Situated in Northeastern Ontario, close to the Georgian Bay, Sudbury is a small town only a small jump away from Toronto. With production elements ramping up with projects like “Letterkenny” as well as “Carter” starring Jerry O’Connell (check out our interview here with Jerry) already filmed and in the public eye, the area is only growing. Cinefest, which happens in Sudbury every September, is a natural continuation after the onslaught of Toronto International Film Festival just weeks before. Patrick O’Hearn, executive director at Cinefest, sat down with Fest Track at the company’s HQ in Sudbury to discuss initiatives, connection and evolution.
Every festival has an identity. Every festival has an idea who they are and who they want to be. Can you sort of talk about Cinefest in those terms?
We branded ourselves as the people’s festival about five years ago, and it’s a brand that we’ve tried to maintain and stick with because it’s true to who we are. It’s first and foremost about films, about engaging people with films, about making sure that our audience is, whether they’re here from Sudbury or whether they’re visiting from elsewhere, [that] they have a chance to interact with the films, with the filmmakers. They can take in as much as they want because we’re all in one venue. So the festival experience is really something that you live almost like you’re at a resort, secluded in a space, and you move from film to film throughout the week. People’ll take in to 30, 40 films because they’re film lovers.
Can you talk about the community of film first from the film festival perspective?
For sure. We see that, while people are waiting in line at the festival, while they’re sitting in their seats waiting for the films or afterwards at the reception, it’s all about reacquainting with people that maybe you meet on a year-to-year basis whether they’re here from Sudbury or from elsewhere, and sharing that kind of passion. Sometimes that passion reflects itself in, “Man, I really hated that film I just saw.” And that’s part of the dialogue. I think that’s what makes festivals anywhere, when they’re clicking and really taking off and doing what they’re striving to do. It’s about ensuring that that dialogue is taking place, that people are really experiencing and talking about art and what it means to them.
What does art in terms of film mean to you at this point?
It means a lot of different things. It depends on the type of film. As a programmer, having the opportunity to experience a number of different genres and styles, seeing a film with a limited resources really be successful and take off, and then seeing a film where they made a great film because they had all the resources they needed to pull off what they planned to do, it’s a feeling of excitement of knowing that achievement took place, that there was a artistic achievement that the story has moved me. [From there] I can picture it moving other people. It’s just always about trying to look at it through your audience’s eyes and see what they’re going to think.
Can you give a recent example that maybe was a Canadian-made film?
We had a great film: “Never Steady, Never Still”. It’s just a powerful performance. It had a number of powerful performances. [It was a] Canadian film that came from the west coast. It’s about a woman who’s fighting with Parkinson’s and she actually has to transition into taking care of herself because her husband dies unexpectedly. When I saw the film, I knew that it was perfect for our audience. I knew that they were going to connect with that emotional impact. There was a very high emotional impact. But they also were going to be really drawn in by the commitment of the acting and what was taking place. The storytelling was phenomenal. And it was a first-time director. I think that’s when you really know this is special. This is somebody that we’re going to be able to trace for 5, 10, 15 years because they’ve nailed it the first time they tried .
But they’re learning like we’re all learning. And that’s the key in any festival is that most people come into it either having done it for 20 years or if it’s the person’s first year. it’s about learning it and having that curve because you can always pick up new things. Can you talk about the educational aspect of the festival in that way?
What we try to do is bring those filmmakers into town, and make sure that they’re talking to some of our emerging artists. That’s been a commitment of ours since the very beginning is to kind of take the city of Greater Sudbury and transform it, to let people know that there’s opportunities to tell their stories, to show them behind the scenes how that process takes place, where they access funding, where they access some of the infrastructure or the tools that they need whether it’s crew-based or cameras or things like that. [It’s about] trying to educate them about the evolution of all that because it’s constantly evolving. For us [though], it’s really about taking that first kernel of an idea. Our job is to really light a fire and say, “Go off and tell that story”…write it, spend time with it from an editing standpoint. But also make sure that you’ve got critical eyes and ears right away who are looking at it, and who are being honest with you and upfront. I think one thing we try to get across to the filmmaker is not to worry when they fail in the original drafts as they’re looking at developing their concept. Failure can lead to opportunities. It can lead to new sparks of ideas. But it can also teach you that that won’t work. And you have to just move on from it as quickly as possible.
Discussion is very important. And that’s the great thing you get at film festivals. Could you talk about Cinéfest in that way especially since Cinéfest happens so closely after TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival]?
TIFF is neat because a lot of the discussion does start at TIFF. We see that with a number of programs who visit from other centers in Ontario. They’ll start to compare notes on films, and then they’ll actually drive each other to see some of the films that we’re showing that overlap. I think our festival is unique going back to a People’s Festival concept. One of the things we try to instill and reinforce is that you’re going to be able to access films. The cost is extremely affordable. You see one film, you move into the next theater and you’re seeing the next film. A lot of people inherently travel together. The dialogue never stops.
And are there places for people to stop in between the theaters to discuss. I mean, there’s obviously probably some local places.
We do see a lot of people stop in the corridors. Milestones is a great sponsor of ours. They take really good care of our client base. Sometimes you don’t have time necessarily to stop and grab lunch or even an order. So the conversation takes place in that movement and while people are traveling. It’s really neat to see especially if from a programming standpoint. From a logistics standpoint one of my roles during the festival is actually to move people as safely and quickly as possible [from point to point]. It can look like a just a very well coordinated ballet, but it’s chaos.
We’re talking about art. We’re talking about logistics. But it also comes down to commerce. The thing is that this is a business. Filmmaking is a business and, overall, film festivals are a business but it’s also about connecting the right people to move up to the next level. And considering what’s going on today in the distribution networks, film festivals I think are more important than ever for new talent without a bias. Can you talk about that and the evolving role of film festivals in that way especially here in Canada.
Our primary focus when it comes to promoting and fostering growth of the Canadian film industry is to market the films that we’re showing, to make sure that people know, first of all, what they’re going to have a chance to see and to really encourage them to go out and see it. But also who the artists are behind the film.
Does that balance in your programming in terms of what you select?
We definitely try to make sure that we’re introducing new filmmakers. I think that’s one thing that separates us from other Canadian festivals. We have a commitment to working with new filmmakers who are still honing their craft. Maybe it’s not a perfect work but it’s important that they’re able to test with an audience and see how their work translates with them. From a commerce standpoint, we just want to see the industry continually be successful so that also means making sure that our distribution partners — that we’re treating their product with a lot of respect and that we’re promoting their product in a way that makes sense for them and works for what their goals are. It’s about just continuing to drive and advance the industry. We have a lot of production activity that’s taken place here in Northern Ontario so it also becomes making sure that people are aware of the opportunities to work in the industry. It’s amazing how much job creation actually comes out of a film production. It’s something that we were always aware of but until it came into our backyard we didn’t have the full sense of the scope. Just in terms of hotel rooms that are booked. In terms of service supplies, crafts, catering, things like that…electrical. The incentives that some of the public sector puts into some of the production, and I know that’s different in the United States — it’s been a driving force to allow our Canadian industry to maybe actually compete with the American industry or at least to allow us to tell our stories and not be perhaps oversaturated with some of the American product. [That product is] fantastic. We love American films here as well. But it’s really important that each country’s able to tell their own stories.
By Tim Wassberg
Cinefest runs September 15th-23rd. To purchase tickets, visit this link.