Arts & Entertainment

The Buzz About Beloit International Film Festival

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Now in its 12th year, Beloit International Film Festival has become one of most anticipated events in our region. Learn everything you need to know about this year’s 10-day event.

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Beloit International Film Festival will screen 100 films from Feb. 24 to March 5.

Beloit International Film Festival (BIFF) is one of the most significant cultural events in our region. For 10 days, downtown Beloit welcomes hundreds of visitors who flock to the city for the festival. Filmmakers and film lovers intermingle in the local bars and restaurants, while the top 100 films from more than 1,000 submissions evoke intelligent discussion.

“If you’ve experienced BIFF, I don’t have to ask you to come back because you’ll already want to,” says Rod Beaudoin, BIFF executive director. “It’s certainly a different experience than other film festivals. The whole thing takes place across a couple blocks, so it’s a very social atmosphere. It’s a world class festival with the warmth of a small town.”

Now in its 12th year, BIFF takes place Feb. 24 through March 5 and tickets are $9 per film. Beaudoin’s not the only person who makes the festival happen. A passionate team helps him to pre-screen and select films, book the venues and keep tabs on finances. Throughout the year, hundreds of volunteers help to keep the festival on track.

In the final days before the festival, there’s palpable excitement among the team members as they finalize the lineup. They’ve chosen the best documentaries, narrative features and short films to showcase at the festival. Within those categories, there’s a variety of dramas, psychological thrillers, historical fiction and more.

“As an art form, film is an opportunity to mimic real life in a way that other artistic mediums don’t,” says Adam Fogarty, BIFF programming director. “I love music, I try to get more into painting and architecture all the time, but nothing describes life better to me than film.”

This year is Beaudoin’s last year as executive director, since next year he’ll work exclusively for Hollywood Film Festival. As a founder of BIFF, Beaudoin leaves behind a legacy of “bringing the world to Beloit, and Beloit to the world.”

“Through film, we give the locals a flavor of the different cultures in the world,” Beaudoin says. “And, when people from out of town come for the festival, they take a piece of Beloit with them when they leave. They talk about what a cool town we have and how warm and welcoming the people of Beloit are. It’s really an amazing phenomenon.”

Finding Top Films

In order to narrow down the top 100 films, a team of prescreeners begins watching submissions a year in advance. The team is comprised of students who study film at Beloit College and other universities, as well as those involved in the film industry in various capacities.

“I give them some preliminary films to watch, and based on how they do with that, we determine if they’re qualified to properly consider the films,” Fogarty says.

He provides the prescreeners with five to 15 hours of viewing material a week. Most of the time, assignments are random, though Fogarty also looks to cater to the prescreener’s tastes and preferences. Once all opinions are in, the main staff makes the final decisions.

“That’s when we start to think specifically in terms of what the BIFF audience would like to see and what we think they might eventually like to see,” Fogarty says. “So, we know they’re going to like a lot of classic Americana films and feel-good films, but we also want to add something that might be out of the ordinary, something you’re only going to see at a festival, something you wouldn’t normally come across on Netflix. There’s always a balance of figuring out what might be interesting and what might be enlightening.”

The vast majority of the team’s decision is predicated on the quality of the film. Fogarty and Beaudoin make the final decisions, along with Greg Gerard, operations director, and Max Maiken, assistant director. Each has their own approach to determine what makes a great overall film.

For Beaudoin, the feel of the film is the most important aspect.

“I have everybody give ratings to the films based on a bunch of criteria, but I don’t do that myself,” Beaudoin says. “For me, it’s just feel. I watch a film and I go ‘yeah, this works.’”

Maiken has a similar approach. The Beloit College graduate will be stepping into Beaudoin’s position of executive director starting next year.

“My criteria is similar to Rod’s methodology,” Maiken says.”If there’s not that gut feeling of a film capturing you and bringing you into the place and time, then there’s something that doesn’t work.”

Fogarty, however, has a different approach. When watching a film, he likes to see an economy of writing. For him, it’s important that the script doesn’t sound like a first draft.

“That’s a big problem that you see with a lot of submissions,” Fogarty says. “It looks like they ran a first draft and didn’t get a second opinion. I also like there to be a certain cinematic quality to a film. I like it to flow like a proper film should flow, whether it’s a slow-paced or high-action film. There should always be something that keeps your attention versus a home video.”

What to Watch This Year

It’s easy for the team to mention a few favorite films at this year’s festival.

The narrative feature “Demimonde” ranks high on everyone’s list. Filmed in Hungary, “Demimonde” is a murder mystery that takes place in the early 1900s.

“It’s just so beautifully shot,” Beaudoin says. “The costumes are amazing and the cinematography is stunningly beautiful. It’s a real piece of art.”

“Dead Slow Ahead” causes disagreement among team members. The film is classified as a “slow burn,” or a film that places emphasis on slower, yet significant moments in life.

“A slow burn is something you’re going to watch if you’ve been deep into film and you’ve become bored of the typical thing,” Fogarty says.

During prescreening, many people rated “Dead Slow Ahead” high on the 0-10 scale, while others ranked it lowest on their list.
“Some people thought it was one of the best films they’ve ever seen, and some people thought it was the worst,” Maiken says.

“That’s a film where the ranking feels more like a matter of taste, as opposed to a proper interpretation of quality,” Fogarty adds.

For a quality feel-good film, Beaudoin recommends “Growing Up Smith,” a coming-of-age story about an immigrant experiencing the American Dream. When it comes to documentaries, “American Street Kid” is one of Beaudoin’s top picks. Shot in Los Angeles, the film examines homelessness and the impact it has on individuals. Beaudoin finds it’s one of the better documentaries he’s seen over the years.

“American Street Kid” is also one of three films in the BIFF Cares Series, an educational film series during the festival put on by Beloit Health System. Films in the BIFF Cares Series deal with significant issues and have a local, national and international impact. Joining “American Street Kid” in the series is “Carpe Kilimanjaro,” a film that discusses Alzheimer’s disease, and “Screenagers,” a film that examines the effects of phones, computers and TV on child development.

The festival has many narrative shorts, but one that particularly stands out to Fogarty is “Make Like a Dog.” In the short film, a couple experiencing fertility problems discusses whether or not they should adopt a dog.

The team puts forth much effort in deciding which venue to place each film in, and at what time. The festival spans six venues within close proximity to one another, and over the years, certain venues have become known for showing specific types of film.

“The best venue for quality viewing is Luxury 10,” says Greg Gerard, operations director. “That’s the most high-tech of the venues. It has 5.1 surround sound and a really nice image on a giant screen. Hendrick’s Arts Center is another great venue for quality viewing.”

Domenicos, an Italian Restaurant, is known for showing top-choice documentaries. Bushel and Peck’s, a local market and cafe, shows comedies and dramas, while Bagels and More shows a combination of documentaries and dramas in a more intimate setting.

La Casa Grande, the largest downtown venue, shows what the team projects to be the hit films of the festival.

“Sometimes we’re wildly accurate, and sometimes we’re way off the mark,” Beaudoin says. “Each film gets two showings in the festival, but there can be as many as five. So, toward the back end of the festival, we show what we think are blockbusters at La Casa Grande.”

Opening Weekend and Special Events

During the first weekend of the festival, BIFF exclusively showcases films made by Wisconsin and Illinois residents. This tradition was the idea of former staffer, Kristen Peterson, who is the director of a film in this year’s festival.

“Kristen is a graduate of UW-Milwaukee’s film school, and she noticed that filmmakers in our region were having a hard time getting placed in festivals,” Gerard says. “That’s why she started highlighting Wisconsin and Illinois filmmakers about three years ago. She has a lot of followers at BIFF.”

Beaudoin has a few top picks for opening weekend. “Thank You For Your Service” is one he expects to do well, especially since Beloit is home to many veterans.

“Thank You For Your Service” is anticipated to be a hit with the BIFF audience, so it’s important to Beaudoin to show the film at Bagels & More.

“Bagels & More has been a strong supporter of BIFF from day one,” Beaudoin says. “ I want them to be successful. I love the feel of Bagels & More – it’s got the tin ceiling, the turn-of-the-century building, the intimate seating, plus they serve good family food for people who want to have lunch or dinner while they see a film during the festival.”

Another film to watch out for is “60 Yard Line,” which is expected to be popular with the BIFF audience. Made in Green Bay, Wis., this narrative feature is all about The Packers. It’ll play multiple times throughout the festival.

“The filmmaker, Ryan Churchill, is actually from Beloit,” Gerard says. “His folks still live here today.”

BIFF has a couple special events that have become a tradition. Since early on, the festival has presented a silent film with The Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra providing music throughout. This year, Beaudoin is changing things up and featuring the Beloit Memorial High School Jazz Orchestra.

“Music is such an integral part of a film, even in the early days during silent films,” Beaudoin says. “The high school jazz orchestra is nationally recognized, so we thought it would be great to switch over to the high school this year. We can also provide more seats in the high school auditorium.”

Other traditions include showing a classic film and a musical at Luxury 10. This year, the classic film is “The Graduate,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and the musical is “A Hard Day’s Night,” which features music from The Beatles.
“People love to get dressed up and sing along during the musical,” Beaudoin says. “And as for the classic film, we want to pay homage to the great films outside the silent era.”

The Uniqueness of BIFF

Throughout the year, no other event generates as much downtown foot traffic in Beloit as BIFF.

“The city just fires up,” Beaudoin says. “It’s the biggest restaurant week of the year. The downtown is so electric. You can see filmmakers walking down the street, and they have their filmmaker passes around their necks, and people will stop them on the streets and talk to them about their films. That’s something unique about BIFF.”

Since the festival is condensed to a 3-block radius, it’s easier for BIFF to be a very sociable festival. Instead of driving from venue to venue, festival attendees can easily stop in a downtown restaurant or bar after seeing a film to discuss thoughts and opinions with friends and strangers alike.

Many of the filmmakers attend BIFF and conduct Q & A sessions with audience members immediately after their film is shown. The festival has hosted as many as 180 filmmakers throughout the event.

Since the beginning of the festival, Beaudoin has noticed an impressive maturation in the BIFF audience.

“Over the past 12 years, filmmakers comment on how intelligent the BIFF audience is,” Beaudoin says. “This region has become quite educated on independent film. There’s just an energy that radiates through people walking down the street, especially since people are so excited to speak to the filmmakers directly. It’s not always this social at other festivals.”

The community rallies behind BIFF, from large and small corporations to the city government.

Within Wisconsin, Beloit stands alongside Milwaukee as having a high-quality film festival. However, BIFF’s budget is $160,000 compared to Milwaukee’s $1.3 million. To Beaudoin, it’s BIFF’s dedicated volunteers who work throughout the year who make up the difference.

In addition, every major bank in Beloit is a sponsor – something that’s highly unusual for large events.

“Typically, a bank would want to be an exclusive sponsor,” Beaudoin says. “But that’s one of the unique things about Beloit. Everyone comes together to make this happen. This festival is a chance for Beloit to be proud of itself.”

Get Involved

Throughout the year, BIFF stays in the public eye thanks to “BIFF Year Round.” For 37 weeks, on Wednesday evenings, avid indie-film goers have a chance to see films that are poised for greatness at the upcoming festival, or to catch an encore presentation of a film they may have missed from the previous year’s festival. In the summertime, films are shown outdoors.

Usually, there’s also free coffee from Domenicos and free desserts from Old Fashioned Bakery.

“It keeps the fire burning,” Gerard says. “One of the cool things about BIFF Year Round is that we do Skype Q & A’s with the directors whenever possible. One time, a director stayed up until 3 a.m. in Berlin just to do a Q & A Skype with us. I have a great deal of respect for the filmmakers who are so passionate, and who sacrifice everything to see their vision through. You know they’re passionate about their filmmaking and they’re happy to be in front of an audience talking about it.”

BIFF additionally has a film society that people can join, with multiple tiers of subscriptions. Benefits include receiving BIFFicates, or gift certificates that can be turned into tickets at the festival, discounts on merchandise, and best of all, free entrance to BIFF Year ‘Round.

“I mean, you get to go to 37 movies a year for a $50 membership,” Beaudoin says. “That’s a great deal.”

The Future of BIFF

BIFF team members agree that film has played a large role in defining the American culture. For them, organizing BIFF is an exciting process because watching film is a passion.

Next year, Maiken will continue Beaudoin’s legacy while starting one of his own.

“Film is the true American art form, just like jazz,” Maiken says. “It has defined our culture. It has defined our nation in some ways, for better or worse. It’s also the embodiment of the American Dream. To me, it’s true to us as a culture and true to me as an individual. It’s cool that I get to play a part in it, as small as it may be.”

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