacted this reporter with the notion that as GIFF is one of the youngest small-town fests to blossom, it might inspire initiatives in smaller film-friendly towns. The value proposition runs in many directions.

Yes, innumerable niche fests with African-American, gay, Jewish or genre-specific lineups already abound, but it’s fests like GIFF, with an art-house-skewed mix of indie pics, quality docs and foreign fare at their core, that most mimic what the smaller theatres that have fallen by the wayside once provided. The emergence of such fests, if looked at in sum, suggests an alternative iteration of an art-house circuit for the New Age of Crazy Overload.

Or is the notion of an increase in such fests itself crazy? At least GIFF, if viewed as a template, could impact other towns to consider their own fests to serve both needy film fans and needy causes.

In addition to its “Make an Impact” theme, the Greenwich Fest has a two-pronged mission that gives it purpose, identity and a road map. The first thrust, says Colleen DeVeer, GIFF co-founder, co-director and director of programming, “is to provide filmmakers with an effective platform to showcase their work and bring them closer to financing opportunities for future projects.” In its three years, she notes, the Fest has awarded more than $100,000 to its filmmakers, so the awards impact beyond polishing filmmaker reputations.

Then there’s the familiar eyeball factor that has GIFF and similar fests providing “the opportunity to showcase a filmmaker’s work that he or she wouldn’t otherwise have.” DeVeer continues: “Filmmakers might not have the budget to cast a star or the flash to secure a multiplex theatrical run. For me, cinema is more than that; it’s an opportunity to reach the heart and soul of the audience and make an impact. You don’t need a big budget or a high-profile actor to make that happen—you just need heart.” 

Reflecting efforts to both entertain and raise awareness of important social issues (ideally in the same film), GIFF’s 2017 high-quality long-form lineup (with a handful of special-interest and other shorts also hitting screens) included over 30 fiction narratives and docs that reflected social, gender, political and economic problems; ethnic diversity; the indie spirit and an international outreach (films from Croatia and France among them).

Some top-notch indies in the lineup were on the brink of release (several have subsequently landed) and originated at prior major festivals like Cannes, Sundance and Tribeca. These included the Kate Mara-starrer Megan Leavey, the poignant war drama about a soldier and her dog; Quinn Shephard’s romantic drama Blame; A24’s Menashe, a Yiddish-language rarity set and shot secretly in a Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish community; and the goofy comedy, by way of SXSW, A Bad Idea Gone Wrong, which like the house break-in at its center, veers a little off the sidewalk.

Among the Fest’s most noteworthy films were the chilling doc A Grey State, a standout at Tribeca, which tells the true story of a young, charismatic and seemingly normal Iraq veteran and Midwest family man with libertarian values and obsessive aspirations to be a filmmaker who just might have masterminded a triple suicide/murder; and The Orchard’s stunning, classy drama The Hero, starring the perfectly cast Sam Elliott in an award-worthy performance playing a fading western icon in contemporary L.A. who tries to stay cool after getting some very bad news.

Paul Davidson, executive VP, film and television, for The Orchard, described the GIFF screening as “a great word-of-mouth opportunity because so many people show up. And we choose our festivals carefully because we don’t want to kill the market. There’s also our belief that even as an older demographic might prevail for the film or even at a festival like Greenwich, because their audience is large, there’s a good cross-section of the demographics we’re after. It’s that broader audience that The Hero deserves and will satisfy.”

Acknowledging today’s climate of multiplex squeeze on smaller films and the fact that “studios have a much larger spend,” Davidson opines that “years ago The Hero would have been a studio picture. So today the festivals give us a chance to drive word-of-mouth that you hope will transform the film. The festival is also a way to eventize a film and, looking at geographic impact in various regions, give us a good idea of how to market. And there’s also that free press coverage. Ultimately, today it’s a battle for hours of people’s time that you’re fighting for.”

Also playing the word-of-mouth card was a studio outlier at GIFF, Fox/DreamWorks Animation with Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, previewing the film just one day prior to its wide near-3,500-theatre opening nationwide.

Highlights from afar were films like French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s much-anticipated, star-packed It’s Only the End of the World, which got Cannes attention but was still without a U.S. distributor when it played GIFF. But just prior to press time, FJI got word through sales agent Seville International/Entertainment One that Netflix will begin streaming the film in the U.S. on June 30. And why not? Can there be any French film fan alive anywhere who wouldn’t want to see Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux and Gaspard Ulliel in nonstop close-ups—it’s an intense family drama—and speaking French with that quirky Québeçois accent? Dolan, also an actor, has several acclaimed smaller, quirky films he directed on his resumé, and goes serious and mature with this one.

Among the other films at GIFF hoping to impact a distributor were the haunting Croatian drama Goran, a tension-filled drama about a rowdy upper-middle-class rural family caught up in plenty of snow and angst, and the Greenwich, CT-set comedy Fits & Starts, an often amusing satire rolling in barbed dialogue and featuring a young interracial writer couple as a take-down of artistic pretensions, especially in a publishing world where arrogant and even talented types and wannabes lurk. That Fits writer/debuting feature director Laura Terruso was co-writer of the comedy hit Hello, My Name is Doris is also a draw. (As a reminder that short films can also be a calling card to greater things, it was Terruso’s short film that inspired the Sally Field starrer Hello…).

Terruso told FJI that she wanted her film at the Greenwich Fest “specifically because it's where our film's story is based and where some of the film was shot. In a way it was a homecoming for us. We premiered at SXSW, which is a huge festival, so it's nice to take the film to smaller regional festivals because this allows the filmmakers a chance to connect and see each other's work in a more relaxed setting. The Greenwich event is a great place for filmmakers to get to know each other a bit better.”

In addition to its core film lineup, the other major component of GIFF’s two-fold mission is “to harness the power of film to serve the greater good by highlighting important causes each year through socially impactful programming,” a goal it sums up as “bridging the worlds of film, finance and philanthropy.”

As the world attests, the need for this charity/social issues component doesn’t diminish. DeVeer reports, “In just three years, we’ve raised more than $300,000 for our charity partners. Programmatically, we have raised awareness of important issues that face us all on a global level. Topics addressed in our films and panels have included human rights, cyber-bullying, gun control, racial injustice, prison reform, educational reform, environmental and animal conservation, forced migration, mental health, and women and children’s health and welfare.” 

The Fest chose as its opening-night selection the doc Bending the Arc, about a team of dedicated doctors and activists called Partners in Health, who have been working for decades and continue in poorer areas like Haiti, Africa and the Americas on a variety of illnesses (AIDS, TB, Ebola) or those caused by natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake. Their goal, like the film’s and its filmmakers’, is healthcare for all. The emotionally powerful doc, which premiered at Sundance, will arrive in theatres this fall through Abramorama, says its writer and co-producer Cori Stern, who worked 13 years to get it made.

The Greenwich festival is important, Stern feels, because “you get people who are going out of their way to get their butts into seats and are motivated.” For Stern, “The big screen is so important for a film like this, because it provides a communal experience that you can’t replace and makes viewers care even more about the film and its story. That’s the kind of impact you want.” The GIFF exposure, she adds, has brought home the message “to philanthropists and concerned people that we really can get quality healthcare to needy people in the most difficult of settings.” The Q&A session that followed the Bending the Arc screening elicited “such thoughtful questions that we knew we had a smart, caring audience of philanthropists and others interested in the issue.”

For Stern, GIFF also impacted with networking opportunities that will lead to further fund-raisers for her “healthcare for all” cause. She cites her talks at GIFF with healthcare activist Barbara Pierce Bush (a daughter of ex-President George W. Bush), whose own organization, Global Health Corps (Stern describes it as “like a health-focused Peace Corps”) is “an initiative similar to that featured in Bending the Arc and we’ll have opportunities with her organization.”

Stern declares, “It was so important to be in such a wonderful community [as Greenwich] and make an impact there by reminding people to ask what is their obligation to the world given their resources. We want all individuals to figure out what they can do.”

The Fest’s biggest charity bash was its third annual Changemaker Honoree Awards Gala, which this year honored celebrity humanitarians Renée Zellweger for her fundraising and advocacy on behalf of a search for an ALS cure and Christy Turlington Burns (wife of acclaimed indie filmmaker Edward Burns) for her work as founder of Every Mother Counts, whose goal is to assure a safe pregnancy and childbirth for every mother, everywhere.

The elaborate Changemaker event included a cocktail reception at Greenwich’s elegant, upscale 120-year-old jewelry and watch Emporium Betteridge (where finery sparkled on attendees and through ubiquitous display windows). This snazzy affair (with its technicolor High Society vibe) was followed by an equally snazzy black-tie awards dinner at the also snazzy L’Escale restaurant.

But impact goes in many directions, not just benefitting the causes. While participating Greenwich businesses like Betteridge assured a perfectly targeted group of attendees for both the causes and the store itself, GIFF impact spreads widely to other local businesses like restaurants, stores, hotels and taxis.

Busy Betteridge CEO Terry Betteridge even hailed the Fest’s impact on the town itself. “Greenwich has always been a quietly confidant town, content to simply be a great place to live and work. But it’s those qualities that really make it the perfect backdrop for the festival and even home for the arts, and there is no more American wonder than the art of film which the festival gives us.”

Echoing the impact on the community was Maryann Ghirardelli, cherished GIFF office manager, who, as the Fest’s Rosie the Riveter, helps the whole machine run and has a unique vantage point. The festival “draws attention to the town,” she says, “and that helps build so many of the businesses. It brings in many films that people wouldn’t otherwise see and these in turn bring awareness to important causes that wouldn’t otherwise get the attention they need. This is important for our charity partners.” 

Few things, of course, impact more than money. Beyond the local support of businesses, GIFF lined up a huge array of other sponsors, advertisers, and donors to help with both the film and philanthropic sides of its mission. Commenting on the importance of sponsorships and the many options sponsors and advertisers have to get attention (“touch points” like party displays and offerings, pre-show trailers, the indispensable ad-filled official fest program, event sponsorships, sampling in the theatre venues and box office or at events, social media/blog promotion, special offers through e-blasts and VIP gift bags, etc.), Ginger Stickel, GIFF executive director and COO, notes that the support matters because “first, sponsors generate about one-third of our funding and, second, they add excitement and can in fact complement our program.”

The key, says Stickel, “is creating a sponsorship plan that helps a business achieve its business objectives. For some, it's raising brand awareness. For others, it's attracting new customers or generating unique, ownable content.”

Mindful that GIFF has “a desirable audiencethat has a high disposable income and many interests,” she adds, “We bring onboard brands that the audience will be receptive to.” And, nice to know, “some companies don't seek marketing value, but appreciate supporting an organization that is bringing arts and culture to the area for their staff and community to enjoy.”

Yes, Greenwich is a very social town and the swells definitely impact the Fest’s philanthropic efforts. “Very social” was how one photographer (one of many who snaked around the parties and events) described the glossy magazine she was shooting for, one of similar monthlies and quarterlies that float around the area (and in places like Miami, the Hamptons, etc.) and cater to “swells” both young and old.

It’s no secret that Greenwich, a relatively diverse town of many hamlets with a population estimated at slightly under 100,000, has long had a reputation for being a wealthy place. With close proximity to Manhattan, the city is home to many hedge funds and other financial-service companies and the family homes of many well-known celebrities and (not always well-regarded) billionaires.

But, says DeVeer, “we’re making every effort to broaden our audience, and this year we had more Festival attendees than ever from New York City and nearby Westchester and Fairfield Counties. Guests and filmmakers traveled here from all over the country.” Citing offerings for kids too, she adds, “We want it to be broad generationally too. We had kids dancing onstage dancing opening night with [hip hop/rap artist] Flo Rida.”

There were also entertainment industry “swells” attending this year, among them Robert Friedman, a long-ago member of MTV’s start-up team, the former co-chair of New Line Cinema and current CEO of Bungalow Media + Entertainment.

Attending GIFF as a VIP pass holder, Friedman explained that “having been a longtime resident of the area, I am always driven to do something for the community. That being said, I thought the strategy of the film festival to align the financial community with the creative community was a unique and underserved position in the filmed entertainment marketplace.” Impressed with the GIFF team, he observed, “I felt they have a disciplined approach to the business and the use of proceeds is well thought out.” 

About GIFF’s impact on the smaller films that struggle harder now for eyeballs, he said, “Any exposure is great exposure in our business, since paid media is scarce these days. Clearly, the opportunity for smaller non-studio films is great at any of these festivals and certainly in a media market surrounding the New York DMA.”

With its many post-screening Q&As, talks and panels, GIFF also impacted informationally. “Saturday Night Live” writers and sports entertainment figures weighed in on panels, as did four consumer press film reviewers from such outlets as Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly and Buzzfeed. These reviewers, feeling only a little diminished because “everyone these days is reading the trades and thinks he’s a critic,” shared the consensus that “there’s just too much out there” to see, but that small-screen availability somewhat relieves the situation that has specialized films muscled out of the multiplexes. Also noted was the recent birth or rebirth of art houses in New York. And, with studio movies impervious to criticism, the reviewers feel they now have more of an opportunity to serve as advocates for the art films they like.

Getting more “tradey,” GIFF, with the help of JP Morgan Chase, threw a luncheon panel titled “Women Driving ROI in the Film Marketplace,” inspired by the fact that “movies for women do better than movies focused on any other demographic at the box office, yet funding is harder to come by for female-focused entertainment.”

The event featured two heavy-hitter Hollywood producer panelists—Suzanne Farwell (It’s Complicated, The Intern, Something’s Gotta Give) and Susan Cartsonis (No Reservations, Where the Heart Is, What Women Want), who have left their studio days behind to become independent producers in their new L.A.-based company, Resonate Entertainment.

The panel’s aim was to fuel an engaging discussion about the illogical disparity that has marginalized women in the business and how Hollywood can grow by investing in female-centric films. But in a business fueled by awareness and money, the two producers were also hoping to find investors for their new venture among the luncheon audience. They came to the right place: GIFF and its operatives attracted an audience that was predominantly female and packed with investors and foundation donors.

In a lively, impressive talk, the two women discussed the importance of women to the business, whether as stars, main characters or women behind the cameras or those who attend the films, these latter important because “females are the main decision-makers at purchase points” like ticket buying.

Doing her best Winfrey/DeGeneres rallying, moderator Ruth Ann Harnisch, also a film investor, encouraged audience questions and maneuvered the discussion into such areas as how long it takes to get studio pictures made (Farwell’s The Intern took years but became a hit), how the studios waste not just time but money, and how the best independent production company strategy (e.g., their own) is to develop and produce across a slate rather than put all chips on one big project.

Familiar nuggets were reiterated: No matter a film’s target audience, story and script (the “blueprint”) are critical to success. And there was the repeated caveat that film is still a high-risk investment that takes time to return. But ROI, the new independents told their audience, isn’t just about making money. Return on investment is also about learning and satisfaction in helping a worthy film make an impact.

No doubt Farwell and Cartsonsis made their impact (their new company is developing a slate of films in the $15-$20 million budget range) and networking followed their talk.

For its main venue, GIFF again for its third year secured Greenwich’s three-screen Bow Tie Cinemas. Bow Tie’s Jared Milgram, VP of marketing, food and beverage, says his circuit values its ongoing partnership with the nonprofit organization and the impact it makes on theatre-going. “With 10 theatres, 80 screens and a corporate office in Connecticut alone, our work with GIFF provides a unique cinematic experience to the Greenwich community, regional Bow Tie customers and beyond. The turnout at the festival is fantastic and it brings new visitors to the town for our Greenwich and Criterion Cinemas each year.” He credits “our general manager Cayla Pasiak and her staff for an excellent job accommodating the increased traffic and logistical demands that a busy festival brings.”

The impact for the theatre is felt beyond the high-profile festival weekend. GIFF, Milgram observes, “maintains their brand momentum throughout the year with special member screenings at our various theatres, broadening our collective reach. From film festivals and premieres to exclusive event cinema and loyalty screenings, Bow Tie is committed to offering alternatives outside of traditional film programming at our theatres to keep moviegoers engaged.”

Milgram touts Bow Tie’s newly planned upgrades across its circuit (branded “Ultimate theatres”) that will feature the latest in high-end seating and food and beverage offerings. “With these improvements around Connecticut, we hope to grow with GIFF in the market and improve our working relationship with the Festival well into the future. We are thrilled that GIFF had another successful year.” Underscoring this win-win all around, he adds, “They are a pleasure to work with and we cannot wait to be a part of their fourth annual festival in 2018.” 

Ask any indie filmmaker and film fan anywhere which is the preferred screen—big or small—and “big” wins hands down. So why not more fests in underserved, small film-friendly locales like Greenwich was just a few years back, especially as the increasing volume of films assures there’s plenty of quality around?

Events like GIFF help spoiled consumers slash through the content jungle while helping many others with far, far bigger problems. As DeVeer puts it, “We’re dedicated to filmmakers, whether emerging or established, who share our vision that film can make a difference in the way we treat one another and our environment. Their films can shift the perspective of the audience by opening a window to the world and making it a better place.” Now that’s impact. But let’s not forget: That’s entertainment too!