Before Chris Lamont started the Phoenix Film Festival, the Valley didn't really have one to call our own. With this year's event, which takes place at Harkins Scottsdale 101 April 3 through 10, and features films with big-name actors like Jude Law and Tom Hardy, it's gearing up to be the biggest festival yet. Lamont explains how the mostly volunteer-run organization continues to expand and what it does better than any other film festival around.
Lamont has been an independent filmmaker primarily in Arizona since college (he directs and produces now), but his love of film began in grade school. While he admits his projects aren't ones you've likely heard of before, his film festival has become the premier film event in the Valley.
"I have three kids, with the festival being my third," he says. "I have this 14-year-old monster and I want to see it grow and get bigger."
Last year's event drew in a record-breaking crowd for the event with 23,000 attendees, and this year Lamont hopes to see even more. As a film professor at Arizona State University, a father, and the founder of the event, he has plenty on his plate and readily credits the event's success to the "army of volunteers" that help every year. From year one, the festival has been drawing unexpected numbers.
"We basically had four months to cobble together a three-day event and we were hoping maybe 500 people would show up," he says. "3,000 people came to the first festival and we even made our money back."
After the event, an attendee approached Lamont and asked when the next festival would be. He says at that point he hadn't even considered making the event annual, but it became clear that there was a demand and it's been going strong ever since.
Now Lamont's focus for the event is making it an unparalleled experience between filmmakers and the community, and he says that's where Phoenix Film Festival excels. Unlike other festivals, directors aren't expected to "hustle" to get people in theaters to see their films, which he attributes to the festival's effective marketing. This allows filmmakers to enjoy the experience more, which, in turn, makes the experience of Q&A sessions richer for the audience.
"As filmmakers you need film festivals to connect with the community," he says. "The event has become an important part of Phoenix and it's important for filmmakers."
This year, for the first time, every filmmaker in competition will be at the festival, though filmmakers from as far as Africa have attended in the past. Lamont says he's looking forward to seeing as many of the films as possible, but has his sights set on Jake Squared, Misfire, and the local documentary The Joe Show about Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Out of about 1,000 submissions, the festival only features one-tenth of those films, which Lamont considers the best of the best.
"The quality of films has gotten significantly better," he says. "We treat this like a major film festival and take it very seriously."
According to Lamont, the hard work paid off when the festival was named one of the top 25 coolest film festivals by MovieMaker Magazine. However, the most rewarding part of any festival is when he gets to see filmmakers witness sold-out crowds to their films and then interact with those audiences.
"All of the work means nothing if we don't have an audience to come in and appreciate the films," he says.
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Lamont's goals for the festival's future include continuing to improve the quality of the films shown and the experience for both filmmakers and attendees, which he hopes will put them in the top 10 coolest film festivals. He says that there are some who have attended all 14 years of the festival, and every repeat visit means to him that they are doing the festival right. Lamont really just hopes more and more Phoenicians come out to enjoy film every year.
"I always hope for more," he says. "We always have room for more."
The Phoenix Film Festival will be at Harkins Scottsdale 101 Theatre April 3 through 10. For tickets and more information, visit the www.phoenixfilmfestival.com.