Melanie Addington, Executive Director of Oxford Film Fest, is changing the game for Mississippi Film
I had the pleasure of meeting Melanie Addington when our first feature film, This World Alone, was accepted into (and won!) Oxford Film Fest this past February. Melanie is the executive director of Oxford Film Fest, the president of the Mississippi Film Alliance, and a megaphone for indie filmmakers of all types with a special focus on the LGBTQ community and female filmmakers. Since these are not the first things that pop into your mind when you think of Mississippi, we thought we’d chat with Melanie about how she got involved in the film festival world and where she’s going from here.
Tell us about how you first got involved with Oxford Film Fest and share your vision for the festival.
I moved to Oxford from San Diego where we had independent film all around us in theaters. When I moved to Mississippi, we had a four-screen theater with only studio films. Seeing that the festival was launching, I was very excited and attended the first year. Then a friend mentioned he screens for the festival so I got involved as a screener. Then I worked my way up the volunteer ranks until I was a co-director. Eventually the other co-directors wanted to retire or hand it off as it had gotten too big for volunteers. Luckily a board was developed and they realized we needed full-time leadership. I left my career in journalism and moved over to this which is where I really belong anyway. As a volunteer, I traveled all over the country attending film festivals and taking good ideas and also learning what not to do. Our mission has always been driven towards hospitality to the filmmaker and attendees. I have pushed it one step further towards a more active model of not just having a good time but providing real resources for filmmakers. So award money, workshops, industry people at the festival, working towards more distributors and more resources as we continue to evolve.
With Oxford you've got a massive LGBTQ presence and some boundary-pushing content in the films you program, yet you're in the middle of the Bible Belt. Can you talk a little about your desire (and potential struggle) of finding a platform for these underserved voices?
So going back to that active model, that also involves a wee bit of activism. When our state presented HB 1523, a law that lets businesses legally discriminate against LGBTQ and single mothers, our festival made a statement that it was not right. Well, we got a lot of flack for that. So, instead of sitting down and shutting up, we launched a full LGBTQ series rather than just one or two films we had shown each year. Meanwhile I was crunching alumni numbers while building our database up and saw the percentage of female directors was dismally low (like 24% I believe back then?). So I made it a focus to find a better way to equality. We created a discount for female directors. That has helped push my programmers to look at more female driven work, helped more female directors submit so we can even consider their work, and helped continue an important discussion in our industry. We followed it up with a female filmmaker forum the past three years. It has been inspiring. So we wanted to do more. Going back to being in the middle of the Bible Belt, yes, we try to serve as a welcoming oasis to all voices. But we are aware we alienate some by saying we don't discriminate. And that is pretty OK with me. Probably not our target audience to independent film anyway.
With the programming at Oxford, you also lean towards true independent film over some of the bigger names in the industry ... where does your passion for independent film come from and why is "supporting the little guy" important to you?
You know, I truly did inherit that model from the founders of the festival and my former co-directors. The festival has just always wanted to bring in cool people and cool films. We have a great theater chain, Malco, that does its job 365 bringing in bigger films, even indies. That is not what we are here for. We are here to champion new voices that may otherwise get tuned out. Sure we program a film or two that is bigger, such as Sundance winner Always in Season this year. But our true mission is to bring films to our audience that they otherwise would not find on their own.
I'm sure a lot of people don't understand just how festivals get funded. Could you explain the struggle of keeping something like Oxford afloat and why it's necessary to do things like fundraisers?
Absolutely. People always assume that, oh, you sell tickets to the movies, so you shouldn't need funds. And that would be lovely if we charged $145 per ticket to make the money needed to run a festival the way we do it. Sure, we could just not provide hotels or transportation or food for filmmakers to spend less, but why make a sucky festival? It is so important to us that people who come to Oxford don't have too many economic barriers to do so (hence why some screenings and all workshops are totally free and that is underwritten by sponsors and members donating to us). Non profit festivals usually get funding three ways: grants, sponsors, and earned income such as ticket sales and festival submission fees. We use all grants to pay a limited amount of money to our staff, we use all sponsors to pay for the overall festival, and earned income goes to any filmmaker needs.
What's the Female Filmmaker Retreat, why did you start it, and how can a female filmmaker get involved?
So with our focus on female directors the past three years and our shift to March in 2020, we wanted to build upon this focus. In the back of my mind when I started as Executive Director in 2015, we were going to build our year round programming (we did) and launch more educational programs such as retreats. We started with a kid camp last year in the summer and are continuing that. We launched free workshops (we had panels in past fests but ticketed). The next logical step was a retreat or extended workshop. With the move to March and our ongoing support of female filmmakers, it just felt like a nice place to start with filmmaker camp - with a female filmmaker retreat. So this is our first one and we will launch the application process once we have raised the funds by July 1. We will have it on our website. The goal is for it to be totally free but we will see how the funds shape up to pay for flights. It will definitely be free housing, materials, meals etc.
This year we are starting with basics - a focus on post-production for women with a second or later feature film that is currently a work in progress. Basically, we want to help people who are sort of stuck finishing up get over the last humps with mentors, support, work in progress screenings with feedback, and just some down time to clear their mind.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own film festival?
What value are you bringing to the table by adding a new festival in this day and age? When we started 17 years ago there were about 500 festivals. Now there are thousands. What can you do that is different? How can you stand out? How can you support filmmakers? How can you support your community? Is there a way to support a festival already in your town? Then I would join Film Festival Alliance and go to Arthouse Convergence (happens before Sundance each year for all film fests and independent theaters) and follow those around that have been doing it right for awhile. Also, producing a film festival is just like producing a film - it takes a village and the leader needs to be able to lead but also listen and learn.
What about people who already have film fests in their town and don't know how to best get involved. What do you wish you had more of?
Volunteers. Financial Support. Attendance. When people in town say, oh yeah, I am always busy that weekend, I wonder, do they realize it is an entire 5 days and that I know likely busy means they were on their couch watching Netflix? Or people who say it is too expensive to get a VIP pass. I explain we have free screenings. Volunteers earn free passes. Sponsors get a tax write off. There are so many ways to get into a film fest besides just buying a VIP pass. Also, I wish I had people who just tried. I hear from people that don't know what a film fest is so they just don't even show up. Why not? It is art. You are experimenting. Trying. Learning. Expanding. Just do it!
What advice would you give for a filmmaker currently navigating the film festival circuit? Any insider advice on how to get accepted at more festivals and how to stand out at the ones they get accepted to?
Start with making a great film. There are a lot of good films on the circuit. Don't edit to a fest deadline. Submit only once you have the film you are ready to release to the world. But beyond that, research and create a fest plan. Know what film festivals like your kind of film, know what festivals have rules and follow them (don't submit to a women's film fest when you are an all male cast and crew, for example). Also, don't forget the lost art of the cover letter. Of 1,500 films last year only about 220 wrote a cover letter. And guess what? They had a higher acceptance rate compared to those who did not write a letter. Making connections and showing that you are passionate about playing that fest, not just any fest, makes an impact, even if just a small percentage.
Where can we find information about helping out Oxford and all the amazing things they're doing for independent film?
Well I am glad you asked! We put everything on our website at www.oxfordfilmfest.com plus we recommend signing up for our monthly e-news.
If you’d like to help Melanie carry out her vision of inclusivity in Mississippi and around the world, please visit https://fundly.com/2020-film-festival to help her raise some money and even gets some extra perks! She is 1/10 of the way to raising $100,000 for Oxford Film Fest and the Female Filmmaker Retreat.