Nashville Rising: A Look At The First Annual Watkins Independent
by Mark Rabinowitz
Note to the indie world: Nashville is a fertile ground of eager
filmmaking talent, and the town has the opportunity to become a hotbed
of production and development talent ripe for the picking. April 30 -
May 3 saw the launch of the Watkins Independent Film Symposium, Chaired
by Andy van Roon and organized by the Watkins institute. A fine launch
it was, with the three day event bringing in such guests as Screen Gems
Chairman Frank Capra Jr., producer Mitchell Galin ("The Stand",
"Thinner"), Innovative Artists agent David Guc, FILMMAKER Magazine
Associate Publisher Tom Brunelle and Yours Truly.
The weekend started off with a reception at the Havana Lounge for
drinks, cigars, a view of the Cumberland river and the in-construction
future home of the Tennessee Oilers (nee Houston). Brian McQuiston,
president of the Watkins Institute filled indieWIRE in on the history of
the school which only four years ago was "basically a continuing
education school and remedial high school. [We were] at a crossroads,
looking for a new mission."
"In the fall of '94, we took our Fine Art program and our Interior
Design program and we kind of combined them," said McQuiston, with the
Institute then deciding to start a college of art and design on the
basis of those 2 programs. Enter Dr. David Hinton, dean of the Watkins
Institute. "David Hinton approached me with the idea of starting [a film
school]," says McQuiston. "Planning was in April...we actually had our
first classes that fall. We didn't even have a staff, that was kind of
an additional duty [David] was going to do- kind of teach a couple of
classes in film. It soon overwhelmed us." Two years later, the school
received its 2 year accreditation, and was just recently informed that
they have been fully-accredited as four year school, capable of awarding
a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in two of their offered disciplines (film
and interior design). This past year, the school's enrollment was 225
students, with approximately 100 of them attending full-time. "Back in
'94, we had [only] three full-time students," says McQuiston. Based on
the enthusiasm of the students and faculty (this summer the faculty and
students are making a feature film together) combined with their
extraordinary rate of growth, Watkins has the opportunity to become a
big time player in a growing film community.
Symposium Chair Andy van Roon is a very busy man who gives the
appearance of being very low-key and laid back, when in fact he seems to
have a terrific amount of projects in the works. That said, the
symposium was one of the better organized first-year events that I've
attended, which proves that having many things on your plate doesn't
mean that none of them get done well. Being that it was a first year
event, there was a noticeable but understandable lack of high profile
guests. Many of the interesting panelists were Nashville locals,
including the creative team behind the film "Existo." Everyone knows
that the pitfalls in making a feature come fast and furious, but the
"Existo" group showed that one of the keys to avoiding or surviving said
problems is working with people you know and trust. An axiom that
unfortunately frequently goes unheeded.
"It was a great first step in terms of what we're going to be building
it into," said van Roon. "Next year it will be a week long event." Van
Roon has grand plans for next year's event, and judging by the energy
put out by this year's staff and participants, he's going to have a lot
of help in putting it together. "We want to have a retrospective on the
front end," said van Roon, discussing his preliminary plans for next
year, where the idea is to stage a career retrospective of a notable
indie filmmaker during the symposium, possibly bringing the entire event
forward to run just prior to the Nashville Independent Film Festival. He
is also planning on fine tuning next year's event, focusing on the world
of financing and distribution.
One wrinkle with this year's event was that it was scheduled during
final exams for the Watkins students, making it difficult or impossible
for many of them to attend. The symposium should have been treated as an
extension of their course work, and mandatory for students to attend.
Seminars on such topics as screenplay development and acquisition, and
how to navigate the world of the agent, along with special panels on how
the film communities in Vancouver, B.C. and Wilmington, North Carolina
were built, would be a valuable resource to aspiring filmmakers.
Van Roon's goal is to bring attention to Nashville's filmmaking
community, and from what was presented over that weekend, it is
deserving of attention. The town is full of folk the general public
would not recognize as denizens of Music City. From Jedediah Ormsbee, a
17 year-old high school senior who has eight completed scripts,
hand-written in composition books, to Ginny Brown, the student with the
pierced lip and decidedly un-formula screenplay. Of course, the
Nashville film community is full of all sorts of folks, with one
defining characteristic- they're hungry. In a city long dominated by the
country music industry, a film community is steadily growing. Some just
want to make films, not caring where, and some want to bring feature
film production to Nashville. I suppose it doesn't matter, just as long
as the local film community continues to feed itself. With the film
school and the symposium, Nashville appears to have a head start towards
Announced at the symposium were the winners of the 1998 Watkins
International Screenplay Competition. Winning scripts and Semi-Finalist
Honorable Mentions are available for review by producers, directors, and
First Place Winner: Sam Schreiber, Washington, D.C. -- "Sticks and Stones"
Second Place Winner: Gavin J. McDonald, Alexandria, VA -- "Wanderland Road"
Third Place Winner: Deborah Havener, Columbus, OH -- "Red Hot Charlie"
Fourth Place Winner: Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno, Newark, NJ -- "little kings"
Fifth Place Winner: Anita Sclar, Fayetteville, New York -- "Divided Waters"