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How the Cucalorus Film Festival Survived 20 Years

How the Cucalorus Film Festival Survived 20 Years

In lighting terms, a “cucoloris” is any apparatus placed in front of a light source to create a dappled effect on the subject, but in the world of film festivals, the Cucalorus Film Festival is a rare bird. 

It’s a place where filmmakers frolic — a cinephile’s Shangri-La nestled between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean in the small town of Wilmington, North Carolina. Each fall it showcases regional and international talent, with plenty of Southern Hospitality to go around. This year’s festival, which ran Nov. 12-16, drew almost 15,000 film lovers for its 20th anniversary — a mind-boggling feat considering both the economic challenges of the festival scene worldwide and Cucalorus’ commitment to remaining noncompetitive. That’s right: There are no swag bags and no one wins a prize here. As the website states: “Laid back and low down rule the day in Cucaloria.”

READ MORE: State Film Commissions Guide: North Carolina

While the event champions budding artists alongside accomplished ones, it’s still “taken seriously,” according to Ben Steelman, a Star News features reporter who has covered the festival since its inception. “I spotted at least two state senators at the opening party — both Republicans who’d voted against film incentives,” he told Indiewire on the second day of festivities. The festival’s egalitarian ideology also “gives it a looser, more playful feel,” Steelman added. Last year it was named “One of the Coolest Film Festivals in the World” by MovieMaker Magazine.

Filmmakers, actors, press and volunteers mingle at after-parties over shrimp-n-grits and open bars in antebellum mansions. Attendees venue-hop via free shuttle, and locals often house visiting artists, giving the long weekend an even more down-home feel.

Founded by a collective of independent filmmakers known as Twinkle Doon, the first recognized Cucalorus was one standing-room-only night of locally-made indie films dubbed “An Evening of Celluloid Art: a film festival for open minds.” Since then, the four-day festival has expanded to multiple venues on Wilmington’s picturesque waterfront, attracting top-notch creatives from around the world. Participants of Cucaloruses past include actor Paul Dawson leading the Q&A after a midnight showing of John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus,” Jack Cardiff presenting his classic “The Red Shoes,” Bobcat Goldthwait screening “Willow Creek,” and Marianna Palka and Jason Ritter with “Good Dick,” just to name a few.

This year’s programming included 240 films (chosen from 1,752 submissions) from over 60 countries, 43 narrative features, 21 documentary features, 147 shorts, 45 music videos and seven works-in-progress along with multi-disciplinary performances. One highlight was a Dino De Laurentiis Retrospective commemorating the late producer and his time spent in Wilmington shooting “Firestarter” and “Maximum Overdrive.” His wife, Martha De Laurentiis, producer of NBC’s “Hannibal,” featured on a panel following a screening of his film, “Crimes of the Heart.”

Some of 2014’s crowd favorites were “Force Majeure,” a Swedish film depicting a family’s encounter with an avalanche in the Alps; “Sticky,” a partially-animated Australian short addressing extinction, and a hard-hitting documentary called “Coal Ash Chronicles,” which screened in a sold-out Works in Progress event.

Kristen Henry of Working Films — longtime partners of Cucalorus who presented the documentary — attributes the festival’s success to its collaborative nature. “They treat their filmmakers really well,” she said. “They’re providing lunch everyday, you can call a shuttle without having to call a taxi. The parties are a lot of fun and are oftentimes meaningful.”

She added that the festival’s board “put a lot of intention into what they do. They pull together different organizations that can support the filmmakers and it’s really created a community that believes in Cucalorus and helps it to thrive.”

First-time screenwriter/director Rebecca Busch can vouch for that. “Got No Fetish,” the low-budget short she and local friends made together, played to a sold-out room full of “warm, receptive” people. She marveled at the generous spirit of the festival overall. “I met filmmakers from L.A. to Slovenia here and everybody’s treated the same,” she said. “They go out of their way to make you feel special.”

Connie Nelson, spokesperson for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors’ Bureau, said the festival offered a practical benefit as well. “It’s been good for the town’s visibility and business,” she said. “We see people walking around with festival badges on our Riverwalk downtown outside of our usual tourist season, which is nice.”

Festival Director Dan Brawley started as a volunteer at the third edition of Cucalorus fresh out of college, then took the lead two years later. He credits its founders for their encouragement to experiment. “The greatest gift I was given was that Twinkle Doon trusted me when I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “We made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve learned along the way. I think of myself as an artist who manufactures film festivals. I only get to do one a year, then it all washes away.”

He said he was confident that Cucalorus offers something different to audiences and artists. “We’re embracing other art forms with Dance-a-lorus and things like that. And part of our success may be because we’re small. Big festivals can be hard to navigate. Here it’s an intimate setting — parties every night are held in the same place, theaters are smaller, people can walk to most of the venues and filmmakers can open up and connect with people in a different way than they can at bigger festivals. You see the same people every day. Nobody stands up and blathers on about sponsors. It’s a special atmosphere.”

He urged up-and-coming festivals to take risks and try new things. “What works in Park City or New York may not work in some parts of the country. It takes years and years to find your groove.”

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