Ridgefield Independent Film Festival draws around 4,000 to town

“It was great. We had more people, more films, more positive feedback — just so many new people,” Geoffrey Morris said of the 2019 Ridgefield Independent Film Festival. “The people who were here last year came again, and they told people, and the people who heard about it came.”

There were 120 different films shown shown at four venues in town — the Ridgefield Theater Barn, the Ridgefield Library, the Ridgefield Playhouse and Keeler Tavern Museum — from Thursday, Oct. 10, through Monday, Oct. 14.

This is the second year Morris’s TownVibe Fund has organized and run the film festival. Megan Smith-Harris was the festival director.

Since people could buy passes good for numerous events, as well as tickets to individual screenings, organizers can’t say exactly how many people attended this year’s Ridgefield Independent Film Festival — known by the acronym RIFF.

“Getting a really accurately count is hard,” Morris said. “...Ticket sales were a little higher.”

He estimated about 4,000 attended this year’s festival.

“In 2018, we had roughly 3,250 unique guests (not counting people who come to multiple films, of which there are many),” said Smith-Harris. “This year, I would agree with Geoffrey that for attendance we had around 4,000.”

The festival also had a good turnout of people in the business.

“As for filmmakers, we had 46 — this includes actors, writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, and executive producers,” said Smith-Harris. “Filmmakers came from across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Norway.”

The four-year-old event was again in the fall, rather than the spring, this year.

“I think this time of year really helps. It used to be in May,” Morris said. “In May, it’s just starting to get nice, and people are ‘Let’s go outside and do something!’”

Movies, awards

Of course, what ultimately makes a film festival work are the movies.

“Our festival director is really a creative force, and picked some stellar movies,” Morris said.

There were 15 awards, many with local sponsors, and some of the award-winning films had local connections.

“Redding resident and filmmaker Cindy Meehl, won RIFF Best of Fest for her powerful documentary, The Dog Dog, which features Ridgefield resident, integrative veterinarian Dr. Marty Goldstein who launched Smith Ridge Veterinary Center in South Salem, and is internationally recognized as a visionary for his approach to integrative medicine for animals,” Smith-Harris said.

“RIFF partnered with local animal shelter ROAR to spread the word about the film, and there was a full house at the screening held at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Sunday, October 13.”

The festival’s Best Narrative Feature award went to Sell By, an hour-and-a-half romantic comedy directed by Mike Doyle, an actor and director who grew up in Ridgefield.

For RIFF’s Script-to-Screen initiative, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield provided what Smith-Harris described as a “very generous $25,000 production grant.”

Scripts for short films were accepted throughout the year, and one script was selected for production. The finished film will be screened next year at RIFF and other film festivals around the country.

The winning script this year, Family Matters by Sarah T. Schwab, was performed as a staged reading at the Ridgefield Theater Barn on Saturday, Oct. 12. Two of the children's roles were played by Ridgefield actors Dean Trevisani and Colby Knipes.

Another screenplay competition was Scene-in-CT, open to screenwriters anywhere in the world as long as the screenplay was in English and had at least one major scene set in the state of Connecticut. This year's winner was The Land That Time Like Totally Forgot by Norwalk-based writer Steven Tspaelas. That script also had a live reading at the Theater Barn on Saturday, with a cast of ten actors.

“We had a great partnership with the Theater Barn this year. We had things going on there every day,” Morris said.

On the first night of the festival, Pizza, A Love Story, a documentary on the famous New Haven pizza scene, was screened at the Theater Barn, with a question and answer period afterwards with filmmaker Gordon Bechard.

“The place was full, standing room only,” Morris said. “Then we had the Playhouse on Friday.”

The Ridgefield Playhouse went from noon to 10:30 p.m. Friday, showing a series of five longer films with an hour and a half of “curated shots” in the middle of the afternoon.

The Ridgefield Library showed three films Friday, five on Saturday and three Sunday.

The Keeler Tavern showed two documentaries Sunday and a series of seven shorts Sunday night.

Monday Keeler Tavern had a series of eight shorts at 1, and a series of nine shorts at 3, followed by an 84-minute documentary about a religious missionary’s return to Guatemala

“We had the library every day, we had Keeler Tavern,” Morris said. “It’s great that we have those resources, to show films at those places…”

Virtual reality

A Virtual Reality Showcase was hosted by the Boys and Girls Club as part of the festival.

“There were 12 headsets. It was going on for six hours, so there’d probably be eight in use at any time — apparently they’d need charging pretty rapidly,” Morris said. “That was good. There was a steady flow of people using that.”

“Congressman Jim Himes and Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi stopped by the VR Showcase held at the Boys and Girls Club,” Smith-Harris said, “... to check out some of the immersive experiences on offer.”

The festival also had its own lounge this year.

“The RIFF Filmmaker Lounge was a huge hit,” Smith-Harris said. “We had lots of foot traffic and many Ridgefielders stopped by to buy tickets, pick up a schedule, or seek advice about what films they might enjoy.

“The filmmakers also used the office as a hub to connect with other filmmakers and relax between screenings,” she said.

“The lounge was also a community effort — the space at 9 Bailey Avenue was donated by Urstadt Biddle Properties and designed by Beth Rosenfield Designs. Palace Rugs and EZ Movers were also sponsors, and Deborah Ann's Sweet Shoppe contributed custom made chocolate clapper boards for each of the filmmakers.”

Economic perspective

John Devine, chairman of Ridgefield’s Economic and Community Development Commission, — which Morris also serves on — enjoyed serving as a volunteer.

“I worked at the film festival for the four days. It was terrific,” he said.

The economic development commission has its own perspective on the festival.

“The film festival brings in a lot of out-of-town visitors,” Devine said. “...The concept is really to have the people who are visitors walk through the town to get to different venues, and to shop and dine...

“What you hear in the conversation at the festival events, without fail, is there are people that just talk about how wonderful the Town of Ridgefield is,” Devine said.

“...It’s really an alternative way to market the town.”

Apparently the state agrees.

The Connecticut Office of Film, Television, and Digital Media — a part of the state’s Economic and Community Development — “were major underwriting sponsors of RIFF 2019,” according to Smith-Harris.

“They supported an all-day Virtual Reality Showcase, the RIFF pop up office and Filmmaker Lounge at 9 Bailey Avenue, and the Scene-in-Connecticut Screenplay competition,” she said.

Morris expects the festival to return next fall.

“We’ll be back next October,” he said.