FilmColumbia 2018: A small film festival with national appeal

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CHATHAM, N.Y. — Running a full-blown nationally recognized film festival was the last thing film writer and historian Peter Biskind had in mind when he and his family moved to Columbia County from New York City a little more than 20 years ago.

He was looking for a quieter life, the former executive editor of American Film and Premiere magazines said in a recent telephone interview. Now, what began as a casual monthly get-together among less than a handful of film enthusiasts has blossomed into FilmColumbia — an annual late October event which, this year, will screen 50 full-length and short narrative and documentary independent and foreign films over a nine-day period that began Saturday, Oct. 20 and runs through Sunday, Oct. 28.

FilmColumbia 2018's packed schedule includes screenings at Crandell Theatre; social gatherings; a 16-films festival-within-the-festival at Morris Memorial; panel discussions with many of the filmmakers represented in the festival; a live multimedia performance on Sunday, Oct. 21, at PS21; and a live edition of Film Jeopardy!

The festival also includes a benefit tribute to an actor or actress who "has a stake in the community," Biskind said. This year's honoree — who was feted at a special FilmColumbia kick-off event Saturday night — was Brian Cox ("Super Troopers," HBO's "Succession"), who has a home in Hillsdale, N.Y.

"He is such a fine actor," Biskind said, "and he couldn't have been nicer and more gracious."

Previous honorees were filmmaker James Ivory and, last year, actor Frank Langella.

"It's amazing to me how this has gone on so long and thrived and become a national institution," Biskind said.

It hasn't been easy. Biskind, who is FilmColumbia's executive and co-artistic director, and co-artistic director Laurence Kardish do all the programming and booking. Calliope Nicholas is managing director who sees to the nuts and bolts. Everyone involved in making FilmColumbia happen is a volunteer.

Booking films has been the most challenging aspect, especially in the beginning when no one had heard of FilmColumbia. To a degree, FilmColumbia's success is built on the failure of its progenitor — a modest film festival that had been organized by Columbia County Council on the Arts.

"There was a small group of us who gathered monthly at the Crandell to watch foreign films," Biskind said, referring to the origins of the non-profit Chatham Film Club, which now owns and operates the Crandell.

"The arts council was running a small film festival that wasn't going well so they turned it over to us."

Biskind, who is an author — his newest book, "The Sky is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism," has just been published — and a contributing writer and editor at Vanity Fair and Esquire magazines, had had "zero experience organizing a festival from the ground up," he said.

"It took years before anyone took us seriously."

That changed when James Shamus of Focus Features began giving FilmColumbia films, most notably Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) and "Brokeback Mountain" (2005).

"Each year, we'd get better and better," Biskind said.

FilmColumbia began small — "at first, only a weekend," Biskind said; then two Sundays with six days in between. When FilmColumbia began honoring a filmmaker, "we added a Friday and Saturday before that first Sunday."

Adding weekdays, Biskind said, "made me nervous. At first, we were (averaging) only about 30 moviegoers (per) weekday screenings. Then we began (averaging) 100, 150."

Biskind and Kardish don't start programming FilmColumbia until late July; August in earnest. Many film distributors, Biskind said, hold back release dates on films until the September New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center makes its selections.

"Those release dates determine what's available to us," Biskind said.

Kardish, who is senior curator emeritus for film and media at New York's Museum of Modern Art, sees films at festivals in Berlin, Toronto and Telluride.

"To some degree it's flying blind," Biskind said. "You pretty much know what you want so you call a distributor and beg, grovel."

It's all about relationships, Biskind said; building relationships; establishing new relationships with new distributors. "The longer you're around as a festival, the easier it becomes to get films," Biskind said. "Larry and I now have lots of contacts in the film world."

When FilmColumbia started, Biskind said, the fare was primarily American films. Then, he said, as the big studios began shedding their independent subsidiaries, European films became more prominent. Now, Biskind said, "we're seeing a lot more films from Asia, from South Korea, Iran."

For Biskind and his associates, the big payoff is the audience. "We have people who see 15 or 20 films in a week," he said. "We have people who arrange their vacations according to our schedule. That always amazes me, given the competition from TV and other outlets.

"It is so exciting to see people gathered under the Crandell marquee discussing films, arguing about them. It makes (this) feel special."

Complete schedule, program and ticket information is available at filmcolumbia.org




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