20 Years Later: Reflections on the beginning of the Nantucket Film Festival -June 2015

by: John Stanton

photography by: Jim Powers

It was winter and there always seemed to be another film they had to watch. There were deadlines. There were stacks of VHS tapes and three-quarter-inch tapes, maybe 300 of them. It was a very large pile that had to be plowed through by that spring.

“We didn’t like what Hollywood was putting out. There was a lot more meat on the bone in films in the 1970s...” Jonathan Burkhart
“These days when Sundance closes submissions they’ve taken in 10,000-15,000 submissions,” Jonathan Burkhart said. “But back then I had no idea if that (300) was a lot of submissions or not. It was also word of mouth. I would make phone calls to friends in Boston or New York or L.A. and say, ‘hey, spread the word’.”

Burkhart, along with his sister Jill, is co-founder of the Nantucket Film Festival, now in its 20th year. The idea of a film festival, their own festival, came out of a running conversation between Burkhart and Jonathan Larson, two friends who loved films and complained to each other that it was getting more and more difficult to see quality films at movie theaters.

“We didn’t like what Hollywood was putting out,” Burkhart said. “There was a lot more meat on the bone in films in the 1970s, but by the 1990s, the better the film, the more likely it would be pushed to what were called art houses.”

One fall afternoon in 1994, the two were hanging out on the island, kicking around the seed of an idea that they could put together a film festival, to show the films they thought needed an audience. Like you do sometimes on this island, they ran into all the right people – Jane Alexander, the actress who grew up summers on the island and had just been appointed chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Ben Stiller, another guy who grew up summers here and who had just finished directing a film. They came away from those random conversations encouraged.

“We just thought that all our friends were making films and that we could get everybody together on Nantucket, maybe the next October, and have our own little film festival,” Burkhart said. “We wanted to create a festival where screenwriters and indie filmmakers had a platform.”

The two decades since that idea became a reality have seen a proliferation of film festivals across the country in big cities and small towns. How many of them are anchored in a love of film or are about tourism is an open question. Those years have also seen the rise of digital technology and the so-called democratization of filmmaking.

“Film festivals go on everywhere now,” Burkhart said. “I didn’t start it to be cool. I did it out of angst. But now they’re everywhere. In towns with nothing going on and in big cities.”

While the landscape of both films and film festivals has changed dramatically, the Nantucket Film Festival has also moved from its more casual and funky beginnings to something more formal.

“Over time there is nothing you can do about growing up and being a bit more polished and organized,” Burkhart said. “As for the films selected, there are just

more and more films produced. The level of mediocrity is through the roof. The level of good films, however, has gone up as well.”

Jill Burkhart agreed that it was inevitable the festival would change over the years, a change that has reflected the island itself and changing audience preferences in general.

“Part of that was for the festival’s survival,” she said. “Sometimes I would go to the Rotterdam festival and come back and program a few shorts of films that were very experimental. Jonathan and I are brother and sister, so in the early days it had a more mom-and-pop feeling. We just put one foot in front of the other and went on instinct. Now the festival has grown up. Matured. It’s much more formal. There are pros and cons to both. In the old days it did feel more homey.”

In the year before their first festival, Larson was deep into writing a rock musical called “Rent.” He kept in close touch, calling on the phone daily to talk with both Burkharts, discussing ways to promote and market the festival, while they began to work out the practical details of how a film festival might be put together.

“Really, it was Jill who managed the whole thing,” her brother said. “We went to the newsstand and found a couple of indie film magazines in New York and Los Angeles. We bought ad space in them announcing the festival. But let’s be honest. We really didn’t know what we were doing, or how to execute a multi-day, live event.”

Films arrive at almost all festivals today through an online service called Withoutabox. The company’s website says it offers to connect filmmakers with any number of 5,000 film festivals worldwide. That a service like Withoutabox exists is an indication of how ubiquitous film festivals have become.

“Film festivals used to be a sort of niche-type event,” said Mystelle Brabbée, who is now the festival’s executive director. “Today you’d be hard-pressed to find a city that doesn’t have one. In New York City alone there are 66 film festivals.”

Brabbée literally walked in off the street and into the Nantucket Film Festival’s office one day. She had recently graduated with a degree in film studies, and happened to be on Nantucket just as the very first film festival was being packed away.

“I thought Nantucket and films, those are two words that speak my language,” she said. “I just started working with them. I guess today you’d call it an internship. I feel bad for kids today and everything they have to go through to get an internship. It was so informal in those days. There was a lot of great energy and spirit in those early days. The festival was just getting off the ground.”

A couple of years later the festival was in the market for a new film programmer. Jill Burkhart realized she had to look no further than her office for a good candidate.

“We interviewed a lot of people and nobody seemed right,” she said. “We were in the office one day and I just turned and asked her if she wanted to work for us. Because she came up through the years with me and Jonathan, she carries with her the core of what the festival was.”

“In today’s world of 3,000 film festivals, the job I had is now highly sought after,” Brabbée said. “I now see how lucky I was to jump right in and have that opportunity appear almost right away. I’ve really been part of programming this festival for most of its life. The highlight reel of films we’ve been able to introduce here is amazing. I feel like we’ve just shown so many great films at this point,” she said.

That winter of 1995, films began arriving in the mail. The idea that it would be great to have a film festival on Nantucket had manifested itself in that pile of VHS tapes, representing a long list of indie filmmakers anxious to find an audience for their work.

“We both knew about film production. Jon was a cameraman and I was doing some acting,” Jill said. “We’d been to a couple of film festivals, but had no idea of what went into organizing one. We just put one foot in front of the other. Being kids who grew up on Nantucket, we weren’t outsiders. Everyone knew us and that helped.”

The big festivals – Sundance, or Toronto, or South by Southwest – are where films are sold. They are marketplaces. From the very beginning everyone involved with the Nantucket festival was determined that this one would be different. Jonathan Burkhart remembers that it was Larson who came up with the idea of a film festival that showcased screenwriters.

The most obvious way that intention plays out is the annual Showtime Tony Cox Screenwriting Award. Over the years a handful of scripts have come out of that competition and made their way back to the festival a few years later as feature films.

Sophie Barthes won the 2006 competition with a screenplay called “Cold Souls.” At that same festival she happened to meet Paul Giamatti, and asked him to be in her film. When he agreed she was able to put together financing. She worked on the script at the Nantucket Screenwriters Colony, which is part of the prize. Two years later her film was back at the festival.

“That’s a great circle and being able to help that happen is very satisfying,” Jill Burkhart said.

Brabbée agrees that seeing a story like that play out is rewarding.

“You hope that screenplays find the light of day,” she said. “Plenty of good ones don’t. It is not just winning the competition, it’s all the other good-luck things that go along with it: finding a high-enough-profile lead actor, finding a tenacious producer, finding funding.”

The film festival is hoping to create a relationship with The Black List, a ranking system by industry insiders that lists what they consider to be the top 50 unmade scripts in Hollywood, Brabbée said. It is the path Patrick Tobin’s script for “Cake” took after it won the Tony Cox Award and before it became a film starring Jennifer Aniston.

That winter before the first Nantucket Film Festival suddenly became very cold one afternoon at the end of January. Larson suffered a cardiac aneurysm and died on the night of the dress rehearsal for “Rent.” He was posthumously awarded three Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

“The result of the very first Nantucket Film Festival amazes me more because truly it was just me and Jill, and honestly I was so depressed,” Jonathan Burkhart said. “My best friend had died and I was witnessing this explosion of his Broadway show into a huge hit but he was not able to reap the rewards. It was so painful. I spent most of the winter and spring in bed. It was really painful to go all the way through and execute what was really his idea.”

Meanwhile, there was the more mundane but still important challenge of where to screen the films.

“Charlie Flanagan decided that February that he would not rent us the theater,” Jonathan Burkhart said about the Dreamland Theater. “He said he would not let young kids show movies that are not rated. He wanted us to send all the movies to him in advance. I told him that’s not how it works. It was Rob Mitchell who finally said we could use his theater.”

So on a June night in 1996, the houselights at the Gaslight Theatre (now the Starlight) went down and the first-ever opening-night film of the Nantucket Film Festival flickered onto the screen. The film was called “Losing Chase” and was actor Kevin Bacon’s directorial debut, starring Helen Mirren and Beau Bridges.

Jill Burkhart remembers the moment when it became clear to her that everything was going to work out fine.

These days, “Morning Coffee With...” is a festival staple, but that first year it was just something quickly thrown together.

“It was at Cambridge Street that year and I was off doing something else, but Jon came running over and said there was actually a line waiting to get in. I knew then that it was up and running and real,” she said. “That feeling was very heady and so much fun, that we actually pulled it off and people were actually enjoying it.”

Twenty-two years ago, two friends stopped their ongoing conversation about how difficult it was to see interesting films at their local cineplex and decided they would try to put together a festival for the kind of films they wanted to see. Over the two decades since their idea became reality, film festivals and the audience that buys tickets to them have both changed.

Jonathan Burkhart now produces films through his company Great Point Films. Jill Burkhart is the director of documentary programming at Epix. Both are co-presidents of the festival, but both are quick to say they are no longer part of the film-selection process – although they do offer a few recommendations. They can see the changes the festival has gone through, but both say the reasons they put together the first festival are still its guiding philosophy.

“There’s nothing better than finding a short film you love and you program it and stand in the back and just watch everybody watching it, just feeling the swelling of emotion,” Jill Burkhart said.

“When you’re sharing that with an audience it’s really very gratifying. It’s about the human experience. That heartfelt feeling is shared between us all and that’s why we do it. It’s great that people still want to come and have those experiences.” ///

John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker. His films “Witch City” (1996), “Last Call” (2002) and “Wood Sails Dreams” (2013) have all been part of the Nantucket Film Festival.

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