When the Greenwich International Film Festival takes over the small Connecticut town beginning June 9th, with moviegoers bustling about the Greenwich Bow Tie Cinemas and the Cole Auditorium at Greenwich Library, it will be hard to imagine that it all started with a conversation between Carina Crain, Colleen deVeer, and Wendy Reyes at a party three-and-a-half years ago. Reyes, who had returned to her hometown after a decade spent in Los Angeles to study screenwriting and coordinate her philanthropic efforts, had wondered why Greenwich, a place uniquely suited to host a film festival given its high concentration of arts patrons, didn’t yet have one. It turns out she wasn’t alone.
“We polled our audience immediately after the film festival [last year] and 98% said that they loved it and they would come again,” says the festival’s chairman Reyes, after the trio, joined by Chief Operating Officer Ginger Stickel, successfully launched the festival last year. “Across the board, filmmakers, pass holders and community members were really were blown away by the experience they were able to have at the film festival.”
Perhaps that’s because GIFF was developed with a very specific community in mind, one which is geographically just far enough from New York to prevent the latest indie cinema from traveling at the height of its buzz, while close enough to serve as home to those with connections to the industry.
On one hand, festival organizers didn’t have to look that far to find their centerpiece films for this year, bringing in Greenwich native and former “Late Show” head writer Rob Burnett’s feature debut “The Fundamentals of Caring,” with Paul Rudd, Selena Gomez and Craig Roberts, and “Newtown,” from director Kim Snyder, which promises to be an emotional event with families of the victims of 2012 school shooting at nearby Sandy Hook Elementary in attendance. (A third centerpiece film, “My Blind Brother” starring Adam Scott, Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate, also has a Greenwich connection with actor Charlie Hewson, who will be joining the film’s writer/director Sophie Goodhart on stage.) On the other, the festival organizers are quite conscious of the timing of the four-day affair at the start of the summer when audiences are looking for escapism, delivering an opportunity for locals to travel the world without leaving home.
“It is a great audience to program for because they are very sophisticated and very broad generationally,” says deVeer, the festival’s director of programming. “We really set out on a mission to program films that open up people’s eyes to the way the rest of the world is living through film, to challenge them and burst the bubble that we are living in here.”
To that end, the festival places as strong an emphasis on social issues as entertainment, a healthy mix that’s evident not only in the films they show, but the panels they present. A place where the crowdpleasing suburban comedy “Little Boxes” will play alongside the Chinese dissident doc “Hooligan Sparrow,” the festival will also foster spirited conversations with panels such as “Driving Social Change Through Investments in Film” with “Song of Lahore” producer Dan Cogan and “How to Dance in Ohio” director Alexandra Shiva, and “Women at the Top: Female Empowerment in Media,” featuring the likes of ESPN’s Hannah Storm, Fox’s Gretchen Carlson and CBS’s Reena Ninan. Notably, GIFF has partnered with UNICEF to present OneMinutesJr., a video initiative that gives 12- to 20-year-olds from around the world the chance to show a 60-second slice of life from their country, and it reserves its biggest honors for those who have made their mark as much offscreen as on, celebrating producer Trudie Styler and actress Abigail Breslin for their work with the Rainforest Fund and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, respectively, with the Changemaker Awards.
“We wanted to create a new model of film festival that really celebrates artists who have used their platform and their voice to create positive social change in the world,” says Reyes. “There are so many different, interesting conversations that are able to be [facilitated] through film, and specifically through the type of programs that we aim to create [at Greenwich].”
Those conversations are not only about the films that are shown, but the ones yet to be made. While most festivals serve as networking events with parties and panels intended unofficially to connect potential collaborators with one another on future projects, Greenwich is more overt about making those connections happen. With a children’s acting workshop (featuring “The Jungle Book” star Neel Sethi and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” star Peyton List), and a “From Book to Screen” panel highlighting the adaptation process with authors and screenwriters on hand, the festival is designed to encourage budding professionals of all ages. However, GIFF goes one step further, aiming to put filmmakers looking for financing in touch with potential investors, an idea that was sparked by deVeer and Reyes’ own experience seeing promising films languish in development.
“To me, the stark contrast between Greenwich and Los Angeles [is that] in Greenwich, there’s capital that’s actually interested in investing in film, but not the opportunity,” says Reyes. “[Which is] the polar opposite of what it is in LA, where the financial community is saturated by so many asks for film investment that the capital is no longer as interested.”
In only its second cycle, it’s too early for the festival to be showing a film that was made as a result of a meeting at GIFF, but it’s likely to happen sooner than later, given the festival’s aggressive growth in all directions. Already, the festival is expanding their reach into other cities with a screening of the Marshall Fine profile of the comedian “Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg” set for Stamford’s Avon Film Center, and has added an entire Jewish Film Series sidebar, including the world premiere of the documentary about the proliferation of Jews living in modern-day Berlin, “Germans and Jews.” Following the success of their maiden voyage, GIFF organizers also started to plot special events outside of the central festival, bringing together “Billions” co-creators David Levien, Brian Koppelman and cast members David Constable and Terry Kinney out for a premiere party for the Showtime show in January and an early screening of “The Big Short” with three of the real-life day traders from Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning film. Still, as big as Greenwich has already developed, the goal is to keep it feeling small and intimate.
“We have a niche market, but we’ve had a much easier time this year, getting filmmakers and talent to come out because they realized after the first year that we have a great concept here and that this festival really has legs,” says Reyes, who plans to keep audiences on their toes for the foreseeable future.