A Talk with Amy Ettinger of the 15th Scottsdale International Film Festival

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The Scottsdale International Film Festival is about to celebrate its 15th year with a screening of the film Landfill Harmonic on Thursday, November 5 at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.  From there, the festival screenings continue until Monday, November 9 at Harkins Shea 14 Theatre on E. Shea Blvd.

The festival’s founder and Executive Director is Amy Ettinger, and it was Amy who took some time out from her busy festival organizing schedule to talk about not only this year’s events, but a little about the festival’s origins.

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Before we get to this year’s festival, when you first started fifteen seasons ago, did you always have a long term goal or was it a case of just getting the first one off the ground then seeing what happens?

Amy

That was completely an experiment.  I mean, I went into it with the most laissez-faire approach and had zero expectations.  In fact, I was of the mind that it probably wouldn’t work, so if it didn’t work out, then it wasn’t the end of the world.  I wasn’t out of a lot of pocket money.

So, how surprised were you after that first festival?

Oh my gosh.  We were, as they say in your parlance, gobsmacked.  It was my family, my friends and I who were doing it for three nights and two days, and we wound up turning so many people away that I had full confidence, even on opening night, that we would be doing it again.  It’s difficult turning people away because you knew they were disappointed.

Has there ever been a year where there was a decline or has attendance grown with each festival?

5u20iaQ4XMcs8_gchLUmZh1XdrqI6TMA8sdP-IIYeUU[1]

For a long time it was very flat.  The first year informed me that I had to have more seats, so we got more seats, but it remained flat. You know, it was very frustrating because I kept thinking, with a town this size, how come we’re not already fifteen thousand in attendance, why are we stuck at four thousand or five thousand, or whatever it was.  But there wasn’t the money to do the widespread advertising, everything was trade, and, you know, you can’t do a lot with trade advertising; you can only do so much.  And Facebook wasn’t there at that point, and Twitter wasn’t there.  It was mostly word of mouth, kind of thing, and it was mostly the same people year in, year out for a while, and then we were discovered by the Century Arts Foundation, which is really two people, a married couple, and they’d been secretly tracking the festival and seeing that we were turning people away, and they came through with giant donations over a six year period and suddenly we went from a secret among a few thousand people to some pretty aggressive growth over the next five or six years.

How far in advance do you have to arrange with Harkins to secure your dates?  For instance, do you already have dates booked for your 16th?

We’ll do the same week in 2016 as we’re doing right now.  Looks like it’ll be November 3rd through to the 7th. That’s for next year, 2016.

Before you move to Harkins Shea 14, your opening night on November 5th is at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.  And the festival really begins earlier that day, doesn’t it?

We were there last year.  We had our opening night film there with Rudderless.  And we had the children’s films there, as well.  In fact, this is the third year we’ve had the children’s programming.  The first year we did it was at Harkins Shea 14 and there were about four hundred kids there.  Last year there were about three hundred kids there.  This year we’re already at about six hundred kids and still room to grow.

5u20iaQ4XMcs8_gchLUmZh1XdrqI6TMA8sdP-IIYeUU[1]I know that when talking to you before, you’ve talked of watching most of the films yourself in advance.  Do you also see all of those animated features and the children’s live-action shorts, or do you have a team to help you out on this one?

I do see them but I don’t need a team because they are vetted by the North West Children’s Film Festival out of Seattle.  They’re in conjunction with the Seattle International Film Festival, and they’ve been around… oh, I think it it’s something like twenty years, and it’s a traveling children’s show.  I like to watch them because they’re darling, they’re absolutely adorable.  They’re just so spirit raising and so clever, so poignant.  I mean, you can learn a lesson and still laugh.  I have to tell you, most of the adults who go along to this, with or without the children, wind up laughing and crying along with the kids.

When watching a film in advance, how quickly can you tell whether it’s going to work for the Scottsdale International Film Festival?  Are you at the point where you feel you can you tell in minutes?

There are others who help, but the answer is yes and no.  Because I have the experience of being surprised, and because I have a policy of how long I’ll watch something, what’s happened in the past is I’ve started out watching something and thought, oh, this one’s a keeper, or this one’s not for us, whatever.  The first seven minutes of something will just be dreadful, just awful, and then you find it’s awful by design.  I was watching something and I suddenly thought, hey, that was funny, that was purposeful.  So, I don’t want to see something that in the first fifteen minutes was terrific and find out later on that it was…  Let me tell you, there was something I saw called Sons of Provo, and the first few minutes were just dreadful.  And then, all of sudden, I found myself rolling on the floor, laughing.  And I went back and watched the beginning again, and now I understand what they did and why they did it, and it’s because of that particularly lesson that I will always give a film at least the first forty minutes, even if I’m dying on the side.

Landfill posterYour opening night film is a terrific documentary that I was lucky enough to see, but I’d prefer that you talked us through it.  Tell us about ‘Landfill Harmonic.’ 

It’s a documentary, which I normally would not prefer for an opening night film, but I’ve come to find out that our audiences are willing to a vote for a documentary as the best film of the festival.  They’ve done that now a couple of times in the last few years.  I’ve revised my opinion about having a documentary for an opening night, but if I’m going to do it, it has to be spectacularly special.  The booking of this film, as much as I love it and was going to put it in the festival one way or another, came with terms.  The terms were, I would only play it if we could have the people who were the subject matter of the film in attendance.  So, that being said, the film starts out with a garbage dump in Paraguay.  The town is basically a landfill, and the people live around it and they live off it.  There’s a fellow making instruments from the garbage and he himself is a musician, and he in essence makes an orchestra out of these instruments, and he begins to teach the children who live there how to play the instruments.  And they become what is now known as the Recycled Orchestra.

Landfill 1What’s the opening night time table? 

What we’re going to do, we’ll have a reception at six, then the film will play at seven-thirty, and then at nine o’clock we’ve brought the orchestra in from Paraguay to play.  So, I’m just ecstatic because those were the terms of the opening night slot.  You know, there are many people who have seen the three or four minute vignette of the film on 60 Minutes and think that they’ve seen the film, but they have not.  In fact, that little episodic vignette became the foundation for a Kickstarter campaign which garnered them four thousand supporters and a quarter of a million dollars, and that’s what they used to fund the making of this film.  A lot has happened since that 60 Minutes piece, a lot.

Once the opening night is done, then you move to Harkins Shea.  First, a few statistics.  How many films total will you be showing? 

If you include the children’s programming, we have, I think, fifty-seven or fifty-eight films.  If you look at just the feature length films that play, we have forty-two.

And knowing how the schedule is designed and how certain films overlap, one of the fun things festival goers like to do is compare notes on how many films they’ve seen altogether.  How many do you think a ticket holder could see before closing night?

If they’re determined, they can probably see somewhere around twenty-six, so more than half.  There are those who are very competitive and they make sure to let me know at the end of the festival how many they’ve seen.  You know, there was a fellow at the first festival and he said he’d seen all eighteen – at the time you could have seen all the films that were shown – but now it’s physically impossible to see them all.

As a movie buff, I was particularly interested in the Sunday evening Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary.  I’ve read the Truffaut book, it’s now dog-eared –

 That’s so funny.

 – And I constantly go back to it to reference things, so what does the documentary do?

Hitch

You know, I’d heard from almost every filmmaker that they have the book and that the cover has fallen off or it’s dog-eared, or mangled beyond all recognition, and they still referred to it on a regular basis.  So, certainly for those who love film making, to study it, this won’t change the landscape of something they already know.  However, I was really tickled by the way Alfred Hitchcock is so giving.  You know, you don’t think of him as this really charitable guy – he sounded pretty rough to get along with, especially if you’re a woman – but in this particular documentary there is so much footage between the two of them of conversation that is not in the book that beyond it being revealing, you hear in the tone of voice how much reverence Truffaut has for Hitchcock, and Hitchcock being absolutely delighted at being acknowledged in such a way.  The inflection is something you cannot get in the book.

On a lighter note, just to show the variety of subject matters, you even have a Christmas movie called ‘Love the Coopers’ with a host of famous names.  Tell me about the film.  Is it something that mainstream audiences will be seeing later in the year?

The Coopers Poster

Yes, it’s being released for the Christmas season.  Earlier I had, and lost, a Thanksgiving themed film which would also have been well timed.   I was really hoping I could get some seasonal, mainstream films to draw in those, er… listen, this is the finesse of programming a festival such as this; you know, it was built with the notion that I wanted to bring films to this town that would not otherwise be seen, and that’s morphed a little over the years.  But now, not only do I want to brings films that people would otherwise not see on a big screen in a room with other people, I also want to bring in some mainstream – we’ve got quite a few this year – that will not only appease the faithful who will appreciate a break, say, a comedy in the middle of this festival, but also lure those who are mortally opposed to and afraid of subtitles.   They have nothing to fear from this movie.  It is meant to be a holiday upper.

The closing night film for Monday, the 9th.  You have some big names in that film, and I see that in terms of it being part of an international film festival, this is truly an international collaboration involving Italy, France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.  What can you tell me about ‘Youth?’

Youth

 Very little.  I hate to do too many spoilers, but what I’m amused by is that Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are unabashedly honest about their aging process in a way that women usually are in film.  I mean, you don’t normally hear men talking about it quite in the way that women do.  Then there’s the younger generation by, you know, more than half – Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano – and you have Jane Fonda floating in the mix, it’s just an eclectic cast.  It touches on one of my other spotlights, which is the performing arts.  You know, we usually see films about women trying to age gracefully, not men, so I was tickled by this.

 And finally, after so much preparation and then working the actual festival, is there ever a point where you get what other festival managers have told me they get, and that’s film fatigue?

Strangely, yes, but how it shows itself is that after the festival is done, for the next several weeks, maybe even a month after the festival is done, I would find myself making plans to go to the theatre, then never making it.  It doesn’t last very long.

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For more regarding times, dates, films and schedule CLICK HERE for the official 15th Scottsdale International Film Festival website.

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