Interview: Marco Ursino (Executive Director) & Nathan Kensinger (Head of Programming) – Brooklyn Film Festival

The Brooklyn Film Festival, is an International, competitive festival. BFF mission is to provide a public forum in Brooklyn in order to advance public interest in films and the independent production of films. To draw worldwide attention to Brooklyn as a center for cinema. To encourage the rights of all Brooklyn residents to access and experience the power of independent filmmaking, and to promote artistic excellence and the creative freedom of artists without censure. BFF, inc. is a not-for-profit organization.

Through the resources of several film sponsors, BFF awards the winners with prizes totaling $50,000 in film services and products. Through the resources of various arts organizations, BFF connects filmmakers to audiences. And through the motion picture’s corporate world and film distributors.  Award-winning films from the Brooklyn Film Festival have gone on to be nominated and awarded at both the British Academy Awards (BAFTAs) and at the American Academy Awards (Oscars).

BFF‘s primary goal is to connect filmmakers to distribution companies and expose them to the media. Films that have premiered at BFF in past years went on to be released theatrically and in other ancillary markets such as home media, On Demand and web streaming. Prestigious recent alumni include Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky’s ‘Battle for Brooklyn‘ (shortlisted for a 2011 Academy Award nomination), Katie Dellamaggiore’s ‘Brooklyn Castle‘ (selected by P.O.V. for a nationwide PBS broadcast in 2013), Kelly Anderson’s ‘My Brooklyn‘ (one of the most successful DIY releases of 2013 so far), Lawrence Michael Levine’s ‘Gabi On The Roof in July‘ and Daryl Wein’s ‘Breaking Upwards‘. Numerous films from the Brooklyn Film Festival have gone on to be nominated for and win awards by both the American and British Academy Awards.

In Anticipation of the festivals 2013 edition we spoke with Executive Director Marco Ursino, as well as Head of Programming Nathan Kensinger about the festivals genesis, its prolific output of quality content, dedication to alumni and much more.  The festival runs May 31 – June 9, 2013 in Brooklyn, New York at Indie Screen & WindMill Studios NYC.

For Tickets and More Information on the 2013 Brooklyn Film FestivalHERE

What are the origins of the Brooklyn Film Festival?  How has it evolved?
Marco Ursino
(Executive Director): It is a long story.  As you know, we are getting ready for our 16th year so there were many stages in the life of the festival.  We were born in Williamsburg, which is important because we are coming back after many years.  The first event was at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center in 1998. This was an experiment by myself and three others, with the idea to do a “one shot deal”.  From the second year on we were staged at a beautiful theater on Marcy ave called the Commodore Theater.  It was a 1920 Art Deco, 1000 seat theater.  That was the last remaining theater of its kind in north Brooklyn.  I have been told that through the 60s and 70s, within a mile radius, there were 16 theaters in this area, which have all since closed.  We loved that place.  I tried to save it by looking for investors but with no luck.

Next, the Brooklyn Museum was interested in us so we began a 5 year relationship.  It was here where we changed the name from Williamsbrug Brooklyn Film Festival to Brooklyn International Film Festival.  Since we were in the center of Brooklyn we thought we would become the Brooklyn International Film Festival and have the world come to us.  After 5 years we reversed that philosophy and we went out and made the festival into a multi-venue event.  At that point (2007) we were in Park Slope and then at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema.  In 2009, I started Indie Screen and by 2010 we had our first festival at that venue (and Brooklyn Heights Cinema).  This is where we are now.  Unfortunately Brooklyn Heights Cinema has also closed down so this year we are completely in Williamsburg, just like when we started.

The first 5 or 6 years was an incredible progression and growth.  We did not realize it at the time, but we were occupying a humongous gap.  Without knowing, we had founded the first International competitive film festival in New York.  It is amazing that in a city like New York there was no such thing at the time.  In 2000, we had our first big jump because The New York Times wrote a page on us.  The very morning this article was written (March 5, 2000), the phone started ringing and rang for a month.  The power of that paper is incredible.  We got Time Warner Cable, NPR and more to sponsor us.  It was amazing.  From a little event we became an important festival in our 3rd year.  This growth has not stopped.  Every year we set new goals.  We have reached a certain levels, meaning we will receive between 2000-3000 entries, we have a family of sponsors which keep following us from year to year; we know there will be attendance.

We are a successful story, just for the fact that we are still around.  When you jump into organizing an event of this kind the odds are against you.

Since the first edition of Brooklyn Film Festival, the landscape of the film festival circuit in New York has changed so much.  When you started there was no Tribeca Film Festival, for example.  How do you continue to stand out in an over-saturated crowd?
Marco: It is a jungle out there!  There is a certain effort that every year we have to exercise.  For instance, the festival has a theme.  Every year we develop the festival around the theme.  Then there is something built-in and at this point it is ours, which is our reputation.  The reputation of the festival as that we are “straight”, we do not compromise quality, accept bribes or anything like that and people know this.  People also know that we are risqué.  We do not go for the obvious and always push the limits.  People also know we are on the side of the filmmakers.  Once we handle a film, we do a lot of things for them.

The festival also makes a difference.  When the film gets accepted it will probably get sold; we will open the door to other festivals. This is the kind of reputation that comes from building for 16 years.

For the 2013 edition of the festival, why are Indie Screen and Windmill Studios NYC the right venues?
Marco: Indie Screen was clearly built by someone who came from the festival world.  It is a one stop shop.  Even before Indie Screen, we were looking for a venue with comfortable seating, perfect view of the screen and space for networking.

WindMill Studios NYC is next to Indie Screen.  It is also great because it is a film studio.  There is a certain feel to a film studio that is unique.  We had this experience at Steiner Studios, which was a humongous soundstage.  We projected on a wall that was over 50 ft.

You mentioned how the festival receives between 2000-3000 submission per year for, roughly, 100 programming spots.  What criteria make for a film that will ultimately be accepted into the festival?  How does this relate to this years “Magnetic” theme?
Marco: I am a filmmaker so I have a lot of respect for the medium. A quality film needs to have a lot of things in place.  It has to sound good, look right, have attention to design, etc.  I am not talking about money here.  Many films at the festival are made with nothing but attention.  At the same time, try to distinguish yourself.  Make a film that only you can make.  This is something you feel.  I put a DVD in it takes me 10 seconds to get the feel of it.

The theme is always philosophical and very broad.  We do not want to narrow it too much otherwise filmmakers will feel excluded even before they submit.  “Magnetic” is the idea of what brings people together and pushes them apart.  It symbolizes the things that make us similar and different from each other as people.  Among the films we selected, lets see who got it in the best way.  It is going to be the filmmaker telling us what “Magnetic” is in the end.   In two words we are looking for GOOD FILMS.

How do you choose the “special event” screenings like the opening night selection ‘Hairbrained’ and closing night selection ‘Cut to Black?
Marco: One is dark and one is a comedy, so we liked to open and close the festival in different ways.  That alone says a lot about the “Magnetic” theme.  We generally like to start the festival with a smile.  If we can its a fun, feel good movie.  Why would you want to feel depressed on opening night?  The nice thing is that both filmmakers are Brooklyn Film Festival alumni.  It is always nice to bring back filmmakers who have played at the festival before.

What topics are you focusing on with the panels and events at this years festival?
Marco: We are going to speak about Micro Cinema.  I started Indie Screen, but all of a sudden micro cinema has blown up all over Brooklyn.  Before they were all closing down and now they are opening again.  We witnessed the death of independent cinema, but now it is the opposite wave.

Nathan Kensinger (Director of Programming): We will have a panel on Micro Cinema, focused specifically on Brooklyn.  We will have the programmers from Union Docs, Indie Screen, NighthawkIndie Screen and Nighthawk both show Art House cinema, but they also support alternative programming.  We will also have a distribution panel with some alumni.  The BFF Exchange is focused on life after the festival.

Marco Indie Screen are now occupying another important slice on the market with four walling.  This has become a very important aspect in bringing a film to the marketplace.

NathanreRun Theater is doing this too.  It gives Independent Films a chance to be reviewed in New York press.  The last few years, the award winners at the festival would get a 7 day run at Indie Screen, qualifying them for all the press.

We also have a panel related to the our partnership with Mecal, International Short Film & Animation Festival of Barcelona, related to short filmmaking and short film related topics.

Marco:  Before, one could say that there is no life after a short film.  Now this is not true.  There are many new platforms focused on short films.  There is a market for short films.  In a country like France, short filmmakers can make a living throughout their career.  It is a medium.

Nathan: In the past, a lot of people may look at a short film as a trampoline…

I am interested to see how the Twitter App Vine changes the definition of “short” film.  There was a Vine festival as part of Tribeca last month with entire Vine Series being produced…
Nathan:  The landscape is changing.  I had a filmmaker whose film premiered on YouTube. He wondered if it was even okay to send it to film festivals.  I told him that festivals and YouTube are two different things so of course it is.  Also, I had a filmmaker from England who is going to be a featured pick on Vimeo prior to the festival.  I thought it would be a great way to promote his BFF screening.

Some filmmakers are still so stuck in the theatrical release but if the alternative platforms are there, why not take advantage of them…
Nathan:  Of course!  If you can get some good buzz online then do it.  It is better than the alternative, which is not getting any press or publicity.

Over the years, do you have any films that stick out to you?  A personal favorite was ‘Brooklyn Castle’.
Marco:  There are just too many films!

Nathan:  Being invited to the Brooklyn Film festival means you develop this ongoing relationship with us.  We have shown all of certain filmmakers films here.  The people behind ‘Battle for Brooklyn’ is a judge now, for example.  ‘Gabi on the Roof in July‘ was another, where Kate Kirtz won an acting award and went on to do many great films.

MarcoOlga Kurylenko too.  She was awarded Best Actress  for ‘The Ring Finger‘.  After that she became a Bond girl.  Now she is doing Terence Malick films.

Nathan:  Also Kate Sheil in the short film ‘KnifePoint‘ from 2009.

Marco:  …and Ellen Page.

Nathan:  In many cases there are filmmakers and actors who have come year after year.  Our alumni get involved in a lot of different projects.

Marco:  A hundred films a year x 16 years, there are too many films to remember on the spot, but there is a story behind every one.

To wrap up, we touched upon the landscape of film festivals in New York.  In your experiences, where do you see the festival circuit going?  Do you think it will polarize itself further toward the coastal filmmaking hubs or will the accessibility of filmmaking create a more expansive festival market?
Marco:  At this point it is still very difficult to predict.  One thing is sure, the segmentation will always happen and keeps happening.  Now its geographic, meaning every neighborhood has a festival, but there are also niche festivals.  Like you said, maybe people will become specialists at 6 second Vine films.  I hope the human mind will still be inventive. The festival, as a whole, is an evolution  I hope we keep up with the times.  We have to go with the times and see what is new every year.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by Steve Rickinson

Brooklyn Film Festival

Screening Times
Friday May 31
Windmill Studios NYC: 8:00
indieScreen: 8:00

Saturdays May 1 and May 8 | Sunday May 2
Windmill Studios NYC: 2:30, 5:00, 7:30, 10:00
indieScreen: 3:00, 5:30, 8:00, 10:30

Monday May 3 through Friday May 7
Windmill Studios NYC: 6:00, 8:00, 10:00
indieScreen: 6:30, 8:30, 10:30

Sunday May 9
Windmill Studios NYC: 2:00, 4:00, 6:00, 8:00
indieScreen: 2:00, 4:00, 6:00, 8:00
Facebook: /BrooklynFilmFestival
Twitter: @brooklynfest













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