Talking to founder Brenda Webb about new plans for the city's LGBT film festival

Posted by Ben Sachs on Thu, May 23, 2013 at 1:38 PM

From the Thai film Beautiful Boxer, a high point in Reelings programming history
  • From the Thai film Beautiful Boxer, a high point in Reeling's programming history
Last week it was announced that Reeling, Chicago's LGBT film festival, will resume this November following a yearlong hiatus. The fest took a break in order to reconsider its mission in light of the changing nature of film exhibition. Chief among its goals, festival founder Brenda Webb wrote at the time, was to "evolve [in a way] to better address the needs of LGBT filmmakers." Planning for this year's fest is still underway, though Webb has officially handed over key responsibilities to Richard Knight Jr., film critic for Windy City Times and codirector of the recent local production Scrooge and Marley, and Gretchen Blickensderfer, who will act as program director and managing director respectively. Webb will remain involved as executive director of Chicago Filmmakers, which oversees the fest.

I spoke with Webb yesterday about Reeling's evolution. She was enthusiastic about the future of the festival but remained realistic about the challenges it faces. "It's become really tough for independent filmmakers," she said. "A lot of the old model—launching your movie at a film festival, getting a distributor, getting a theatrical run, going to DVD—has changed. . . . In terms of LGBT films, festivals around the world have come to be seen as the main theatrical opportunity; there are fewer and fewer opportunities to get a theatrical run. That changes the nature of a festival from exposing work to supporting work.

"A big thing we considered [during Reeling's hiatus] was: How can film festivals support filmmakers in this new age of social media? Because filmmakers are increasingly expected to be engaged with their work in all aspects, from the production through to the distribution—as opposed to simply producing the film and handing it over to a distributor. There's also this expectation that they'll use social media to create their own fan base and maintain direct access to their audience. We wanted to figure out how we can help filmmakers in engaging their audiences."

Webb explained that Reeling would engage in more "community-building" activities to facilitate this process. In the next few months, the festival will sponsor a regular meet-up group for local LGBT filmmakers "to encourage collaboration and the creation of more LGBT work." (The festival is also seeking underwriting to host a national summit of queer filmmakers, which would expand this activity onto a larger scale.) The fest also wants to encourage future exhibitors; one of the new features of this year's Reeling will be screenings and educational activities on college campuses. "We want to show students how to organize their own screenings," Webb said, "so they can feel empowered in the process."

Is there anything new that general audiences can expect to see? "We are going from ten days to eight days, in part to make the festival tighter. . . . We've also heard from people that the fest can feel too overwhelming, that there have been too many programming choices. So we're going to have more repeat screenings of films; usually we've only done single screenings." Webb also hinted that Knight is trying to bring in more high-profile guests.

I asked Webb if all the new plans for Reeling had changed her sense of purpose for the festival. "For me, the triumphant moments have tended to be the smallest—just seeing a more experimental film find an audience. Seeing Lilies, John Greyson's film, play at the Music Box, that was a triumph for me. Or when we screened a Thai film called Beautiful Boxer, and people who wouldn't normally see a movie like that walked out of the screening saying, 'Wow, that's really great.' Those are triumphs for me, connecting a film with an audience."

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