I was lucky in that I was able to chat for a few minutes with Jason Carney, Director of the Phoenix Film Festival & International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. I asked him a few questions about the festival, his thoughts on bringing Hollywood back to AZ and how this year’s Festival will differ from previous years.
Shari: Last year you hit your goal of 25,000 attendees. What’s your goal this year?
Jason: To just keep those 25,000 coming in. That’s our goal. We just kinda hit a point, occupancy wise, where you’re not going to get a big jump year to year, depending on if you don’t change the structure of the festival. You know, last year we added some screenings and stuff and that helped so our occupancy number went up a little bit but I don’t see us growing too large or significantly this year. We’re really happy if we can pick up another few hundred or a thousand people… that would be great, but our goal is to at least maintain that 25,000. I’d be super happy with that. Our numbers last year were insane.
Shari: How did you get into all of this?
Jason: Way back in 2001, the first year, the program director of the festival, Greg Hall, and is still our program director (he and I went to high school together) the festival was starting and he said ‘Hey, want to come help out with this film festival?’ and I was like, ‘Sure… what’s a film festival?’ And I learned all about it in a very short amount of time. I just showed up to volunteer and dove right in. It was the first year, so everybody was kind of finding their own place. I jumped in and from there I kind of worked my way up the chart there. Then in 2005, I became the festival director and then the executive director of the Phoenix Film Foundation.
Shari: Within the festival itself, what are you most proud of?
Jason: I think it’s the team that we’ve built. You know, when you have so many moving parts, and so many departments and things involved, you really have to have a strong leadership team, you know? Our volunteer staff and team leaders are just incredible. They make us look good every year. It’s really a team effort. I’m always glad to share the kudos with them because they work so hard and everyone just kinda has their role. They’re really successful in getting to build the team and lead that team and it really makes me proud… and the fact that we’re going to have six world premiers all on the lead hour, the seven o’clock hour. That’s also a nice little moment to have. It’s going to be a crazy night but a great night.
Shari: How does the Phoenix Film Festival compare now to when it first began?
Jason: There have been a lot of changes since it first began in both size and scope. Early on we were only running three screens and it was only, gosh, a three-day event and now we’re running six or seven screens and it’s eight days. So, obviously going from 3,000 people in the first year to like 25,000 last year is significant. Additionally, we’ve added so many different categories and film programming because of more screens and more days means more films. We were trying to focus on films made with under a five hundred thousand dollar budget back in the day now, obviously, inflation has happened and we’re getting some independent films that are, you know, spending seven hundred and fifty thousand to a million dollars sometimes and some of those are competition films.
Shari: Movies with bigger budgets draw a bigger audience.
Jason: Yes. That’s a change from early on. I think as we’ve grown, we’ve had opportunities to get bigger films and more high profile films. Our competition films are bigger. Filmmakers want to submit and play us first. That’s a big deal from the first year when nobody even knows who you are to today when so many filmmakers are like, ‘Oh, I wanna play Phoenix.’ That’s a big difference. And the caliber of the films helps with the energy of the festival.
Shari: How did you decide your opening and closing night flicks?
Jason: It’s finding the right tone. It’s really all about tone and how you want to open and how you want to close and set that right balance during the festival, trying to find good comedies, dramas and some good documentaries to strike that balance. Our opening night film is The Hero, this year, with Sam Elliot and Nick Offerman. The director, Brett Haley, directed a movie called I’ll See You in My Dreams a couple of years ago with Blythe Danner and Sam Elliot. It was a really nice film and so I felt like this film with its tone will be as good as that was and so we were really looking forward to making that deal for opening night. In closing, we kinda wanted something a little bit, you know, a little bit more epic and getting Tommy’s Honor is a really good fit. It’s simply a really strong story and a heavy historical drama and it has some feel good moments to it. It’s a nice balance… it’s a nice bookend to the festival.
Shari: What can you do to stand out from other festivals?
Jason: Just continue on the path we’re on. We’ve grown so much in our, coming up on seventeen years, it’s really crazy. You know, we’re programming the same or even better quality films than some of the other festivals that are our size or have been around thirty-five, forty years. They’ve been around twice as long as we have and we’re already where they are in terms of what we’re programming. I look at their lineups and things, you know, they’ve got this film and that film, and I don’t think we’ve missed a lot of films that I wanted this year. I look at the release schedule and what’s coming out and things like that, we talk to the studios, and I think we’re kinda showing almost everything from every studio we have a relationship with; which is nice. That really pays off in our overall lineup. It’s not like we just have this film or that film. We’ve got all of the films that are making the festival circuit right now.
Shari: I love that you do a lot for youth. Kid’s Day is something special that not every festival has.
Jason: Kid’s day is awesome. It’s a combination of having fun and getting an education at the same time. It’s a way for them to get involved and get into some hands-on activities, you know, some fun stuff. They have their red carpet photos taken and are doing some costume stuff; they’ll also get to see some editing and green-screen stuff. It’s a really cool event. It’s neat how it has evolved and how we see some of the same kids every year which is why we try to shake it up as much as we can.
Shari: Is it primarily on little kids?
Jason: Kid’s Day is on Saturday and we also have middle and high school workshops that we do during the weekday where school groups come out and learn about filmmaking. They go from hearing from filmmakers around the world to learning about how to write scripts and do pre-production and they get to actually shoot a scene; to have that all-encompassing opportunity for students is really great. We’re getting involved with kids from age three all the way to college and I don’t think anyone else is doing that. We also have our Arizona Student film festival. The winner of that gets a $1,000 scholarship for college.
Shari: Does the new Arizona film office have anything to do with the festival?
Jason: With the Arizona film office getting re-engaged this year they, along with the Arizona office of tourism, are presenting sponsors this year. It’s a nice tie-in to be able to really focus on film in Arizona and to have this new agency supporting the festival is really great. I’m really looking forward to seeing what Matthew Earl Jones does with the film office. I think he really wants to get film going and I think he’s going to take advantage of every chance he can get.
Shari: How does it feel to know that you’re a part of making dreams come true?
Jason: I think that’s the greatest thing we get to do is giving filmmakers an opportunity and getting them exposed to audiences. That’s why this job and this organization is so special to me. The filmmakers trust us with their films to showcase them… that’s really an honor to have that privilege, so we take it seriously. We want those films to look good, we want there to be butts in the seats, and we want the filmmakers to have a good time; that’s why we have the parties and all those networking opportunities. It feels great to be able to do that and for it to be my job. It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculously amazing! And we get to do it for Phoenix. I was born and raised here, I’ve never lived anywhere else. So, to get to do it here is great.
Thank you for answering my questions, Jason! We’re all looking forward to the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival this year and hope to see you as you run around making sure everything is running smoothly. The festival is filled with wonderful events and the films in the line-up this year, features, shorts and animation, all look wonderful. We can’t wait to see what you have in store for us!
I’ll see you all around the Harkins Scottsdale 101 from April 6th to the 13th for films, fun and festivities.
HERE are the films playing at the festival. GET YOUR TICKETS NOW!