Hot Tickets: The New Hampshire Film Festival

How a plucky band of volunteers has transformed Portsmouth into a destination city for makers (and lovers) of independent film.

When movies were first invented, they were silent but magical, a mind-blowing spectacle for audiences. Soon movie theaters popped up in every town and they became merely a special event, something to do once a week for a night out. These days we are awash in film. At any moment of the day or night you can watch a movie. If you can't make it to the cineplex, there is cable and, if not cable, then there is Redbox or the Internet.

So we still love movies, but perhaps the magic is gone.

Don't tell that to the 9,000 movie-goers who flock into Portsmouth on the second weekend of October to be part of the 4-day New Hampshire Film Fest (NHFF).

NHFF isn't Sundance or Toronto, but it is impressive, not least because it does three important things: it gives us access to filmmakers and films that will never be available beyond the festival circuit, it gives NH filmmakers a platform for launching their film projects and it lures the film industry to the Granite State, offering a hip and stylish Portsmouth as a first impression. This $300,000 event showcases 80-90 films in four different venues and brings dozens of filmmakers to town to participate in post-film Q&As, workshops, panel discussions and, yes, parties. (Visit the online version of this article for a complete party guide.)

All this is pulled off each year by a volunteer staff, headed by Executive Director Nicole Gregg. "Each year we approach the festival as a clean slate, with an open mind," says Gregg. "For me, I love the whole festival aspect of it – not just going to the movies. The after-parties, networking events, bringing Portsmouth alive like nothing else. It really is a new creation every year."

In the annual "new creation" of the NHFF, one piece doesn't change: the festival-goer always is both patron and participant. It is like walking onto a movie set, post-production, and hearing all the shoptalk, from cinematographers, tech guys, directors and actors. You're expected to ask questions of the filmmakers, to go to at least three parties in the course of the festival and to hang out with other movie hounds like yourself. If you're a real festival junkie, you'll buy a multi-day or multi-event laminated pass on a lanyard and wear it around your neck, unambiguously signaling to everyone on the streets of Portsmouth that you are part of that moving, restlessly undulating group of film fans on a mission to absorb as much as possible of the essence of "film life" in four short days.

In the popular imagination, celebrities and film are paired like salt and pepper, and certainly celebrities are part of the glamor of a film festival, the added zest that makes for a solid festival-weekend memory. The NHFF has made concerted efforts to raise its visibility with guest celebrities, but it remains a struggle, says Gregg. She adds, however, that for those who have come, all become loyal fans of the NHFF and Portsmouth and do their part to spread the word.

Notables at past NH Film Fests include Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame – Video WebExtra: See a video of Chong's Segway entrance from the 2011 NHFF), TJ Miller ("Get Him to the Greek," "Yogi Bear 3D"), Brett Cullen ("The Dark Knight Rises" and TV's "Friday Night Lights"), Adrian Grenier ("Entourage"), Ann Cusack ("A League of Their Own," "Accepted"), Morena Baccarin ("Serenity" and TV's "Firefly" and "V") and Brian Austin Greene (TV's "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles").

Rae Dawn Chong, daughter of Tommy Chong and a writer and actress herself with impressive Hollywood credentials, moved to the Seacoast seven years ago. Once she discovered the festival she became an instant fan and is now on the board of directors.

For Chong, the NHFF is good medicine against the money-driven, very cliquish L.A. scene where she actively competes for movie writing and acting roles. "In Portsmouth, you get normal America, a true audience, not jaded Hollywoodites – here you've got people as good as Siskel and Ebert, people who love film and aren't afraid to have an opinion."

You also get exceptional documentary filmmaking, says Chong. Festival-goers are, as a rule, hugely open to documentaries, to social, political and personal stories. A moment that stood out for Chong last year was a screening that she hadn't intended to see. It was in the early morning at the quaint Moffatt-Ladd House, where you watch film on state-of-the-art digital equipment in a 200-year-old barn. The film was a documentary on incest, made by a brother whose two sisters were abused by their father. Chong didn't want to watch the film – she'd gone to the wrong venue – but she decided to stay. And afterwards, she said, the carefully crafted story of despair and inexplicable forgiveness left Chong deeply moved.

"Here, at the NHFF, one young man shared his family's deep dark secret with an audience and created a ripple effect on the sea of life for us in the audience. When he stood up after the film, all I could say was 'Thank you so much,'" says Chong.

On a much lighter note, Hollywood star Adrian Grenier's documentary, "Teenage Paparazzo," had played to a packed Music Hall audience the day before. Grenier, star of the hit HBO series "Entourage," attended the festival and was able to talk about why he made a movie exploring one teenager's hellbent interest in snapping photos of celebrities.

Working with celebrities is one of the hardest pieces to arrange, but the payoffs are great. "It was down to the wire," says festival head Nicole Gregg. "The film was scheduled to play Friday and he only confirmed that he would attend on Wednesday. We scrambled to put it in a slot that he would get to in time, to get the word out and to make sure we had the film in the largest venue. At 1 p.m. on Friday, he was there." When the last credits rolled and the lights came up on the packed house, Adrian Grenier, with his luscious black curls, dressed in a black zippered hoodie, walked onto the stage from the wings to excited applause.

After taking questions for almost 30 minutes, he gave a shout-out to his grandmother and aunt, both of whom live near Portsmouth. The hall erupted in even more excited applause: the thrill of that one-degree of separation from Hollywood, that would still be there after the festival, was palpable in the room.

This month NHFF celebrates its twelfth year. Dan Hannon, co-founder and panel director, spoke about the festival's first year, in 2001. The festival was scheduled for the weekend of September 14. September 11th had just occurred and the festival staff had to have an emergency meeting. Should they cancel the festival with all its hard work and grand visions, just two days before? Or should they carry on as planned, and somehow fold in 9/11? They decided to run with it. Hannon said it was amazing. "It [9/11] was very present," he said. "There were candlelight vigils; the filmmakers from New York talked about where they were when the towers were hit. There was so much presence in the moment that we felt it was exactly the right event to be holding – a way for people to come together to talk about their dreams and passions and storytelling through film."

And that presence continues. Many of the festival-goers are not just audience members but are themselves working filmmakers. And for these folks, the festival 's workshops and panel discussions are ways to directly participate and grow their craft.

Workshops regularly include discussions on how to get your film distributed, but they also cover things like what sort of cameras people are using, how to guerilla market your film, how to create a production budget and, this year, what to know about music licensing. While these are technical aspects of filmmaking, everyone who participates has a stake in the game. Because the film industry has changed so much in the past five years, keeping up with technology and new distribution channels is a big part of being successful.

Dan Hannon, himself a scriptwriter and filmmaker, talked about his short film "The Pond," which played at NHFF in 2011. "The festival has helped me enormously in my own development. I learned just about everything through my networking and planning work. Finally, I was bitten by directing. I waited for the right idea to come along and in 2009 it all worked out." The 20-minute film cost upward of $30,000 to produce. It premiered at the prestigious Palm Springs Short Film Festival in 2010 and has played several other festivals since. It was picked up by iTunes this past June. At festivals, he says, "it's all about storytelling and the opportunity to be with an audience watching the film that you made."

Chong agrees: "Hollywood makes its movies for money. We make ours for love of film and subject matter."

One of those people who makes films out of love is Buzz McLaughlin, co-founder of Either/Or Films, based in New Hampshire. His love is for both the art of filmmaking and for the state itself. "For years, a number of us have been trying to build a film industry in New Hampshire. A festival that is run as well as this one is huge for us," he says. "What I love about NHFF is that it supports NH filmmakers. It gets more filmmakers potentially interested in shooting their films here."

McLaughlin, with business partner and director Aaron Wiederspahn, shot their film "Sensation of Sight" in New Hampshire in 2005. The film cost $1.1 million to produce and stars David Strathairn, an Oscar nominee for "Good Night and Good Luck," and Ian Somerhalder of TV's "Lost" and "The Vampire Diaries." It won the "Best Feature Film" prize at the 2007 NHFF. After shooting the film, McLaughlin and Wiederspahn decided to re-locate their film company to New Hampshire and have been vocal advocates for others to follow suit.

Unlike many festivals of the same scale and ambition, this Portsmouth celebration puts an emphatic spotlight on local filmmakers, dedicating the first day to local work and awarding a "Best of New Hampshire" prize on Thursday evening. Other competitive films from NH filmmakers show up on other days as well, mixed in with the program's international films, 1st-release titles and other entries.

As this year's festival approaches, organizers are busy screening more than 700 entries, says Programming Director Nicole Galovski, hired last year as the festival's first paid employee. Two hundred will be given a second viewing, and from that 80-90 will remain.

This year, more than half the films will be represented with a filmmaker at the festival. A number of new celebrity visits are expected (though organizers are remaining hush-hush about who they are), and there are other, clearer measures of success. Galovski recalls a memorable moment last year when a screening at the 125-seat Loft sold out and there was still a line out the door. "For a moment I held the door open for someone behind me. When they said they were waiting for the next show, I didn't understand." And then she did: He was beginning to line up two hours early, to ensure that he'd get a seat at the next screening.

And that, in a single frame, is the magic of the movies. NH

A Film Race

John Herman, a high school English/Media Literacy teacher and himself a three-time participant at NHFF, has run the Young Filmmakers Workshop since 2004. This workshop is 50 percent film school, 50 percent film production and for the 12 kids who get in, it is a film race of the most exciting kind.

The kids meet up on Friday night. Saturday morning is spent in intensive workshops with filmmakers, costumers, directors, producers and camera operators. The afternoon is spent making Hollywood-style movie pitches to team members, and the evening is given over to location scouting. At 9 a.m. on Sunday, the three teams, accompanied by an adult filmmaker/chaperone, start shooting. Mid-afternoon, rough cuts are brought back to the studio and Herman edits them into 3-minute shorts. All are screened Sunday night at the closing ceremonies.

Herman says late Sunday afternoon is a great time: the kids are really focused and there is a certain level of creative stress: will the projects be ready for show time? The answer has always been yes, but most often, says Herman, he can be seen sprinting through the streets of Portsmouth, rushing to The Music Hall and its already-seated audience while the closing ceremonies begin, carrying the newly-made films to the projectionist. When the kids get to see their films in this context – in a hall full of professional filmmakers and veteran filmgoers, not just undiscerning parents – "it's magical."

Duly Noted

Here's how the NH Film Commission describes the NHFF:

Since its debut in 2001, NHFF has evolved into one of the pre-eminent independent film festivals in the Northeast. The mission of the non-profit New Hampshire Film Festival is to celebrate the art of filmmaking. NHFF unites highly talented students, professional filmmakers and screenwriters with industry experts, educators, avid moviegoers and film connoisseurs from around the globe for a highly interactive weekend of nationally recognized and undiscovered gems, culminating in a gala award ceremony on the historic shores of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The Granny

Chris Proulx of Double Midnight Comics in Manchester co-founded the NH Film Festival with Dan Hannon back in 2001 when it was the New Hampshire Film Expo. Much has changed since then, including the name and location of the event, but two things have remained just as they were originally planned: the independent spirit of celebrating filmmaking from the grassroots up and the "Granny."

They gave considerable thought to the trophy that would become the signature of the event. "We wanted to do something representative of the Granite State," says Proulx. Hannon coined the name Granny as a play on the Grammy Awards, and what could be a more perfect trophy than a hunk of real hand-carved New Hampshire granite?

Each block is 10 inches wide and five inches high and deep and weighs about 10 pounds. An unforseen benefit of the design is that each winner has a dramatic opportunity to react to the weight upon receiving it. (Some opt to set them on the floor while making their comments.) They handed out six awards on the first year and including the number to be distributed this year, Proulx says the total number of Grannies will surpass 200.

That's 2,000 pounds of granite, or enough to make a row of trophies 164 feet long.

Not long enough to reach from New Hampshire to Hollywood, says Proulx, but it's a good start.

WebExtras: 2010 Panel Videos

Panel 1: Filmmaking in NH
Panel 2: Lanscape of Documentary Filmmaking
Panel 3: Distribution & Releasing
Panel 4: Trends in Digital Cinematography
Panel 5: Comedy
Panel 6: Filmmaker Awareness Building

Categories: Features