Behind the Reels with newportFILM
An outdoor screening at King Park in Newport. Below, an indoor screening at Casino Theatre; retired Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield with a fan.
Hilary Bovay Photography
Local nonprofit newportFILM has been creeping onto the Newport arts scene with mini film festivals and free summer film screenings at picturesque Newport landmarks: the Elms, the historic Jane Pickens Theater, Sweet Berry Farm and Rose Island.
In the August issue [on newsstands now] we highlight two free documentary screenings; one is scheduled for this Thursday on the Newport Art Museum lawn. We caught up with newportFILM’s Executive Director Terri Conners to talk history, documentaries, competition and more.
Rhode Island Monthly: How did newportFILM begin?
Terri Conners: We started up in the summer of 2010 as a year-round nonprofit documentary film series with the goal of bringing the film festival spirit in a year-round way rather than a one week thing.
There are so many festivals out there, but we wanted to feed the community, like we’re always here for you; we’re not just going to pop in and pop out. We wanted to be a part of the community like a physical space would be, like the Newport Art Museum for instance.
RIM: How did you get involved?
TC: I worked with newportFILM cofounders Andrea van Beuren and Nancy Donahoe at different points over the years. They reached out to me to help launch the program, and I stayed on as the interim director and then became executive director because I was just so passionate about it.
RIM: In a few words, could you explain the program?
TC: It’s an all-documentary program, other than our kids’ stuff. Sometimes our kids’ programs are documentaries, but it’s hard for a little kid to wrap their head around a documentary and we don't want to leave that demographic out.
RIM: Why documentaries?
TC: They are a huge passion of mine and Andrea’s. They are education tools, really. They tell a true, real story and enlighten and entertain at same time. We’re always trying to add to the cultural landscape. Don’t get me wrong: All film is good film, but documentaries are very close to our hearts. When we go to national film festivals, the films we walk away really touched by are always documentaries.
RIM: What separates newportFILM from other regional film festivals?
TC: What really separates us other than that we do year-round mini festivals is that we are all-documentary. Being all-documentary will differentiate us and will help the industry define who we are.
RIM: Jane Pickens Theater in Newport also shows a lot of Indie/festival films. Is there any competition there?
TC: We actually work closely with Jane Pickens Theater, and even rent it out for some screenings. There have been moments when programming conversations had to be held. But generally we have a great working relationship. We have similar goals, but different. We focus on documentaries and they don’t really show them. They’re for-profit, and can only show things after they are theatrically released, whereas we are nonprofit and try to show them before. We also utilize other venues like the Casino Theatre. They've been very good to us.
RIM: How do the off-season mini film festivals work?
TC: Last season we did them quarterly, but I think we’ll do two or three this season. They’re like abbreviated film festivals. On mini-fest weekends, we have a cocktail reception, show three or four films, bring filmmakers in for Q-and-A sessions and weave in a children’s film, too. We will maybe do fewer mini-fests so we can do more one-off screenings to focus on local nonprofits.
RIM: Is it tough to do without a home base?
TC: We wish we had a theater, especially so we could show films more than once, but we offer them once like a film festival would. Plus, watching films in a hand-picked venue that is appropriate and unique makes it really an experience every time. The Preservation Society of Newport and the city of Newport have been very generous with allowing us to use their properties for screenings.
RIM: newportFILM seems pretty invested in environmental issues. Can you speak to that?
TC: It’s a big passion of ours to talk about local problems on a global scale. Last April, we worked with the Aquidneck Land Trust to screen a one-off film Last Call at the Oasis, which talks about the water crisis. Aquidneck Island struggles with watershed issues, so it was really relevant.
Also, starting this fall, we will be working with three school systems on the island to bring three films a year into the schools, likely environmental films.
RIM: It looks like you’ve got a lot planned for the fall. Does that mean you’ve had a good summer?
TC: We’re definitely growing and developing, and couldn't have hoped for better. Recently, we screened the film Knuckleball at the Casino Theatre and Tim Wakefield [retired pitcher of the Boston Red Sox] came to the screening and did pitching sessions with the Newport Gulls, and kids from the baseball camp could meet him.
We always try to bring in filmmakers or people involved in the film. In the off-season it’s more difficult to get filmmakers. For example, we obviously couldn’t bring in the ex-president of the Maldives for The Island President, so we brought in local experts from URI’s School of Oceanography.
RIM: Could you fill us in on this Thursday’s screening?
TC: We’re doing a free screening of Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters on the lawn of the Newport Art Museum. It premiered at South by Southwest and follows a photographer, a very famous, hot-button photographer named Gregory Crewdson.
Greg will be there as well as filmmaker Ben Shapiro. We do whatever we can to get them here because we think it’s really important to create community dialogue, and that begins with the person who is intimately involved. We also partnered with Bike Newport for a free bike valet, and the Tallulah's Tacos cart will be there. People can bring their own picnic, or can order a wine and cheese picnic from at Newport Wine Cellar and Le Petite Gourmet, with 10 percent of picnic proceeds going to newportFILM.
RIM: It’s such a basic idea: screen an art film on the lawn of an art museum.
TC: It’s true. We always try to partner with other arts organizations. We try to find films that feed their mission, too. Last Thursday we screened Queen of Versailles [a documentary that follows a billionaire couple as they begin construction on a mansion inspired by Versailles]. We brought the filmmaker in, and she was in awe. We had almost 800 people on the lawn of the Elms mansion with the sun setting and music playing. It was beautiful.
RIM: Do you have any other partnerships in the near future?
TC: On September 7, we’ll actually be screening the environmental film, Chasing Ice, on Rose Island at sunset. They’ll be a free ferry service, but we’re requesting a $5 donation.
RIM: Anything else you’d like to add?
TC: We’ve been so well received, but this year begins with revenue. We started with a lot of nice support but now we need to turn our focus to raising money in other ways. Thankfully we’ve been really blessed with support from sponsors like Kirby Perkins Construction and Horan Building Company. They sponsored the event with Tim Wakefield, and got a great value because [the owner] got to golf with Tim.
Our largest challenge is fundraising and figuring out a way to keep programs going and growing, but we’ve had some great free events so far.
For more information on newportFILM, visit the website here.