Interview: Katha Cato (Director – QUEENS WORLD FILM FESTIVAL)

The borough of Queens is the most ethnically diverse community in the world, with two major airports serving to connect New York City and the global community. The 3rd Annual Queens World Film Festival appreciates this diversity by promoting both local and international filmmakers positioning Queens as a destination for both filmmakers and film lovers.

The Queens World Film Festival returns to the Museum of the Moving Image with an opening night program featuring international short films from Italy, Belgium, and Australia as well as the work of Queens filmmakers. Special guests and honorees include Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who will be recognized for his years of service to Queens and greater New York City. Actress and 70’s icon, Karen Black will be honored for her unique contributions to cinema and her enduring commitment to aspiring filmmakers.

We talked to the festival Katha Cato, who co directs (alongside her husband, Don Cato) the festival about the filmmaking history of Queens, the legacy of Karen Black and the festival’s own youth filmmaking program at PS 69.  The festival will be held March 5-10, 2013 at various locations throughout Queens, including The Museum of the Moving Image and The Secret Theatre.

When did the Queens World Film Festival start?
We are in our third year of our ten year plan.  We were originally volunteers on the Queens International Film Festival which had a bloody end, so we thought what the possibilities would be for a new festival, run by people who cared about the borough and film.  One and a half years later we created the Queens World Film Festival, which is not connected to the International Film Festival.

We are trying to bring the spotlight onto Queens for filmmakers and film lovers alike.  If you want to screen your film at Tribeca you still have to land in Queens.  We have world class facilities, filmmakers, film lovers and a huge (and growing) audience who are very hungry for film.  This year we have 104 films with 19 being from Queens.  In the remaining films we have everywhere from Taiwan, Germany, Great Britain to Iran represented.  We are also excited because our attendance has been growing.  Our first year we had 1601; last year was 3005.

What is the filmmaking infastructure in Queens?  I feel like people still think about film in New York in terms of Brooklyn or Manhattan, what are some things about Queens filmmaking that people may not know?
If you look at Kaufman Astoria studies, that building has been instrumental in establishing the industry of American Cinema.  That is where WC Fields, Harold Lloyd and a lot of the stars of the time were making films.  That is where the early filmmakers, rebels and pioneers were cutting there teeth, so it has a long history of filmmaking.  Recently, Men in Black 3 was shot on the sound stage.

Last year 22 people who were associated with the festival got work out of it, whether in TV or Film.  The Asian filmmakers in the community are blossoming; there are a lot of Dogme films happening with alternative equipment.  There are some very big names who have gotten tired of Williamsburg and Soho and now live here.  Meaning that this is now their New York apartment.  They will fly in and stay in Queens.  People on the big festival circuits stay in Queens just due to the proximity to the airport.

Kaufman Astoria studios is also working its way through the permit process for a studio lot.  It is going to have a very iconic gate and will look just like a Los Angeles outdoor lot.

I did not know about the history of Kaufman Astoria Studio’s which is very interesting.  Going back to what you were saying though, I have found Queens to be a place where a lot of talent can be found.  I have even heard Astoria being referred to as ACTORia with the amount of actors living out there.  For my last film, my DP and most of my crew were based in the Asian film scene of Flushing. 

In your opinion, is there anything that the borough really needs in order to make it that preeminent filmmaking destination?
That’s an interesting question.  It has so many things, as well as intangibles.  What Queens needs is a world class film festival. I think this festival will shine a light on the potential here, especially when people see the local films.

The festival program is broken up into blocks with each block representing a certain theme.  Did theses blocks occur organically out of the submission pool or are they predetermined by you and your programmers?
The only blocks that we do every year are the “Old Spice” and LGBT.  Every film is received and rated between two programmers.  Though they are different in age it is interesting to see how similar they are in sensibility.  Then we start averaging scores and separate those above and below.   Even if films are rated below the average, should someone feel strongly about them we definitely screen them again.  After this we have our gene pool where we match films to each other.  The “OMG” block films will curl the hair right off your head!  There’s another block for strong women characters.  Then it comes down to pulling the trigger.  Unfortunately there are films that don’t make it. We send each filmmaker who’s film was not selected a hand written letter, providing feedback if requested.

Independent Films need help, though.  We retrofit all the theaters, except MoMI, because we know the filmmakers are entrusting their hearts in us so we want it to look the best it can.  We also encourage the filmmakers to network with each other prior to the festival.  Their self promotion is also promotion for the festival so it works as a cycle.  They can create posters for their blocks, Facebook events or just meet for cocktails and talk.  We also market the blocks independently based on connections.

This injects a strong sense of community into independent film, which is a similar mission that we have as well.  Bringing back to this “meet & greet” philosophy of filmmaking and distribution is something that has taken on a whole new meaning with the combination of digital technologies and social networking.  Going forward, this sense of community whether digital or otherwise is going to be very important for independent filmmakers and not just at the point of production.

This relates to my next question about your panel on legal guidance for independent filmmakers.  Of all the topics relevant to independent film right now, why did you choose the subject of law this year?
A lot of people make movies and put music on it without the rights.  They submit it to a festival and its rejected on that account, but never explained so the filmmaker never knows.  This panel aims to eliminate those kind of situations for independent filmmakers.

Also, many filmmakers do not budget for the festival life of their film.  Feature films aren’t going to go viral and no one will love them like your grandmother does so it is important to know how to navigate the festival circuit.  You have to have your ducks in order when you start, rather than when you finish.  You can make a film for nothing but it will cost you thousands afterwards if you are not in line with the proper procedures.  It is heartbreaking to see filmmakers have to waste years of their lives dealing with issues born out of not understanding their rights and responsibilities.  Don’t look at yourself as a poor starving artist,  Look at yourself as a professional everytime.

Karen Black is both in a film playing the festival, as well as being the recipient of your achievement award.  What is it about her as an actress that embodies the spirit of The Queens World Film Festival?
My husband directed a film in 1986 that started her and we have kept a friendly relationship with her since then.  She has always been gracious and wonderful to us.  When we get ‘VacationLand‘ as a submission from a local filmmaker it starred Karen Black.  I immediately e mailed him to ask about him, the film and Karen.  We found out that they were friendly as well.  The thing about Karen is that she has made over 196 films.  When you look at her filmography it is quite stunning.  She did ‘Nashville‘, ‘Five Easy Pieces‘; she worked with Hitchcock and Schlesinger.  If you look at all the films she has done, many of them are from filmmakers early in their careers.  Also, she does not phone in a performance once.  I have been on set with her.  She is prepared.  Not to mention she stays out of the press and keeps composed, which has to be appreciated these days.

Personally, I became a believer in her in ‘Five Easy Pieces‘ because it is such a thankless role.  She plays a dim witted bimbo and your heart breaks for her, but you almost side for him.  What young starlets now would do that?

I also see that you hold a youth filmmaking program.  How is this program constructed and what are its goals?
Most artists that I know will tell you that they wanted to do what they do at a very early age but there was nothing for them.  They didn’t fit in until they found this outlet.  One of the goals of the festival is to encourage young filmmakers and that includes 5th graders.  Every year my husband selects filmmakers who go into PS 69 on a selected day for 10 weeks and do a boot camp filmmaking program.  This immerses the children in as much of the creative process as they can.  They do everything in the process except for the physical editing.  This year we came up with a theme called “America 2020” which is the year those 5th graders will be graduating high school, so we asked them to envision America in 2020.  The students learn screenwriting, pitching, sound, directing.  They have to make their own costumes and sets.  When the films are complete, they screen at the closing night of the festival so that we can bring the community to the filmmakers.  This year we are doing their own red carpet event at 9 am on March 9.  We will have parents and elected officials there.  For me it is very personal.  There will be a little Katha in that class who, up until that moment, didn’t understand why she saw the world in pictures but now she will.  She will understand that she lives in the best city in the world to be an artist.

To wrap up, what would you say to filmmakers interested in submitting to future editions of the festival makes a successful Queens World film?
We are looking for a good idea.  We want to see if you took it head on and it stays true to itself throughout the process.  We want to see if you stand behind your work.

March 5-10, 2013
The 3rd Annual Queens World Film Festival
OPENING NIGHT @ The Museum for the Moving ImageTICKETS
CLOSING NIGHT @ Renaissance Event Hall8-12pm
WITH SCREENINGS @ The Jackson Heights Cinema, The Secret Theatre, Renaissance Charter School, P.S. 069

Sponsored by Kaufman Astoria Studios, Amalgamated Bank and Manhattan Portage
With a Grant From 2013 Queens Council on the Arts /Department of Cultural Affairs
:  /QueensWorldFilmFestival
: @QueensWorldFilm





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