How the Phoenix Film Festival works to boost Arizona’s film scene | Phoenix New Times
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How the Phoenix Film Festival works to boost Arizona’s film scene

More than just a way to watch movies, Phoenix Film Festival aims to support filmmakers of all ages and help them to connect.
From left, Nina Newell, Cindy Lee, Phoebe Newell and Kat Aparicio pose for a photo during the Phoenix Film Festival’s opening night in Scottsdale on April 4, 2024. Lee’s film “The Stories They Didn’t Tell Us – Nina’s Story,” which recounts Nina Newell’s experiences as a refugee in Vietnam, premiered Thursday at the festival.
From left, Nina Newell, Cindy Lee, Phoebe Newell and Kat Aparicio pose for a photo during the Phoenix Film Festival’s opening night in Scottsdale on April 4, 2024. Lee’s film “The Stories They Didn’t Tell Us – Nina’s Story,” which recounts Nina Newell’s experiences as a refugee in Vietnam, premiered Thursday at the festival. Kayla Mae Jackson/Cronkite News

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Editor's note: This story was updated on April 17 to correct a quotation from Greg Kwedar.

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The Phoenix Film Festival is celebrating its 24th year and is dedicated to promoting independent cinema and providing a platform for filmmakers to showcase their work.

Jason Carney, executive director of the Phoenix Film Foundation and the festival, says this anniversary offers valuable insights into the growth and evolution of filmmaking in the Valley over the past two decades.

“Currently, we host approximately 290 screening events during these 11 days, whereas in the early years, it would have been around 40 or 50,” Carney says. He adds that over the past 24 years, the event has grown from a modest three-day gathering to an 11-day celebration, attracting upward of 20,000 attendees. This year's festival began on April 4 and ends on Sunday.

Besides showcasing big hits, the festival also emphasizes local and emerging filmmakers.

“We feature local films, big films – and that includes high school students, college students and professional filmmakers – all the way up to feature films. It continues to be a big priority, but it’s also about wanting to get the best of the best in the festival,” Carney says.

The Phoenix Film Festival is more than just a way to watch movies; it's also an opportunity to make connections at events like filmmaking workshops and the festival's free industry night.

“It’s a great way for the community of Phoenix and Arizona to come together for a night and network,” Carney says.

Brett Cornell, an Arizona State University freshman whose short film, “Memento Mori,” was accepted into the festival, echoed the importance of these networking opportunities.

“It’s nice to see something you and your friends put so much time and effort into pay off successfully,” Cornell says.

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Director Greg Kwedar’s film, “Sing Sing,” was featured on Phoenix Film Festival’s opening night at the Harkins Theatres: Scottsdale 101 on April 4, 2024.
Kayla Mae Jackson/Cronkite News

For Greg Kwedar, director of “Sing Sing,” which was featured at this year’s festival, the event felt like a homecoming.

“My creative partner Clint (Bentley) and I shot our last movie here, and we were very embraced by the community,” Kwedar says.

“Sing Sing” is set within the walls of a prison and aims to showcase the humanity and potential for transformation through art.

“That’s what the hope of this movie is — that we’re going to bring you inside and show you the beauty, the resilience, the restoration that can happen,” he adds.

Kwedar also reveals what the festival means for him.

“Well, there’s quite a lot involved in making a film here, but I’m just eager and excited to meet the film community in real time … to present our work,” he says. “The festival is really the transition where we’re giving it now to an audience, and then it doesn’t belong to us anymore. So, in this space between, this is really where we get to actually be in conversation with other artists and with the general public. And my hope is that it’s an exchange that I’m going to learn from and be fed just as much as the audience is.”

In addition to film screenings, the festival’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is a cornerstone of its programming.

“We have our community-spotlight programming, which features films directed by African-American, Native American and LGBTQ filmmakers,” Carney says, emphasizing the festival’s role in amplifying diverse voices and stories.

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A signed “Titanic” movie poster sits on the silent auction table at the Phoenix Film Festival’s opening night kickoff party.
Kayla Mae Jackson/Cronkite News

As the Phoenix Film Festival continues to grow, Carney said it not only boosts the local economy – affecting everything from hotels to restaurants – but also strengthens the fabric of the local film community. He says many local businesses report the festival weekend as their busiest of the year.

Carney also says Arizona’s lower costs compared to traditional film hubs like Los Angeles, coupled with new tax incentives, has made the state an increasingly attractive place for film production, and the festival has helped nurture the film community.

“It can be so brutal, and it’s a life of mostly rejection, and yet at the same time, we have to cling to those yeses, and you have to cling to your community, like look at who’s around you and who you could create with and stick together,” Kwedar says.
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