September 22, 2014

Naples First Ever International Film Festival

film.jpgThere’s a tiff brewing between Eric Raddatz and Dan Linehan. They’re all smiles on the surface, but over cocktails at the Bell Tower Shops, the two men can’t agree on who came up with the idea to launch the Naples International Film Festival.

It all started with a dinner at a Naples restaurant in the spring of 2008. “I said, ‘I have this movie I’ve made. I think we should do a film festival,’” says Raddatz.

“I had always wanted to do a film festival. I thought of it five or six years ago,” counters Linehan. “Bottom line, we don’t know who came up with the idea, but I paid for the meal—so the idea is mine.”

Hearty laughs are exchanged, and it’s clear these men enjoy working together. It’s an artistic and business match made in Hollywood heaven as they—along with third amigo, Rowan Samuel—have spent the last year and a half planning and creating one of the most exciting cultural events to hit Southwest Florida in years. Now, the curtain is about to go up on the Naples International Film Festival.

THE PEOPLE

Raddatz, a local filmmaker with two feature films under his belt, was the creative soul of the burgeoning festival. Linehan, an arts enthusiast, became the business backbone of the project after his work in the construction industry slowed. Samuel, with nearly two decades in advertising, was the marketing guru who would get word out about the nascent event.

But three founders do not a film festival make. “There are a lot of people who say there isn’t any culture here. There is,” says Raddatz, who saw hundreds turn out for the premieres of his locally shot films—2003’s A Day to Love & Die and 2008’s Barely a Chance. “People started coming out for my films. I thought if we did a bigger festival with more films, there would be support in the community.”

He was right. Naples turned out to be a hotbed of artistic types who wholeheartedly supported the idea. Volunteers came out in droves. “It exponentially exploded off the charts—well beyond our wildest imaginations,” Linehan says. “We had interns asking us what they could do. We were growing so fast. I got an e-mail [from an intern] asking if I wanted to volunteer for the festival. We needed to ‘corral the cats’ a bit.”

The overall festival concept quickly progressed, and a board of directors was formed. So, too, was an advisory board made up of some of the major players in Southwest Florida’s business and art worlds. “Between volunteers, boards and staff, we’re at more than 100 people,” Linehan says.

Early on, Linehan and Samuel were the primary financial backers of the festival. But as word spread and the festival’s reputation grew, big-name sponsors—such as Comcast Cable—signed on.

Local municipalities are embracing the festival too, seeing social benefits for the community as well as the potential to lure tourism. “The Collier County government is always looking for opportunities to help the arts. They’re always looking ahead for different opportunities to market the area,” says Maggie McCarty, Collier County’s film commissioner as part of its convention and visitor’s bureau.

“We think the area is ripe for something like this,” she says. “People who come here and choose to live here are from the big cities in the North, where they are used to seeing great documentaries and feature films and foreign films. They come here, where choices are sometimes limited, and they want to see those films and discuss those films.”

THE FILMS

With the heart of the film festival beating, it was time to get to work on the thousands of details that go into bringing such a large and multi-pronged event together. No detail is more important that the films themselves.

The festival signed on with well-regarded, Web-based, film festival submission service Withoutabox.com. It promotes the festival to the industry and provides filmmakers with entry forms, press kits and fee payment—all online. Basically, it brings the film festival and the filmmaker together.

With the aid of Withoutabox, the launch of the Naples festival’s own Web site and word of mouth spreading in the film community, submissions soon began pouring in. “The first year is an open-door approach,” McCarty says. “At first, everyone thinks, ‘Is anyone even going to submit a film?’ Then you are overwhelmed when all the submissions come in.”

As of late summer 2009, the Naples International Film Festival had received more than 200 entries in every conceivable category: There were films produced locally in Florida. There were documentary films and feature films. There were shorts (between five and 30 minutes long) and short shorts (less than five minutes). They came from all over the United States as well as many places further afield—Canada, China, England, Ireland, France, Greece, Japan and Argentina—proving the festival was already living up to its “international” moniker.

“There is a comedy about a man who can see 10 minutes into the future,” says Raddatz. “There’s one about a superhero boyfriend and girlfriend who don’t mix. One has a story about a kid who has a pet chicken that his family needs to eat to survive.”

Daniel Herrera is an independent film producer and director based in Lee County. He submitted his documentary Immokalee U.S.A., which focuses on the region’s farm workers and immigrant community. “I was excited that we actually had a film festival here,” Herrera says. “It’s a fantastic opportunity.”

Like so many other artists here, Herrera wanted to get more involved. He signed on as the festival’s volunteer director of outreach. It’s his responsibility to get more area filmmakers on board as well as Southwest Florida businesses. This includes taking to the Internet, where social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and industry sites spread the gospel about what’s happening in Naples. “[The independent film industry] is a very small community, so the word of mouth is really getting out there,” Herrera says.

Early on, one critical question faced the organizers: Where would they hold the actual film festival? With large theater chains dominating the local movie scene, and independent screens few and far between, it was daunting.

“We really didn’t want to end up in a typical cinema,” Samuel says. “Naples is a very upscale, exclusive place. So it was very important to us to have a smaller, more intimate setting.”

Then came news of a venue coming to Naples’ oh-so-hot Mercato retail center on Tamiami Trail, north of downtown.

A Venezuelan movie theater chain, Cine Unidos, was venturing into the U.S. market. They would open their first location at Mercato—an 11-screen luxury cinema called the Silverspot.

Call it kismet. Call it fate. But the film festival organizers saw a golden opportunity. “We actually came up with the idea for the film festival, and then three months later, we read about this Venezuelan company coming in,” Linehan says. “A couple of months later, we partnered with them.” The Silverspot will host the festival in November.

Meanwhile, there were a lot of films to screen—but where could the judges watch them all? In stepped festival founders Linehan and Samuel, who just happened to have opened an art gallery and performance studio in late 2008. Six Degrees Exhibitions is in the heart of Naples at Tin City. Besides hosting shows by a variety of artists, the gallery has become a regular spot for comedy improv, poetry readings and other performances. Screenings of the film festival’s many submissions fit nicely into the gallery’s schedule.

THE JUDGING

While the film festival doesn’t officially start until Nov. 5, hundreds of Southwest Florida film fans have already gotten a sneak peek at many of the candidate films. “I think [the festival] is a marvelous idea,” says Gordon Thomson Burke of Naples, who spent many Thursday nights this summer watching submitted film screenings at Six Degrees.

Burke is a lifetime movie buff who even spent some time working in the set department at the Sam Goldwyn Studio in Hollywood in the 1950s. “I’ve seen a lot of movies in my life. I’m almost 84 years old,” he says, laughing. “I’m tired of car chases and murders and violence. These shorts films ... they just have a lot going for them.”

During each Six Degrees screening of festival entries, guest judges joined scores in the audience to watch several films and have a vigorous discussion. Cocktails were served, and the weekly event took on a fun, art-infused, intellectual atmosphere.

That’s the reaction the festival’s organizers were hoping for. “It was kind of a throwback to the almost Bohemian days in New York City where you had the beatniks and the poets coming together and enjoying artistic and intellectual opportunities,” Samuel says. “There are a lot of great things in this town, but we didn’t feel there were a lot of places that offered that.”

Chad Oliver is an anchor and reporter at WBBH-TV, the local NBC affiliate. He served as a celebrity judge at a screening. “I was blown away by the talent and the wide range of topics,” Oliver says. “There was everything from Claymation to really in-depth dramas.”

The judges’ notes from each of the screenings were part of the formula Raddatz, Linehan and Samuel would use to determine which films to admit to the festival. “It took me back to my college days at the University of Georgia in film class when we were critiquing films,” Oliver says. “If you are into art, into film, then this feeds your soul. I think our area needs more things like this.”

THE EVENT

Come November, the excitement will build to its zenith as the Naples International Film Festival actually arrives. In a clear sign of just how well the event is being embraced by the local art world, the opening gala for some 1,400 guests is scheduled to be held at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples.

“It’s very flattering to have—in our first year—a partner like the Naples Phil,” Linehan says. “It really welcomes us into the fold here in the arts community of Naples.”

Films will begin showing at the Silverspot on Thursday, Nov. 5, and will continue through Sunday, Nov. 8. The Phil will also hold an awards ceremony at the festival’s conclusion to announce the winners in various categories. “Everything about this project has been incredibly fortuitous—the way things have worked out and how people have been incredibly excited and supportive of the project,” Samuel says. “It just seems as if the stars aligned for us on this one.”

But will they line up again next year? “We’re taking it a year at a time, but we definitely are prepared to go again in 2010,” Raddatz says cautiously. “I would love for [the festival] to grow as big as Sundance. I would love it if this inspired someone young to pick up a camera and become the next big film producer.”  

Naples International Film Festival Opening Night Gala, 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples. www.naplesfilmfest.com or www.thephil.org.

Naples International Film Festival, Thursday, Nov. 5, through Sunday, Nov. 8, at the Silverspot Luxury Cinemas in Mercato, 9259 Mercato Way, Naples. (239) 775-FILM (3456) or www.naplesfilmfest.com.

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