What does it take to get a great film for the Naples International Film Festival? It takes passion, commitment, sometimes a little light stalking, and every now and then a healthy dose of friendly harassment.
In 2012, Shannon Franklin, then NIFF’s executive and artistic director, heard about a film called Honor Flight, a documentary about a town in the Midwest that was raising money to send its local World War II veterans to the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C. The film was gaining a lot of media attention, and it had just made the Guinness World Records for the largest attendance at a film screening.
“I thought, ‘This could be such a great film for our community,’” Franklin says. “We had just a month or two before the festival, and there was all this media buzz around it because of the record. I was trying so hard to break through that noise. It was a mission and I was a very focused woman, on the border of obsessive.”
Franklin spent weeks on the phone trying to reach out to the filmmakers just for an opportunity to watch the film, let alone to try to convince them to screen it in Naples. She used all her connections, friends of friends, filmmakers she’d met in the past. Sometimes she went through social media, reaching out online, and sometimes she made phone calls.
“It was an intense time,” she says, “trying to show up on their radar so I could say, ‘This is who I am, and this is where I’m from.’”
The documentary Honor Flight was well-received by audiences the year it was shown here—so much so that it inspired some viewers to establish in Southwest Florida a similar program to the one highlighted in the film.
In the end, her herculean efforts paid off. Honor Flight screened on opening night at that year’s festival, and not only did it receive accolades from the audience—it also inspired the founding of an honor flight program locally.
“It was the right film at the right time,” Franklin says.
Securing the best films for the festival’s program is a complicated and involved process that requires a careful choreography of personal taste, audience appeal, film availability and resonance with the festival's wider themes. We sat down with Franklin, now festival producer, and David Filner, executive vice president of artistic operations at Artis—Naples, home to the festival, for more behind-the-scenes revelations on what it takes to produce the glossy film fest that is set to celebrate its 10th anniversary this month.
For starters, not every chase ends with the same success as Honor Flight. There are thousands of film festivals across the country, many on overlapping weekends, and festival programmers are always jockeying for a finite number of films.
“It’s a race on certain films in any given festival year,” Franklin says.
Sometimes a film will commit to a festival and then have to back out because it’s been picked up for distribution, or because there’s a hang-up with the rights. Though this doesn’t happen often, it can be heartbreaking when the pair have set their hopes on a particular film. Luckily, though, they have plenty of films to choose from in case one has to withdraw.
“Because there are so many films we love, we have a long list of films that we go to immediately,” Filner says. “It’s just a different choice among many good options.”
Though both Filner and Franklin agree that it’s hard to single out films as their top picks over the years—“They’re like my children; it’s impossible to say which is my favorite,” Franklin says—they agree that certain movies stand out. For instance, 2009’s The Cove, a documentary by director Louie Psihoyos about dolphin hunting in Japan, which showed during the festival’s inaugural year.
“We were so blessed to have had the opportunity to bring that documentary to our opening night,” Franklin says. “It was a significant and impactful documentary that had done incredibly well on the festival circuit, and just a few months after opening night it went on to win an Academy Award for best documentary feature. It was so meaningful for so many of us, and it had a big impact in our community.”
Each film selected for the festival’s program has an important role, but the opening night film choice is especially important. Sometimes the pair will go with something like The Cove, which is a more serious film with an important message, or sometimes they’ll opt for a something lighter, like a documentary about swing dancers.
“More eyes are on it because of the venue,” Franklin says, “so you want to think about what you bring to the community as a kickoff.”
Each year, NIFF receives submissions in six categories—narrative features, documentary features, shorts, Florida films, student films K-12 division and student films college/university division—through either their open submissions process or special invitation. Open submissions are open to anyone in the world, so long as the film meets that year’s submissions criteria. For the special invitations, Franklin visits film festivals throughout the nation in search of films that would be a good fit for Naples.
From there, the films are reviewed by a 30-member screening committee. Because the films are submitted online, there’s no swapping of DVDs or waiting around for a new submission. Review committee members can access the films at any time, anywhere. The goal is to have at least three eyes on every film, and the review committee helps the stand-out film rise to the top. Then Filner and Franklin start screening them.
“We still watch a lot of movies,” Franklin says. “A lot of movies.”
See the full list of this year's films here.
This is when personal taste must be carefully balanced against audience appeal. It’s also the moment when Filner and Franklin find that their own movie likes and dislikes can sometimes run up against each other. In a very civilized way, of course.
“If this was a movie, we’d duke it out, yell at each other and throw things,” Franklin says. “But in reality, David and I go through the films and watch them, and we’ll go back and forth and talk about where in the program things make the most sense.”
Sometimes a film comes in that stirs them equally, and sometimes a particular movie will resonate with one and not the other.
“There are times I will talk to Shannon after seeing a film and I will say, ‘It’s amazing. I was so moved.’ And she will say, ‘It was OK.’ That’s the nature of humanity,” Filner says. “There are so many things that touch us as individuals because there’s a connection to our lives and our experiences.”
Ultimately, the choices they make must take the audience into account—but often not in expected ways.
"You have to develop an understanding of what an audience is expecting but also what you think an audience would enjoy—maybe they just don’t know yet that they would enjoy it,” Filner says. “Our job is not to be programming films only for our own enjoyment, but for the benefit of the entire community. Ultimately, our criteria is to program films that we believe in. With the film festival, I am happy to say that every single film is a film that I believe in.”
Once the films have been secured for the festival and the filmmakers have accepted the invitation to show at Naples, Franklin and Filner are finally ready to stitch together a program.
“It’s an interesting dance what films end up on our program,” Franklin says. “After a deliberate and meticulous process, we always end up with a great program. And it’s always very rewarding to be able to bring the community a rich tapestry of the film arts.”