Organizers behind what’s billed as Arizona’s largest annual gathering for movie lovers, the Phoenix Film Festival, are looking to boost representation with this year’s bout. So, festival director Jason Carney says, it will feature a diverse lineup of filmmakers.
“We try to be an inclusive festival and try to program as much as we can,” Carney explains.
A program of the Phoenix Film Foundation, the 20th annual event runs consecutively with the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival, both from Thursday, March 26, to Sunday, April 5, at Harkins Scottsdale 101 14. The Arizona Student Film Festival will also be wrapped in on Saturday, April 4.
Over the full 11 days, the foundation will screen hundreds of short and feature-length films, topped off with a variety of seminars, parties and other events. Awards will be presented in categories like best picture, documentary, screenplay, director and ensemble as well as in localized, international, horror and sci-fi categories, among others.
“We have our regular categories, but we also have a unified-by-film category, so we’re showcasing films directed by African American directors, Native American directors, Latino American directors as well as LGBTQ programming,” Carney continues of the inclusive slate, adding, “And we’ve made a concentrated effort to include a lot more women directors, as we can find those films as well.”
With the 2019-20 awards season having recently come to a close, Carney emphasizes that the foundation is looking forward. Despite some classics and older titles here and there, the festivals will focus primarily on films that haven’t yet opened in the Phoenix market.
“We’re always trying to find those next films, those films that maybe will pop up on some of those Oscar lists in 2021,” Carney explains.
A viewing committee of around 70 volunteers sifts through an approximate 1,400 film submissions, Carney estimates. When the committee members make their choices, the films with the highest scores move along to program directors, who Carney describes as the “gatekeepers.”
“Those program directors are not only looking for the best films, but they’ve got to put together a nice, healthy program that flows,” he explains.
Many of the submitted films are independent features, still lacking distribution. The festival circuit is where many filmmakers garner the attention necessary to bring their works to a larger audience. Still, some come with a strong backing.
That includes Paramount Pictures’ “The Lovebirds,” directed by Michael Showalter and starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae. The romantic comedy—the second collaboration between Showalter and Nanjiani, who previously worked together on 2017’s “The Big Sick”—will be screened on the opening night.
Searchlight Pictures’ “The Personal History of David Copperfield” will come later—on Saturday, March 28. A comedic re-imagining of Charles Dickens’ literary classic, it comes from writer/director Armando Iannucci, who created the HBO series “Veep” and the 2017 political satire film “The Death of Stalin.” The cast includes Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie.
Also in queue is writer-director Rose Glass’ debut feature, “Saint Maud,” a horror film distributed by A24 and starring Jennifer Ehle and Morfydd Clark. It will be screened on Wednesday, April 1.
“We have a little bit of a mix of the down and the early films that are just coming out from independent filmmakers, some films that have already been picked up for distribution on the smaller level, and some titles you’re going to see in theaters over the summer,” Carney explains.
11 days of programming
Carney describes the 16th annual International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival as “a festival within a festival.” Once its own standalone event, festival producers decided it would be best to meld the two.
“It’s great to give those genres their due, that sometimes they struggle to find a place,” Carney says. “That’s the beauty of having them as part of the Phoenix Film Festival, is you’re bringing together so many worlds in one festival.”
The half-day Arizona Student Film Festival will screen short films of fewer than 8 minutes, shot by grade school and high school students from around the state. Awards will follow, and the best high school film will receive a $1,000 scholarship to the filmmaker’s school of choice.
Education is a hallmark of the foundation, which throughout the year offers a variety of programs and events, including summer camps. Carney calls it “the most unique student education program of any festival in the country.”
So, among the Phoenix Film Festival’s extensive programming is a kids’ day on Saturday, March 28, featuring film-inspired activities. As part of the child-friendly day, the foundation has partnered with the Girl Scouts–Arizona Cactus-Pine Council for a special activity and patch.
“Typically, a lot of festivals do their routine panel discussions throughout the event, but what we wanted to do was really do a focus on youth because there wasn’t a program like this when we were growing up in the Valley,” Carney explains.
To top the programming off, the Foundation is working on bringing guests, including filmmakers, to Phoenix.
“We want to have really good films, first and foremost, and if there happens to be a really strong filmmaker or a really good guest that we can bring along with that film, then that’s a bonus to us,” Carney says.
With 2020 marking 20 years of the Phoenix Film Festival, Carney says the upcoming program will include a sort of retrospective. Despite primarily featuring new titles, some older ones from previous years will be screened, with filmmakers representing them as well.
“We want to continue to see the event grow,” Carney says. “It’s grown so much from being a three-night, two-day event back in 2001 to the 11-day beast it is now.”
Phoenix Film Festival
Harkins Scottsdale 101 14, 7000 E. Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix, phoenixfilmfestival.com, horrorscifi.com, azstudentfilmfestival.org, various times Thursday, March 26, to Sunday, April 5, single screening tickets start at $15; costs may be applicable for activities; festival passes range from $45 to $450.