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How You Should Be Thinking About Film Festivals: Interview with CIFF Head Programmer Ben Fowlie

ben fowlie camden international film festival

Film festival programmers — those enigmatic figures in a dark screening room who decide the fate of so many films with one push of the eject button. Ever wonder who they are, and how they decide what films to program? Ben Fowlie, the Executive Director and Head Programmer of Camden International Film Festival was cool enough to sit down with NFS over Skype and give us a rare glimpse into the inner workings of his film festival. Continue on to check out our video interview.

For the past ten years, Ben Fowlie has been building Camden International Film Festival from the ground up. Today, along with its Points North forum, it is considered one of the top 25 best doc film festivals in the world! Ben spoke with us about everything from the art of programming features versus shorts, to the cutting edge trends in experimental doc filmmaking. Listen to what he has to say about being the managing force behind a top film festival:

One interesting thing Ben points out about programming is that it’s not simply about pulling the best 30 feature films off the pile. If you’re wondering what festivals your film might get in to, remember it’s about creating a cohesive theme, where films have something in common that creates a through-line for that film festival goer. Knowing what festivals cater to what audiences is key. Here’s a look at what Camden International Film Festival feels like to their audience:

I asked Ben to name a few documentaries that he thinks are pretty great but we might not have heard about. So here’s a shortlist, plus a few he mentioned in the interview, for our very own curated No Film School program of interesting trailers:

Expedition to the End of the World – Because Ben is fascinated by the work coming out of Denmark right now.

Caucus — AJ Schnack’s latest film with phenomenal access to the 2012 GOP primary race.

Pablo’s Winter – Because the Scottish Documentary Institute is always coming out with cool, new things.

Our Nixon – No Film School interviewed both Director Penny Lane and Producer Brian Frye!

Public Hearing – All black & white 16mm close-ups of a script taken entirely from an audio transcript of a town hall meeting.

Do you have behind-the-scenes experience at a film festival? What festival have you been to as an audience member where you were impressed by the cumulative curation?



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  • Take a while to watch these. Does he say which festivals are for what types of movies?

    • He doesn’t.

    • Oakley Anderson-Moore on 11.15.13 @ 4:45PM

      Nope, Ben is speaking about his experiences specifically at CIFF. Not a bad thought though – I’ll keep it in mind for a future article if I can compile that kind of breakdown.

  • I can’t say that I’m behind the scenes of any festival… But I’ve certainly heard and seen some interesting patterns in almost every fest (some of whom were stories from friends working there).
    Here’s a few random things I’ve been told:
    - politics abound. Sometimes your name, your look and your attitude alone will get you attention.
    - programmers really do want your film to kick ass… Sadly most don’t.
    - a fest usually holds a program that has repeat contributors, ie. Filmmakers that have been there before and willbe welcomed back before YOU. Atom, Cronenberg, Polley, etc will ALL get into TIFF regardless… You will have to fight for the few open slots.

    I’d go on but it isn’t rocket science to notice trends. Altogether I’ve found EVERY single programmer or ‘fest power that be’ I’ve met are genuine film lovers and truly do want to champion your film. I’ve had nothing but great experiences with people at every fest I’ve been to (as a filmmaker and as an audience member).

  • I’ve always disliked the theme style of programming at film fests. Why would I want to watch 1 awesome short and 5 mediocre short films that follow a theme as opposed to 6 awesome ones that have no relation? People don’t remember going to a fest and being amazed by a theme. People going to see great films. No one cares if they follow a theme. Here’s a good theme: Great Short Films.

    • Oakley Anderson-Moore on 11.15.13 @ 4:39PM

      There’s no mediocre work showing at a regional fest the caliber of Camden. When Ben Fowlie talks about choosing films that build on each other, he is choosing from the best. I agree about hokey themes — but in this case, creating an overarching experience that plays on both style and content for festival goers (at Camden, an audience oriented towards experimental documentary) is a lot cooler than a theme.

      • Camden sounds awesome, and I’ve never been, but I can attest that every single festival I’ve ever been to, including Sundance, SXSW, LA, had some mediocre programming. Maybe it’s not do to thematics. Perhaps it’s more political. That’d be a great theme–nepotism.

  • The reality is, most top festivals are inviting films based on political circumstances and the open submissions are a con deserving of a giant class action suit to stop it.

    Many paid submissions are only watched by interns, and assistants.

    Programmers are great film lovers, and great champions of film, but the festival industry is essentially corrupt and full of favoritism. The filmmaker doesn’t profit off ticket sales in most situations, and few deals are made at festivals, in reality, even if they will announce them as if they were.

    If only Festival Programmers and Producer Reps, and Exec. Producers would really tell the truth about what goes on.

  • B is Correct. Why do filmmakers get to return so often to top tier fests when their work has gone beyond discovery? Those spaces should be left available for filmmakers work that has not been showcased at that festival. It’s totally insider and sold to the public as a real shot for really solid work. I also believe there are not masterpieces laying around in a closet somewhere. If you make a super solid film across the board it won’t go unnoticed IMO. A well written film with ok production value has a 50/50. Or go make a genre film and sell it across the world and skip the fest scene all together.

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