SFF’s Michael Dunaway: ‘Provide Memorable Experiences’

Michael Dunaway, the new programming director for the Sarasota Film Festival, has been to his share of cinema events, and watched plenty of great movies. But the changing world of high-quality home entertainment and accessible video-on-demand means festivals can no longer just promise nice films. “Make it worth it for audiences to leave the comfort of homes and come to the theater,” he said during a lengthy Q&A with SRQ Backlot. Dunaway in the 30-minute interview touched on his own plans on spending time in Sarasota, the programming legacy at SFF and even the possibility of bringing more music to the festival.

You have attended a number of festivals through the years. What is it about Sarasota that made you know it was one where you would like to work? The first time I met [former SFF director] Tom Hall, we became lifelong friends within about five minutes. He is a programming genius, and the programs he has been able to build in Sarasota have just been amazing. That has really elevated it to one of the top regional festivals in the country. Then the second thing is not only the quality of programming but the tone and tenor of the festival. Tom and Mark [Famiglio, SFF president], and really the whole team, have been able to create an atmosphere where it felt like a community was being served and built, and that everybody was taken care of and had a good time. That was just inspiring to me. The third thing was the city of Sarasota. I grew up in Macon, Georgia, a Southern town of 100,000 people. There are differences—doing arts work was something I was not familiar with—but I responded to the people and film community and the festival at-large. It was all just so fantastic, and this was an exciting opportunity to continue of what Tom and Mark have incredibly been doing for years.

Of course, Tom Hall has left the festival and now programming is your job. Can you sustain that reputation? It’s intimidating. The two words I always use with friends about how I feel about this are ‘excited’ and ‘terrified.’ Living up to Tom’s programming legacy is a huge challenge. Fortunately we still have Caley Fagerstron, a fantastic shorts programmer, and I am excited to have Derek Horne and Maggie MacKay working on programming. They are festival veterans. And I am also getting a lot of ad hoc help from people. My network in criticism and programming is extensive, and I have no doubt I will be calling on them. I plan on calling the chief critic at Paste, Tim Grierson, and I know Trevor Groth, the director of programming at Sundance, or there is Tom himself.

How much time in the year will you be spending in Sarasota? I’ll still be living in Atlanta but spending most of February, March and April in Sarasota. We are also building in year-round programs to make the festival more a part of the community besides during that week and a half in April. The plan is to be a very visible part of community year-round. That’s not a tough sell. It’s a beautiful town with great people and a great organization, and I will be down as much as I can stand to be away from my wife and kids to help.

Will you be maintaining your position at PasteYes, but with some changes. Even before I got this job, I had proposed an arrangement where I still retain the title of movies editor, but now my assistant editor also is named the movies editor, and I will really serve in a consulting editor capacity, deciding on the direction of the magazine and what films get paid special attention, and Michael Gurgin will be a partner in deciding that, but the day-to-day now falls on him to implement with writers and assignments.

How much work have you already done in preparing for this year’s festival [scheduled April 10-19]? We’ve been talking to distribution and sales agents about films coming out, including ones that were not submitted but which we will go after. We’ve talked with the whole programming team at Sundance, and will be looking closely at Sundance films and Slamdance films. We’ve already got some really good candidates, and we are building internally a list of films we want to program. I feel confident we will have at least a couple films that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival as well, and even some that will likely be coming to South By Southwest. As both a critic and film writer, outside of being a filmmaker, a lot of people are my friends. I find out things before I would otherwise.

Do you expect Sarasota to become more of a market festival with more distributors here making deals? It’s interesting, I think that it’s very difficult for a festival to make the leap to being a major market festival. I am not saying it will never happen in Sarasota, but to me it will happen as a byproduct of other goals we are pursuing, and is not a direct goal we have. But if we achieve other goals we are pursuing, I am sure we will make progress in that area as well.

Do you see an expansion into arenas like music, the way South by Southwest has done? It’s interesting. Possibly. Here is how I would frame that. One of the things I would like to do going forward with the festival, it’s really about film exhibition in general, and whether that is academic, museum or theatrical, it’s not enough anymore for any of us to just show good films. Twenty years ago, if you had a festival in a town the size of Sarasota, you had a big advantage, which was that it was likely the only chance an audience would have to see these films. Now 90 percent of the films at SFF you can bring up in five minutes with clicks of a mouse. It is not enough to say you have access, because later on you will get access some other way. We have to provide memorable experiences to make it worth it for audiences to leave the comfort of homes and come to the theater and see a movie. We do that by appearances by directors and actors, with education programs and panels after movies and by talkback sessions. We do it with creative events that make things memorable, and one of the areas with the most promise is music. If you see a music documentary in the early evening and see at a party that night that the band in that documentary is playing, that is something you will remember the rest of your life, more than a movie by itself or a concert by itself. That’s a memory that will last a long time. So there are experiences in general we need to build into the festival. Coming from Paste with my experience and connections in music, absolutely, we will be more aggressively chasing after a music-oriented event. Will it ever be like South by Southwest where the music is now bigger than the film side? That’s a tougher question. I am not opposed, but again that would be a product of other goals we are pursuing for their own sake.

Many festival goers have suggested the star power in recent years was lacking. Is it important to you to bring recognizable faces to the festival? It is. I know that good programmers of good will can disagree on this issue, but I think that spectacle is part of the film festival experience, and the glamor and celebrity is part of the excitement of building a film community. I believe the Sarasota audience deserves that and will be doing everything in my power to bring as many big names in as possible to bring in that thrill of shaking hands with your favorite actor or getting a picture with your favorite director. That gives to the community, and honestly that is a very high priority of mine.

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