Phoenix Film Festival’s 24th edition to showcase legacy of independent filmmaking

Apr 4, 2024, 7:01 AM | Updated: 1:11 pm

From top to bottom, left to right, are still shots from movies "Sleep," "Ezra," "gOD-Talk" and "Eve...

From top to bottom, left to right, are still shots from movies "Sleep," "Ezra," "gOD-Talk" and "Everything fun you could possibly do in Aledo, Illinois." (Phoenix Film Festival photos)

(Phoenix Film Festival photos)

PHOENIX — For Phoenix Film Festival Executive Director Jason Carney, the 24th anniversary of the festival is giving him insight into nearly a quarter-century of Valley filmmaking.

“There wasn’t an established film festival in the area, nothing ever stuck,” Carney said. “A couple of filmmakers lent them a cubicle to start piecing things together, later my friend Greg asked me to volunteer and I worked my way up. Nineteen years later and I’m still doing it.”

Carney recalls 2014 as a particularly big year, when the festival moved from longtime residency in downtown Phoenix to its current location, Harkins Scottsdale 101 just off the titular Arizona freeway. Since then, its offices have remained on site to keep everything in one location, including the festival’s more than 100 volunteers.

He estimates his festival team went through somewhere between 1,200-1,300 submissions in total accepted between July and December of last year. The result is 11 days of new showcases from nearly 300 filmmakers, 15% of which are from Arizona.

“All these categories – U.S features, Arizona features, live-action shorts – have their own program director,” Carney explained. “That director goes through the best that we all see and create essentially a playlist where all the entries jive together. We go through sales agents, studios, etc. and we’ll see what they have coming up. Generally, if one of our team says no, we have a pretty good call of ‘ok maybe this won’t work.'”

That spirit of collaboration was crucial in choosing the opening and closing night films, says Carney.

Thursday opens the festival with Greg Kwedar’s “Sing Sing,” starring 2024 Oscar nominee Colman Domingo as the stage director of a theatre troupe based at New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility, of which many of the film’s other actors were formerly imprisoned in. Closing night on April 14 will feature Josh Margolin’s “Thelma,” starring 2014 Oscar nominee June Squibb as a senior living resident out for revenge on a group of phone scammers.

Other centerpiece films include big names like the Anne Hathaway-starring “The Idea of You,” the Robert De Niro-starring “Ezra” and a series of hip-hop throwbacks such as “8 Mile” and “House Party.”

The festival is also trying to highlight unsung sports stories in their documentary selections. Those include “Copa 71,” about the first unofficial women’s world cup decades before FIFA’s, as well as “The Home Game,” an Icelandic documentary detailing an underdog soccer team who built a field on a lava pit and “The Herricanes,” about the United States’ first women’s tackle football league directed by the daughter of one of the players.

“People are just shocked that [these stories] ever happened. I love that we’re learning about people doing these great things before anyone ever knew about them,” Carney said.

The teams’ efforts often lead them to gems that deserve early buzz, though there can be some notable close calls. For example, Celine Song’s “Past Lives,” nominated for two Oscars this year, premiered, as Carney put it, “about a month too early before they got to festivals.”

That said, he is also proud of the ones that did get in such as Sian Heder’s “Coda,” which premiered at the 2021 festival before going on to win the academy award for Best Picture the following year.

Carney emphasized the importance of accessibility, between available handicap and hard-of-hearing access in screening rooms, as well as keeping festival prices to a minimum.

“We have people spending $50, $60 over just a few days getting their value out of the festival, or people doing the same with the festival pass,” Carney said. “We’re a non-profit organization, but we want movies to be for everyone, we try to keep prices constant.”

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Phoenix Film Festival’s 24th edition to showcase legacy of independent filmmaking