Q&A: Central Michigan International Film Festival organizer discusses selection process, films showcased


Broadcast and Cinematic Arts faculty member Patricia Williamson poses in Moore Hall Feb. 13, 2018.

Even after a decade-long career in radio and 19 years of teaching film classes, organizing the Central Michigan International Film Festival has been a learning experience for Patricia Williamson.

This will be the first year Williamson, an associate professor in the School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts, has acted as the faculty advisor for Film Society. The position was previously held by Mark Poindexter, who now serves as the department's graduate director.

A registered student organization, Film Society aims to promote films and filmmakers at CMU and educate students about the filmmaking process. One way it does this is by hosting the Central Michigan International Film Festival.

The festival will be held this year between Feb. 14 and Feb. 18. A full schedule of showings and their locations is available on Film Society's webpage, which can be found on the College of Communication and Fine Arts' website.

On Feb. 13, Williamson sat down with the hosts of Central Michigan Life's film-centric podcast "Moving Pictures" to discuss her involvement with the festival, her passion for film and her future as the festival's director.

For the full interview with Williamson, listen to "Moving Pictures" at www.cm-life.com/multimedia or download the episode on iTunes or Soundcloud.

CM Life: "What kind of process do you go through when it comes to picking out the films to be shown at the festival?"

Williamson: "Part of it depends on what's going to be available on particular dates. In past years, we've chosen the movies much earlier, but in today's film market, a lot of those films end up streaming on Netflix or Amazon (Prime) before you get a chance to bring them to the festival.

While that's fine for some of the films, (Film Society) wanted to have a number of films that were not yet available in that format so people would actually have a reason to come out and see them on the big screen. That's part of the process we went through this year, so there was this idea of negotiating and seeing what was going to be available. 

An example would be "I, Tonya" — we were waiting until just days before we put in our order to find out if it was going to be available for festivals, because it's still out in theaters right now. ("I, Tonya") ended up being available a week before our festival started, so we were able to do the deal to bring "I, Tonya" in.

Is it a struggle to bring audiences to a festival in an era where you can stream films?

That was definitely part of the calculation, and that's why we tried to get some of these films (on the schedule) that aren't yet available in that format. We did want to encourage people to leave their house, put their cell phones down and actually just come watch a movie in a dark theater with other people and enjoy the film — the spectacle of film — and come to appreciate it in a different way.

The ticket price is half of what you'll pay to see a movie in theaters these days. So it is a pretty inexpensive date night if you want to go out to see a movie at the festival. I'm pretty passionate about film — it's a big part of my life. I teach film courses, and for me, it's not the same watching a movie on a cell phone. It's not the same as that experience of watching it on the big screen — of seeing the scope and having more of the impact of the music (and) the audio.

Anybody who has experience of the film festival circuit knows that there were probably film submissions (from local filmmakers). What was that process like of going through the submissions, finding films to pick and not to pick like?

It was interesting — this was where the learning curve (of organizing a film festival) came into play. We use a website called FilmFreeway, which is a really popular place to have independent filmmakers submit their work — it can be either a short (film) or a feature length film. 

What I didn't realize is that working in a university setting works very differently than it does in the "real world." 

In order to be able to open it up to outside independent producers and charge a small fee for them to submit their work, we had to go through a whole bureaucratic process with the university, because it was considered a course fee.

It took months to get through that process, but that's how we were able to reach independent filmmakers, and we've chosen one feature-length film that was submitted from a local Michigan filmmaker called "The Stone Circle." 

We also have a "Short Films" program — all of the shorts we're playing were submitted through FilmFreeway or are CMU student productions.

What films are you excited to showcase at the festival?

The one I'm most excited to see is "The Florida Project" (a film about a Floridian family living in poverty). It looks fantastic and it's just the kind of movie I like.

I've already seen "Lady Bird," which I think is incredible. It's a coming of age story about a young woman, which we don't see as often in Hollywood.

I know a lot of people in town have been waiting for "Three Billboards (Outside Ebbing, Missouri)" — people have waiting forever for that to come to Mount Pleasant, and we're happy we could finally bring it in.

One of the (local) films I'm really excited about is "Nor Any Drop to Drink" — it's a local feature-length documentary production. It was produced and directed by a group of CMU faculty, staff and a student. (The film) looks intently at the Flint water crisis and what people in Flint went through during the crisis. That is going to be playing at Celebration (Cinema), Sunday (Feb. 18) at noon. 

We're going to have a Q&A with the filmmakers (afterwards), and several people who are featured in the film are going to be in the audience, so they may be willing to answer some questions as well.