The Cleveland International Film Festival is upon us. It's that annual celebration of all things cinematic — Indies! Shorts! Somber foreign-language documentaries! Quirky local mockumentaries! — and Bill Guentzler is the unflagging artistic director who's been with CIFF for 17 years. He's the guy who coordinates the scouting and acquisition of the films, creating the festival schedule, and then captaining the festival for the duration of its 10-day run, during which time he sleeps very little. Guentzler managed to carve out 20 minutes from a busy Friday morning to chat with Scene about this year's fest:
Sam Allard: Hate to even broach the subject, Bill, but do you ever get burned out?
Bill Guentzler: No. I still love this job. I mean, how can I not?
SA: Opening night's less than a week away? How would you characterize your status?
BG: It's not necessarily a mad scramble, but it's definitely a scramble. There's so much stuff that we still need to do, but we've been working all year on this, and it's not our first festival, so we've figured out what we can do early and what we can't. But the week before the festival is always insane.
SA: So like for instance, what are you doing right now?
BG: Today we're actually moving into Tower City. We're taking over the cinemas now. The box office is moving to the Tower City box office because up until this point we've sort of been over in the corner. The projection equipment is being moved in and then we're going to start loading films onto the projectors.
SA: This year, you're doing more programming outside of Tower City as well, seems like.
BG: Yeah. Ten years ago for one of our anniversaries, we did one screening at the Cedar Lee. That was the original home of the CIFF. Then, probably about seven or eight years ago, we reached out to the Capitol when it opened, and did some screenings there and at Shaker Square. We have been doing screenings in Akron for five years now, and this is the third year that we're having screenings for a full day. And this year, we're doing it on a weekend. We'll be a doing a Friday night screening and then a full Saturday of screenings.
SA: That's great.
BG: Yeah, and it helps us with Tower City, because there's no more space. You go to the festival on the weekends and pretty much every seat is taken by the time the show starts.
SA: So is the Festival at its capacity? Can it even continue to grow at this point?
BG: We have been growing, obviously. I mean since 2003, we've grown 178 percent, but we don't focus on growing. We focus on making the experience good. So with that growth, there are a lot of changes we have to do, just to make sure that everyone has a good time. There is still room during the week, during the day. Those screenings are rarely sold out, but if you go on the weekend, there's 10 full theaters at all times.
SA: Let's chat about the films. Have you seen them all?
BG: I have not. The majority I've seen, but I work with Mallory Martin, our associate programmer. We travel to film festivals throughout the year and then we have a selection committee process where films are submitted to us.
SA: How many people submit, generally?
BG: This year we received over 2,000 submissions. And we have 60-70 people watching each film. Each film is watched three times and graded, and then Mallory and I watch the highest-rated feature films. The highest-rated short films go on to a secondary programming committee just for shorts.
SA: So once you guys decide you want to bring a film to Cleveland, what's the process?
BG: Usually, when Mallory and I go to festivals, we'll come back and compare our lists and decide which films we'd like to bring. Then it's usually just about reaching out to the film's contact — sometimes it's the filmmaker, sometimes it's the producer, sometimes it's a sales agent — and just starting the conversation. If they say yes, we go through the process of getting all the materials we need and figuring out the schedule — sometimes with these films, there's only one copy. And if they say maybe, it's sort of like selling ourselves and our audiences.
SA: What do you tell them?
BG: That we have one of the strongest audiences of any festival in the United States. That they're really, really intelligent about film and they'll see anything. I think a lot of companies understand our audience and really want to play their films here. With other companies, it's a struggle because sometimes they haven't even heard of Cleveland.
SA: Any local films to highlight?
BG: Yeah, we're doing our Local Heroes Competition again, for the fourth year. This year is really really strong. You range from a documentary about Derek Hess, a documentary about Near West Theatre, all the way to a mockumentary starring and directed by Chagrin Falls natives: Fred Willard and Marion Flynn and then directed by Lance Kinsey.
SA: Any new initiatives this year that you're excited about?
BG: Yeah, the New Direction Program, which is kind of replacing our Focus on Filmmakers program which we had for three years and was funded by the academy. That funding ended, and Mallory and I have really wanted to focus on first-time filmmakers for several years so this is our first stab at it, and we chose 11 filmmakers to focus on. These are firsttime filmmakers that are doing something new, exciting, interesting that Mallory and I haven't seen before. The majority of those directors are coming in, including a director from India, a director from Mexico, several from Belgium. And we'll be having a panel discussion the first Saturday of the festival at 4 p.m.
SA: What's the best way to see films at the fest?
BG: You can either get a day pass, and that's part of our challenge match. We're trying to raise $125,000 throughout the festival. And if you donate at a certain level, you'll get a day pass which is good for any film on that day. There are also passes which correspond to membership levels. Individual tickets are $15.