Interview: Johanna Bennett & Mandy Ward (Co-Founders – THE FIRST TIME FEST)

From Orson Welles’s ‘Citizen Kane’ to John Huston’s ‘The Maltese Falcon‘, Rob Reiner’s ‘This is Spinal Tap’, Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and Sam Mendes’s ‘American Beauty’, first films have proven to be the benchmark for some of our greatest cinematic voices. FIRST TIME FEST aims to discover and present the next generation of great filmmakers both locally and globally.

Each of the twelve finalists will be judged by a panel of entertainment industry luminaries as well as by a specially chosen group of avid moviegoers.  Together, they will engage the films and filmmakers of the festival and ultimately select a Grand Prize winner to receive theatrical distribution for their film.  It will be a contest of the very best emerging filmmakers with the winner receiving what will truly be the Ultimate Audience Award.

We talked with the Co-Founders of First Time Fest, Johanna Bennett and Mandy Ward about its distinction in an ever growing festival circuit, how filmmaking borders are increasingly being broken and a little about this year’s “John Huston Award fro Excellence in Cinema” recipient Darren Aronofsky.  The film festival will be held from March 1-4, 2013 at New York City’s famed The Players.

To start, I wanted to find out what your personal favorite “First Time” Films are?
Mandy Ward
:  ‘American Beauty‘ is one of my personal favorite directorial debuts.  From a directing standpoint it represents all around perfection.  The film proved how much one can change within an industry and still maintain success.

Change in terms of changing mediums from theater to film, in the case of Same Mendes.  ‘American Beauty’ is one of my all time favorite films.
Johanna Bennett
:  For me there is more of a list.  I usually start with ‘The Maltese Falcon‘.  This is a similar story to Sam Mendes for John Huston.  He started as a top screenwriter and then went on to debut as a director with one of histories greatest films.  I also like ‘She’s Gotta Have It‘, ‘Sling Blade‘…

Mandy: ‘Reservoir Dogs

Johanna: Of course, ‘Reservoir Dogs‘.  All these films inform on their directors respective body of work, in hindsight.  ‘Pi‘ is another great debut.

Aside from the “First Time” aspect of the festival, what are some of the other criteria that you look for in submitted films?
  Honestly, it is as simple as “is it a good movie?”.  The point we are trying to make here is that it has never been easier to make a film, yet it has never been harder to break through into the film industry.

Mandy:  The directors that we chose for the festival are definitely directors that have a certain intangible that separates themselves from others.  They are all people that you will hear from in the future.  No matter whether they win at our festival or not, they will all go out and do something grand.  There is a taste of this quality in all of the films that we chose.

I had spoken to Fredrick Stanton, whose film ‘Uprising’ had been shown at the Gotham Screen International Film Festival last October and that was one film that has stuck with me since.
:  When I heard that that film entered into our festival and we had an Academy Award winning producer, seasoned editor and a new director I started jumping up and down!

For the festival’s venue you have chosen Gramercy Park’s THE PLAYERS.  What is it about this venue that makes it an appropriate arena for The First Time Fest?
:  First of all, it is definitely haunted by some ghosts of showbiz past! We’re talking about a place that was founded by Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes Booth), who founded the club with the intention of bringing back the image of the theater in the public eye.  Since the assassination of Lincoln anyone associated with the theater experienced a certain amount of animosity in society so Edwin felt the need to find a new way to elevate the art form again.  In those days you were defined by what club you belonged to, whether it be The Metropolitan Club, Harvard Club or any similar private club in New York.  With Mark Twain and others, he founded The Players so that entertainment figures could mingle with other like minded people.

The time period here is late 19th Century?
: Yes, it was the Age of Innocence era.  Around 1880.

Mandy:  We were chatting one night about how lonely the festival circuit can be.  Some of these festivals are so big they are spread around entire cities, whether they be Berlin, Cannes or Toronto.  It was really important for us that we had a home where everyone involved with the festival and pass holders could come back to after the screenings.  Hopefully by the end of the 4 days all involved will become friendly after seeing each other over the course of the festival.  This is how you create quality connections in festivals.

The idea of filmmaking a community art form is getting more prevalent then ever in the age of crowdfunding and, not to mention, some festivals require the same amount of time for navigating between events as spent in the theaters, so it is good to provide that comfortable, social atmosphere for such interaction. 

You will also be presenting the “John Huston Award for Excellence in Cinema” to Darren Aronofsky.  What is it about Aronofsky as a filmmaker that represents the John Huston filmmaking legacy?
:  He came right out of the box with something special and different.

Mandy:  He actually got me into filmmaking.  I had read ‘Requiem for a Dream‘ by Hubert Selby Jr. and I could not believe, from paper to screen, what was happening.  Every element of that film proved that there hadn’t been anything like it.  Even the trailer was powerful.  Since then, all his films have had a certain masterful craftsmanship.

I am interested to see his new film ‘Noah’, which will be his first big budget epic.

The festival is described as a “traditional film festival and audience participation event”.  What is the audience participation aspect?  I know you have renowned industry figures critiquing the films, but how does the audience help in determining which film will ultimately walk away the winner?
:  We borrowed this from reality TV, where the audience is the fourth judge.  Part of the point is that art is commercially viable.  Usually the people at the studios or funds are making these decisions for the audience.  We thought that the audience should decide what they like and what they want to see.  At the end of the day, we really are a contest disguised as a film festival.

There is some language on the website stating “carefully chosen audiences” so for clarification, the festival is open to the general public?
:  Thank you for pointing that out.  That language should be changed.  In the beginning we had a lot of grand ideas involving contests and so forth.  Most of the time it is just Mandy and I with our festival producer in LA.  When it came down to crunch time some of these aspects were a little out of reach for our first edition.  However, we are running Twitter contests for passes, as well as giveaways at the event.  We really do need to voting public to make this work so we encourage everyone interested to attend.

The festivals ultimate prize is an association with Cinema Libre studios, which has put out films like Oliver Stone’s ‘South of the Border’.  This was the film which familiarized Cinema Libre to me.  Is there a socially conscious aspect that you are looking for in the ultimate winner as Cinema Libre’s filmography seems to be geared in that direction?
:  We did not think of Cinema Libre in terms of what kind of film they may want to distribute.  Cinema Libre is a studio that takes chances all the time and have for years.  The beauty of Cinema Libre studios is that they take chances of new directors or international film that no one else will.  Now, I did have to call them about one of our films, simply to see if they would be able to put out the dirty, crazy nature of its content.

How about the different panels that will happen at the festival?
:  We are very proud of our panels because they are not your average panel experience.  We have one called “From Rock to Score” about different rockstars that have become film composers (Nile Rogers, Trent Reznor).  Then we have our “Switch Hitter” panels about industry figures that have found success in multiple fields.  After that is an interesting panel called “Sell Baby Sell“.  All our filmmakers, whether they win or not, will go on to sell their film, as well as aspiring filmmakers in the audience.  We are also putting an event together about “The Little Fugitive“, which was an early influence of the French New Wave.

…and filmed on location in Coney Island.
:  Exactly! We also have a film called ‘Zipper‘ in the competition which is a documentary filmed on Coney Island about the famous rollercoaster.

Finally, why did each of you decide to organize this film festival in the first place?  With all the ups and downs of organizing an event, let alone an inaugural edition, what is it that keeps you motivated to continue?
:  We both were living in a strange time in our lives.  Mandy’s office had shut down and I had been recovering from a pretty chatastrophic back injury.  By that point I could at least walk up her stairs and watch ‘True Blood’ on Sundays.  One night we were watching and I was frustrated because I had a similar idea almost 15 years ago.  At that time I could not get anyone to listen to me, even with my access being Tony Bennett’s daughter.  Mandy was coming off the festival circuit and I was wondering what it was like as my festival experiences had been limited to New York Film Festival or Tribeca.  Mandy said that, in order to make a difference in the festival world, we should have distribution as a prize rather than a possibility.  Also, with Mandy’s experience in the business, projects would cross her desk that could never get financed because it was by a first time writer or director.

Mandy:  It was the reaction to this idea that was so strong so we couldn’t not continue with it.

I think that with the changes in filmmaking that is going on now, we will be hearing the term “First Time” filmmaker a lot in the near future so there should not be any shortage of quality content going forward.
:  We hope so!

Mandy: And I just want to say that we have been shocked by how many international submissions we received and by how many ultimately made it into the festival.  These are first time directors from Argentina, Belarus, Mongolia and more who are flying themselves to New York.  We really did want to be an international festival so that people from overseas could break into the US.

Johanna:  Its true.  We are shocked and very happy.

Purchase Tickets & Passes for First Time FestHERE

March 1-4, 2013
@ The Players
16 Gramercy Park
New York, NY










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