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Movie Marathon Man: Cleveland International Film Festival's Patrick Shepherd on the Beast that is 12 days of Movie Magic

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Patrick Shepherd is the associate director of the CIFF. Though it runs just 12 days each year, the job is a year-round, full-time gig. It takes all that time (and more) to entertain about 100,000 moviegoers and make their experience stress-free. This year's festival kicks off on March 19. Shepherd took a few minutes to chat about what to expect this year.

It appears and sounds like you might be a busy, busy man right now.

Yeah, when we're this close, I'm running from speech to speech and meeting to meeting.

How many hours are you guys putting in once the festival gets this close?

Oh gosh, well, this is a year-round endeavor. The minute the last festival closes, we start working on the next one. Labor Day is when it really heats up. After the first of the year, there's no days off, including weekends. Our last day off was New Year's Day; our next day off is Friday, April 4. We're all going to the Indians home opener that day.

Give me the big impressive numbers for this year's fest.

There are 186 feature films, 168 short subject films. We're talking about 500 screenings over 12 days, from March 19 to March 30. We don't project attendance, but we have grown quite a bit. Since 2003, when it was just over 35,000 attendees, we've grown by 165 percent. Last year's attendance was 93,235.

You ever worry about Tower City not being the ideal venue if you guys keep growing at that rate? As it is, it's amazing how relaxed and well-run it is given those numbers and that space.

This year we're doubling the number of neighborhood screenings. If you look at the guide, we're doing a full day at the Hanna Theatre, we have a new location at the Beachland where we're doing a double feature. We've been doing neighborhood screenings at Cedar Lee and Shaker Square and Capitol Theatre, but we're now making those double features. We're trying to expand our reach. This is our second year doing a full day of screenings in Akron, and for the second time we'll be at the Apollo Theatre in Oberlin. All of this is intended to ease the crowds, to schedule things at the best times. When I first started 16 years ago, we had screenings in four auditoriums at Tower City. Now this is the fourth year we've taken over the whole complex.

You're not the one screening these films beforehand, right

I'm the associate director. There are two creative directors, and I think they've seen over 1,100 films this cycle. That's going to festivals, watching screeners, etc. They literally watch movies nonstop at home. I'm sure it's fun to travel that much, but it's also a lot of work.

Cherrypick your favorite films this year that folks should mark down on their calendars.

The first one that pops in my head, hmm. We're doing a focus on LGBT filmmakers and have a really good 10% cinema series. The first year it was filmmakers from the African diaspora, and then it was Latin filmmakers last year, and this year it is LGBT, which we coordinated the timing with because of the Gay Games coming August. There's going to be an unprecedented number of filmmakers attached to that program. We've got a documentary called Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine, he was, of course, the college student who was beaten and killed back in 1998. And now, Jason Collins, the first gay player in the NBA, is wearing No. 98 on his jersey. It's amazing. The Shepard parents are coming here from Wyoming and the director will be here. I think it's going to be a special moment. There have been a lot of films and plays and projects in the last decade about Matthew Shepard, but this is clearly an intimate portrait, clearly they had unprecedented access to stories and videos and diaries and I think it's going to be a very memorable part of the festival.

So, the Cleveland Foundation is sponsoring a free day at the festival. It was great, the free museum days that they did a few weekends ago, but there were also very long lines and waits at some places like the Rock Hall. How are you guys working to make sure that the grand gesture goes smoothly?

Yesterday was one of the biggest announcements in our history, and we're so honored that they're including us in their centennial celebration. We've had countless meetings thus far, and I think we're going to be meeting nonstop before March 24 [the Cleveland Foundation day] because this affects every part of the festival. Typically, Monday is the lightest day for attendance. We think that day is going to be feel like a second Saturday, which is always the biggest day of the festival. We're hearing from our friends at the Rock Hall and other places about how many people came through those places that lived and worked here but had never been before. It's amazing. It exceeded everyone's expectations. We're going to do everything we can through messaging and fliers and announcements to get the details out. It's a little more complicated than going to a museum; here we need you to have tickets and times. There will probably be a few tickets available that day, but for the most part, we're going to try and make sure people make their decisions early. It's all about how you experience the festival, and it's these types of endeavors that we'll continue to do to make the festival a great experience. With this, we don't have a second chance, we have to make it work and work well, and we will.

It's a good problem to have.

We're thrilled. Anxious, but thrilled. It's something you worry about what you're not thinking of, but it will be great. [And with that, Shepherd is off to another meeting.]

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