In a black-walled editing suite tucked away on the tenth floor of a building in the CBD, writer/producer Renee Henry and editor Anna Holley cue up a few minutes of blurry footage from a local news affiliate, circa April 1989.
"The New Orleans Film and Video Festival," the correspondent narrates. "A cultural event that might one day rival the popularity of Jazz Fest."
His bold prediction has not yet come to pass: The estimated attendance of 435,000 at this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival dwarfs the 25,000 organizers expect to attend the New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF), which runs Oct. 16-23 at venues around the New Orleans area. But NOFF celebrates its 25th anniversary, including an opening night screening of the commemorative documentary Henry and Holley produced for the occasion, and programming reflects the way a combination of strategic programming, local support and Louisiana's booming film industry have transformed the event into what New Orleans Film Society Executive Director Jolene Pinder calls "a destination festival."
In large part, that means showcasing the city's emergence as a destination for film production, including major studio projects and works from the growing ranks of local independent filmmakers. This year's festival features the U.S. premiere of New Orleans-shot Black and White, directed by Mike Binder and starring Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer; the Marquee Screenings series at the Joy Theater, with nine films made in or about New Orleans; and Emerging Voices, a mentorship program for Louisiana filmmakers of color supported by a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
"This is a moment for us to think, 'What do we need to be as a festival?' and 'What's important for our community?'" Pinder says. "We've put extra resources into bringing these people that are gatekeepers in a sense, or just industry heavyweights, who are committed to increasing the diversity of voices in the filmmaking community. And that kind of comes out of our own experience ... feeling like local independent filmmakers need more access to industry resources and they need to make those connections."
Studios trying to build Academy Award buzz for films often release them at festivals. Two such films at NOFF include Foxcatcher, a based-on-real-events story about the bizarre relationship between millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) and two Olympic wrestlers (Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum), and The Imitation Game about Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) who broke Nazi codes but was persecuted by the British government after World War II. With 90 percent of the 237-film slate culled from filmmaker submissions, the festival remains committed to its mission of providing a spotlight for new talent.
The goal was always "to nurture the development of young, up-and-coming and unknown filmmakers," New Orleans Film Society founding member Judy Newman says. "I'm thrilled to know that the film festival, and a lot of the things that I was in on in the beginning, have come to make the city a wonderful place."
From the days when a handful of cinephiles stayed up through the night to watch submitted films, NOFF has grown substantially in size and reputation. MovieMaker Magazine, a publication focused on independent filmmaking, named NOFF one of "25 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee" in 2012 and 2013. Henry, who profiled the current state of the Louisiana film industry in a companion piece to her commemorative film, attributes much of the expansion to the increase in New Orleans-based productions and festival sponsors including Louisiana Entertainment, Deep South Studios and Second Line Stages.
This year's NOFF program reflects a combination of Hollywood influences and New Orleans flair. Margaret Brown's documentary about the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, The Great Invisible, won the Grand Jury Prize at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Other highlights include Pitch Perfect, a competition in which film students from across the South pitch a movie project to a panel of industry judges, and a "Speed Date an Agent" panel, with representatives from Creative Artists Agency, United Talent Agency and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment.
The festival slate of 93 curated and jury-selected feature-length documentaries and features includes Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award-winner Dear White People; the Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst murder/travel caper The Two Faces of January; and We Are the Best, about youth spirit and Swedish teenagers who form a punk band. Documentary films address subjects from the BP oil disaster and Charity Hospital to musicians B.B. King and a Big Star reunion concert. There also are more than 100 short live-action and animated works and experimental films. The festival also hosts panel discussions, parties and more. Visit www.neworleansfilmfestival.org for details.
The event has come a long way since 1989, when Newman managed film society membership on recipe cards stored in her bedroom and the Coen brothers were shooting Miller's Crossing in the city. For Henry, who has immersed herself in stories from the festival's colorful history while producing the commemorative film, this is just the start.
"It shows the true power of people committed," she said of NOFF's success and of New Orleans film culture as a whole. "We're at the beginning of something. We're at the beginning of what can be a powerhouse."