Interviews: Creative Director Allyson West Talks About The Cindepedent Film Festival

The first annual Cindependent Film Festival is currently taking submissions for original short films, feature-length films, and screenplays of any genre. Works can be submitted here though July 3rd. Official Selections will be announced on Cindependence Day, July 4th, 2018.

In addition to being a part of over 35 hours of screenings and filmmaker events over three days, August 23-25 in downtown Cincinnati, visiting filmmakers can participate in a Cincinnati Brewery and City Tour early on August 22 for a chance to take in the Queen City’s beer history. On August 26, an awards ceremony will be held to celebrate the best of the fest with a select number of awards distributing monetary prizes. Filmmakers have an opportunity to interact with the audience during Q&As following each screening. There will be live entertainment at multiple after parties along with second screenings for filmmakers in the VIP lounge. 

“Cincinnati is alive with cinematic opportunity. We are positioned to develop into a filmmaker-focused annual event to attract cinematic talent and showcase Cincy as a pulsing, friendly city,” says Cindependent Film Festival Creative Director Allyson West. “Consider us ‘undiscovered.’ We’re here waiting for you to explore Cincinnati’s creative potential!” 

The festival is developing sponsorship for two nights of lodging per accepted film to attend the event. Festival attendance is not mandatory but strongly recommended. For more details on the submission process go here.

The Cindependent Film Festival is presented by CIFF, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to create a home for independent filmmaking in Cincinnati, Ohio. CIFF strives to bring professional resources to filmmakers so as to cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit of filmmaking. CIFF will provide community camaraderie, drawing filmmakers from around Ohio, the US, and the world, educating the community in the art and craft of filmmaking.

We had the opportunity to speak with Creative Director Allyson West about the festival and her film Texican.

TMS: What’s up with the Cindepedent Film Festival? What do you want people to know about it?

CIFF: Well, really what we’re trying to do is increase exposure, so the shear fact that we’re talking about it is awesome, but tonally it’s going to be really fun. It’s going to feel like a block party, for a couple of days.

TMS: Is there a specific theme for the festival?

CIFF: There’s not a theme in terms of programming, because we’ll program lots of different genres and types, but what we really do focus on is connecting filmmakers to our community. So when people are coming to the festival to see the movies, they’ll have the opportunity to really chat with filmmakers that are coming to represent their films.

TMS: So are you trying to not only get filmmakers to submit their films and visit Cincinnati, but to also get people to make films in the area?

CIFF: Yeah. We have a lot of different targeted approaches. I have a really strong belief that film festivals only work if the community engagement is big, so we have a huge focus on that. At the same time, I think festivals like this will stimulate the creative work that we have in town. So we are trying to get local submissions in for year one, but regardless this will inspire our local filmmakers to create new work.

TMS: How did the idea for the film festival begin?

CIFF: It’s a long story, but I’ll give you the short and sweet of it. We had moved from Brooklyn back to Cincinnati, I had worked really well in Brooklyn and Manhattan as a performer, I found my well running dry. And it was really, really upsetting. I kept trying all of the different opportunities and different roads to figure out how to be a performer and a creator in the city and I just couldn’t find my footing. What I ended up doing was producing a short film, Texican, and at the of that I wasn’t sure what to do with that. I learned quickly that there’s this whole world of film festivals, where people like me, who are a little more entrepreneurial, travel and take their films. I started traveling with my film and going to communities where film festivals are celebrated and I ended up screening 17 times, and we won 6 major awards and were nominated for 30 others with this movie. And it just shocked me that there was so much support for somebody like me who was out there making their stories, and being very focused and dedicated with them. And every time I kept coming back to Cincinnati, I kept thinking, “Why doesn’t Cincinnati have something like this, a community friendly, well organized, multi-genre festival where filmmakers can go for a few days.” And I looked into it, to see what we do have. We have some genre-specific festivals and we’ve had some attempts, and maybe it just wasn’t the right time for the city. I think that now is the right time. My husband kept saying, “You should do it. You should do this film festival.” And I said, “I don’t know, I don’t think I could do that.” And the more I traveled, the desire to do it just got stronger, and stronger, and stronger. And my vision of how fun this could be got kept getting stronger, and stronger. And so in December I roped two of my friends who work in non-profits, we got our non-profit paperwork started and we just hit the ground running really. It really comes out of me recognizing that there’s a strong need for this in our filmmaking community here, as well as our normal community. We need a space that can bring us together in this way.

TMS: I agree, there isn’t much. The only thing I think that I have attended here was HorrorHound.

CIFF: There are some organizations and some genre specific ones that take place in the area, but there wasn’t an open forum (couldn’t understand). We need something that has a lot of impact for filmmakers so we can get this established for our community here.

TMS: Besides attending, did you have any other experience with festivals beforehand?

CIFF: No, I didn’t really. I had never really researched them or looked into them. What I did have experience with was event planning. I’m used to throwing a good party and used to organizing events like this, so that’s where these two things married. Even though I had event planning in my back pocket, when I started going to film festivals I got to experience that were really good and ones that really weren’t good. So, getting the full spectrum let me pick and choose what we could handle at the film festival, and what we should provide to our artists.

TMS: From the beginning concept up until now, how difficult has it been putting it all together? And, what has been the most challenging aspect so far?

CIFF: That’s a great question, and I’m glad that you asked it. I’m proud of our team and all that we have accomplished so quickly. The first year is always the hardest; we are building the operationally, we are finding out what each functional team must do, we are trying to raise money, and this year we are doing it all on an abbreviated schedule. So, I would say the most challenging thing has been how quickly we are trying to pull this off, while maintaining our quality. Honestly, parties like this take a year to plan, but I was still traveling through November. My bandwidth was maxed out. It wasn’t until I could clear out space to focus and prioritize what needed to happen that I could start involving others. So, the most challenging thing has been building the first year on such a short schedule, because we need to make sure that we have enough time to curate all of the movies. We also missed a lot of the grant deadlines that we could have applied for, so there’s large pieces of our funding that we might have had that we must find creative ways to come up with. That being said, our team is incredible and they are pulling it off, and going above and beyond what their role is.

TMS: Are there any major sponsors or filmmakers that you have secured?

CIFF: We have a lot of really exciting sponsors and grantors. The city of Cincinnati has awarded us the $10,000 Engage Cincy grant, which supports us with interacting with the community and supporting our efforts for filmmakers here. We also are partnered with 21C Hotel and this partnership allows us to bring filmmakers into the city. The idea behind this is twofold; one, to showcase Cincinnati as a filming destination, which we’re proud to do in alignment with the film commissions as well. But, we want to make sure that Cincinnati is showcased as a filmmaking destination regardless of the budget, and the film commission is working fervently to bring in a lot of the bigger budgeted films. The other thing is that, by bringing in other filmmakers, we get to create a competitive market for our local filmmakers. They get to see what they are up against, and my hope is that this will inspire the creative fires under their rear-ends to really elevate their work, or create work in a new way they hadn't thought of before, and that's something I experienced so frequently on the festival circuit. So, Engage Cincy, 21C, of course we're partnered with The Woodward Theatre which is a dream come true. The Woodward was a 1920's movie house when it was originally built, and now, it's a concert venue. It's just really exciting to get into a space that has so much energy and vibrancy to it, especially right downtown Cincinnati, which will help us access everything. And I did want to say, Heyman Talent has been a huge support as an industry partner for us, they came on and really increased our exposure in Cincinnati as well.

TMS: How has the reception been so far?

CIFF: The reception has been mixed, so far, but generally overall supportive. I think that a lot of our organizing professionals in town who had worked on things like this before, or have started things like this on their own, have been hesitant to see if we were actually legitimate or not. What I've done is taken as much time as possible and reached out to as many groups as possible to talk to them, to let them know who I am and what we're doing and ask how we can also support their missions as well. Because this industry should be an industry where the tide rises and all boats float to the top. So, it has been a little mixed, but after me going and talking to these different organizations, the reception is very warm.

TMS: Are you referring to potential sponsors, or?

CIFF: No, there's actually a lot of professional networks in the city that are already film focused. There's the Cincinnati Film Society, there's the OTR Film Festival there's just a myriad of organizations that I was talking to. At the same time, everyone recognizes the need, and it's exciting to see somebody really filling that position.

TMS: How has the selection process been so far? Any specific criteria so far?

CIFF: We utilize a rubric when reviewing the films. We have more than one reviewer, so it's not just me, and I think next year that will become a bit more robust as well. So, when the movies come in, I have time set aside in my day to watch them quietly and privately, when the babies will be quiet. And we utilize a very robust rubric, that goes through different elements of the films, conceptualization, as well as technical performance. So, we're looking at the quality of the films, production value, sound, lighting, things like that, as well as acting, writing, direction, concept, originality. The ten-point rubric builds a score for the film, based on the multiple judges scores. We get pretty in depth with why something should be accepted. Our programming is our most important asset, we want exciting new films in terms of the way the story is being told, or some of the things people are doing with film and video. That's really important to us.

TMS: Are you planning on doing a midnight block?

CIFF: Yes. Well, we have our films playing twelve hours each day, and the very last block for us I believe starts at nine or ten. But in terms of content, in what is in the midnight block, we are looking for horror shorts, sci-fi, things that might be a bit more subversive content and we'd love to program that. Our programming this year is based solely on the quantity and quality of that type of film available. We are a multi-genre festival, we are accepting all types and would love to get enough content in the door to program something that pushes the edge a little.

TMS: How would you end up scoring something like that? Something that might not be technically as proficient as something else, but pushes the boundaries of, potentially, taste, or whatever?

CIFF: That's where having more than one reviewer is really important. Because those types of things, we talk about. They get discussed. If a film can score well on paper, and then there's somebody who feels really odd about what the subject matter is, or one person feels really strongly about it. We talk about what the strengths of the story and whether they match the quality of the film. Overall, if the quality of the film is impeding on the story, that's a problem, but if it can work with where the quality of the film is, in a way that elevates the film watching experience overall, then that's fine. We love that. I'm seeing movies, this is a great example. We have this one movie that came into the festival. It is a first-time horror short, the story is light and what I love about it is the filmmaker has created a monster with what looks like found objects from the home. And they do it effectively. So, for me, it really harkens back that filmmaking can be done in a style that isn't expected. You don’t need lots of computer editing and animation, or some kind of generated thing to create a scary monster. They've really focused in on what this monster is supposed to be in this story, and the budget looks very low, but it doesn't impede. That could sit alongside something that is coming to us from a Los Angeles studio who technically might have more resources, but in terms of how the resources match the storytelling, it is really mild.

TMS: How big is your staff? Volunteers?

CIFFWe have a ten person volunteer staff. It's volunteer because pay scale varies enormously and no one is getting paid this year. The idea is that people would get paid next year, for all the work they're doing. And everyone else has a day job. That being said, I always just reiterate, these things have to start somewhere, and having the people we do to pick things up, push things forward, has been really essential to making this work. We have a traditional two person press team, and they have backgrounds in TV and radio, we have a director of social media. Two of our board members have their careers in non-profits, one of them has expertise in bookkeeping and accounting work for non-profits and the other, she's our director of development. She does all our work with brands and sponsorships, in addition to myself. There's ten people focused strongly on making this happen with lots of different areas of pull for the festival.

TMS: Are you looking for other volunteers? Or other sponsorships?

CIFF: We’re continuously looking for new sponsorships. We're not fully funded for year one, although the festival will happen no matter what. I've been making sponsor meetings non-stop and being on maternity leave, I limit how many per day I can schedule, and take my newborn with me, but we'll be looking for sponsorships and partnerships probably up until the end of July. We're going to start submitting all of our programs and paperwork for printing in August and we can't reprint. In terms of volunteers, something like this is going to be heavily staffed by volunteers and we're really excited to get people who want to see movies to work with us on this. Our volunteer supervisor is Jennifer Mayhall, and calls for volunteers are going to start going out in the next few weeks. I'm pumped about meeting a lot of new people who want to be a part of this with us.

TMS: Will there be awards given?

CIFF: Yeah! Yep, thanks for asking! There are quite a number of awards and they're listed on our website. We also, and this is very exciting, there are five monetary awards, the largest awards our festival will offer will also have a small stipend attached to them for the filmmakers. But that stipend will only be awarded if the filmmaker comes to back to Cincinnati to make their film. So. We're really encouraging and stimulating our filmmaking economy in that way and are planning to offer that opportunity to filmmakers, to come back here.

TMS: In that line, besides the screenings, are you planning on doing any type of Q&A, like at conventions?

CIFF: I call these our enrichment activities. We do have quite a bit of enrichment activities lined up. There will be talk backs following each film screening. Of course we're going to have the filmmakers in the city. Following a block of movies, I'll be facilitating conversations with the filmmakers and the audience. We've also lined up coffee chats for the mornings, featuring the directors of the day where they'll be all in one place and members of the community can come in and chit chat with them and they can talk to each other. We are arranging panel discussions with local industry professionals. We'll be bringing in different production people from the town. Lynn Meyers is doing a class for us on casting for independent films specifically. We're also in talks with one of our partners to offer a camera workshop with a new exciting, back from the '70s camera. But I can't give any details on that because it's not final yet. There's a lot of discussions we're having, and arranging things where people can view new technology to just extend their knowledge and filmmaking base and also see what the city can offer.

TMS: What at the festival are you the most excited for personally?

CIFF: This is going to sound so cheesy, but when I imagine myself at this festival, I see myself just standing out front and literally saying hello and welcoming people to the festival. I know what an incredible experience I had when people in different cities came out and welcomed me and made sure I was comfortable and knew what was going on. That has a lot of meaning for me, I'm a very chatty person, I love meeting new people, so to put myself in a position where that's literally my job for three days, and then get to share with these people what is really exciting for me about this film work is going to blow my mind.

TMS: From a programming perspective, what goes into selecting an opening and closing night film?

CIFF: What a great question. What I would love to see is a lot of really exciting Ohio films to be in our opening night block. What I want to do as a programmer is program movies that are really exciting and relevant for the opening block because it should make a splash for us. We're looking for our brightest and best Ohio type films. The idea being that we can really celebrate our local filmmakers during that block and really build a lot of excitement for them and for the community by putting them in such a pristine selection. For our closing night, we have not zeroed in on what we want it to be just quite yet. We're waiting for more content to come in to see what's really going to build. I would imagine we'd want something that buttons up what we've been doing and how much fun we've had over the last two days.

TMS: Have you already created your posters for advertising the festival?

CIFF: We have. I just want to say our marketing is light this year, in terms of our budget, we've worked with Lightning Horse Industries, a design firm, for our logos and branding. We have two main posters printed up, those will go up here in May and June, and we've also been doing a lot of hand to hand canvassing. We went to the National concert to hand out fliers for the festival to talk to people about what it is, how they can be involved. We have very grass roots marketing for this year, though we do have some advertising down the pipes for us, that's a little bit more traditional.

TMS: Will there be anything specifically devoted to local filmmakers?

CIFF: We will have that, there will definitely be a local focused block. We're partnered with The 48 Hour Film Project as well, and the idea is that it will help us be able to continue cultivating local films for the festival. There will absolutely be local blocks. I'm not sure what they'll be called yet. In terms of our enrichment activities, we won't have anything specific because we don't want to exclude anyone who's come in from out of town.

TMS: Away from the festival, is there one director whose work you’re always first in line for.

CIFF: That's a great question. I'm a big fan of Woody Allen's work. Not all of his work, but I'm a fan of his concepts and ideas. I love watching Woody Allen films, even if I'm like eh, I don't know, wasn't my favorite, or I'm a complete fan. I like what he does with interpersonal relationships, a lot of times the camera work he utilizes really focuses on the characters he builds.

TMS: You’re a filmmaker first, what drives you as a director.

CIFF: Good story that you can't poke holes in, I'm like a bloodhound for a tight story, so when I find one or create one, I can't let go of. If a story is tight and you can't poke holes in it, it will get into you and drive everything forward because things have purpose and a point. So that is my largest motivation as a director.

TMS: What was the inspiration for Texican?

CIFF: Inspiration came from two different places. One very personal, one social. The social part being our country has really shifted in terms of its perspective. I'm Texan originally and was just kind of playing with this concept of how skin tone breaks down in Texas and how that can distinguish how someone is treated. In the film a white woman says a racial slur to her boyfriend and he has brown skin, so it creates this tension between them on this day where he needs to just really get into what this is. The reason why that trips down the track the way it goes is because of the personal relationship between those two, which has to do with growing up as a younger person and getting into serious relationships and realizing that you can really dislike the person you love sometimes, and having to wrestle with that contrast was very important for me when I was growing my relationship with my husband now, and something I had on my mind when I wrote this movie, so I think that's a beautiful and important place for relationships to go, and I encourage people to talk about what's coming out of them honestly and then deal with it. It's not always pretty.

TMS: Can you talk a little about how you decided to film in real time?

CIFF: I have a theatre background, and that's how I'll see film a lot of the time, has to do with long, fluid shots. Filming in real time was achievable because the script is short, the way dialogue goes we trip, trip, trip, trip on the other so it made a lot of sense to run through there. I wanted, because the space was so close, I really wanted to show the discomfort of these two characters having to deal with each other. Edixon Caridad who played Javi, has an amazing dexterity to let his emotions do a lot of our work for us, allowing him the time and space on film to live through them has a lot of impact for the story.

TMS: How long of a shoot did you do for Texican?

CIFF: We only had a one day shoot, and if I could do anything differently, I would've had a second day so I could review dailies and pick up other things we needed. So, we did a one day shoot, it was a hot, hot day. The sun was so bright we could barely see the monitors. I had an AD and editor reviewing film for me as we were shooting it, and I;m grateful that we got what we got out of a day, I mean, I'll never feel finished with it. Sometimes it can be hard for me to watch what we have on screen because I keep undressing and undressing it, it's embarrassing (laughs).

TMS: Was there any additional script you didn't end up using?

CIFF: Yeah, actually, we missed our funding goal, initially, and it was really important for me, when we were rehearsing, Edixon and I, to rehearse what was actually coming out of this character dynamic, so our rehearsals were based more on discussing the characters and their history and what we found was that this movie could end here, and not where it’s supposed to end in the script. In the script, LeighAnn, makes a big gesture, and she goes about putting all of his clothes on her, because he talked about his smell and how she doesn't like his smell, and when she realizes how much that hurts him, she, in the script, started layering up all his clothes and immersing herself in him and it ends very differently. What we were actually seeing is an ambiguous relationship within this social framework, and so we were able to end it right there.

TMS: Is there any other projects you're working on?

CIFF: I have a Podcast called Script Shop, where we talk to screenwriters about their scripts and why they're the only person in the whole entire universe that could've written them. It releases weekly and we had taken a bit of a sabbatical from recording the show because of my baby, but we didn't miss any weeks and we're about to jump back into production, so that's really exciting. You can listen to it on Google Play, the iTunes Sound Cloud, our website,

TMS: Who did you interview last?

CIFF: The one that's currently out is a screenwriter named Nathaniel Garcia, he wrote a screenplay called Vera Ann Conway that I absolutely love, it starts out kind of dark and drama-y in the first few pages, then one of the characters has a surprise alien baby and the surprise alien baby is a cannibal and starts eating everybody and the government gets involved and it is just like, almost a Christopher Durang like screenplay, and with all the bizarre stuff going on here, the guy really pulls it off in terms of dexterity and language and the flow of the script. So he has a hugely successful script with a bonkers story.

TMS: Is it just a script, or has it been filmed?

CIFF: This is just a screenplay, but we do have some that have become fully produced.

TMS: How do you go about securing interviews about screenplays that haven't been made yet?

CIFF: A lot of people are really eager to have people read their work, so they don't mind talking about them. There are some people who don't want their work shared, but others copyright their work, or just want their work out there, so we don't have a problem finding people to submit their scripts to us.

TMS: And it's not like you're talking about Marvel movies or something like that.

CIFF: Right. We'd love to have those discussions, but I keep us open. As we grow it would be awesome to get some big celebrities or really famous writers on the show, but at this point, it's important for us to provide a platform for writers so they can showcase their work through it.

TMS: I think that's it, unless you have something else?

CIFF: I do! I'm making a new short this summer. I'm part of an art project where they've assigned everyone a Bob Dylan song and you have to make a movie inspired by it. So I'm in the process of writing a comedy short this May, and then we'll be furiously trying to figure out how to produce it on a very tight budget this summer.

TMS: Cool, are you planning to shoot it around here?

CIFF: Yeah! I love working local. It's really important for keeping people like me in work, so we'll be looking for local cast and crew and all that jazz.