Indie Memphis Film Festival grows beyond a regional event

The Indie Memphis’ yearly exposition has matured from a fledgling local event into an internationally recognized film festival, and its 20th annual festival is shaping up the be the largest yet.

Thirty-five viewers gathered for the inaugural festival. Local film students, largely, screened their efforts at the EDGE coffee shop in Cooper-Young circa 1998.  Local underground filmmaker John Pickle made an appearance, too.

Now, the festival sports a lineup that includes over 180 films, panel workshops, music and parties. Attendance tops out at around 11,000.

“If people know about Indie Memphis and they know it’s a film organization then they might think it’s all about movies. It’s certainly built around movies. But the purpose of it is to build community around these experiences,” said Iddo Patt, board member of Indie Memphis and founder of Modern Production Concepts.

During the Indie Memphis Film Festival on November 3 through 5, Indie Memphis will host its first-ever block party. Traffic will be closed on Cooper between Monroe and Union avenues during the event to improve walkability.

“For our 20th anniversary this was our big addition to the festival,” said Watt. “Hopefully, people will wander up to it, who don’t know much about Indie Memphis, and hang out, take part in what’s free and then be compelled to buy a ticket."

This year’s festivities will be highlighted by Rainn Wilson’s new movie, “Thom Pain”. Based on co-director Will Eno’s one-man play, it will premiere at the Orpheum on opening night, November 1. The adaptation of the monologue-driven work was also directed by Oliver Butler. Wilson, of "The Office" fame, will make an appearance at the premiere.

Indie Memphis will screen "Up Tight!" at the 2017 festival as part of a partnership with the National Civil Rights Museum.

“The hope is that each year gets better – improving the level of guests we bring into town and the variety of films,” said Watt. “Rainn Wilson is one of the more high-profile guests we’ve brought into the festival.

It’s a huge deal to have a world premiere. It’s actually a rare thing for a regional festival like Indie Memphis.”

Originally a volunteer effort, the Indie Memphis nonprofit now staffs eight and has a 22-member board of directors that work year round. Over the years, they have fundraised, promoted, bent ears, cajoled civic leaders and celebrity agents alike.

In addition to the film festival, there are several programs offered throughout the year. For instance, Shoot and Splice and a monthly filmmaking forum promote independent filmmaking in Memphis. Screenings can be seen with the Microcinema Club and on Indie Wednesday. There is also the Youth Film Fest.

Many of the early featured filmmakers were students. Others were novices pursuing their passions and far-fetched dreams. Some, though, had enough talent to take them beyond Memphis.

In 2000, Craig Brewer’s feature, “The Poor & Hungry,” premiered at the Memphis College of Art. Shot in digital format on a budget of $20,000, it gave an unflinching look Memphis’ street life. It won awards at Indie Memphis and later at the Hollywood Film Festival.

Five years later, Brewer took home the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival for “Hustle & Flow”.  Another Memphis director, Ira Sachs, won the Grand Jury Prize for “Forty Shades of Blue”.

Even the music categories weren’t safe, as local rap outfit Three Six Mafia beat out Dolly Parton for best musical score, notching another win for “Hustle & Flow” in 2005.

It was the film's exposure at Indie Memphis that led to greater exposure elsewhere. The filmmakers’ success brought attention back to the tiny film festival that started it all. Since those earlier efforts, the festival has only increased in popularity and acclaim.

MovieMaker Magazine recently ranked the Indie Memphis “one of the 25 Coolest Film Festivals and one the 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee.” Amazon Studios came on board as a marquee sponsor last year. It now joins the Sundance, Tribeca and Seattle International Film Festivals as recipients of Amazon's nod.

Italian director Abel Ferrera will be on hand as well during this year's festival. The controversial filmmaker will join editor Anthony Redman and cinematographer Ken Welsch for anniversary screenings of “Bad Lieutenant,” starring Harvey Keitel, and 1995’s “The Blackout,” with Mathew Modine. Both will be screened at the Malco Studio on the Square.

Filmmaking provocateur Abel Ferrara is coming to Memphis from his home in Rome, Italy.

Seven new and classic films will be showcased as a part of the MLK50 mini-festival. Among them will be “Marvin Booker Was Murdered,” which is about the beating to death of a homeless preacher. Jules Dassin’s “Up Tight”, featuring the music of Stax house band Booker T. and the MG’s, will also be shown.

“Leading up to the anniversary in April, groups like ourselves are partnering with the National Civil Rights Museum to have events that fit into the themes of not only Martin Luther King but ‘where to do we go from here.’ Tying it back to today and what’s going in the world,” said Watt of the 50-year commemoration of Dr. King's assassination in Memphis.

Music won’t only be featured on the soundtracks, scores, and incidentally during the festival. “Thank You, Friends: Big Star's 'Third' Live... And More," will be shown on an outdoor screen during a November 3 block party. The film will feature performances by Robyn Hitchcock, members of R.E.M., Wilco, Yo La Tengo, and the original drummer for the Memphis band, Jody Stephens. The concert documentary features music from their third album. Stephens will host the screening.

Screening venues include the Halloran Centre, Playhouse on the Square, Circuit Playhouse, the Hattiloo Theatre, the Studio on the Square and the Ridgeway Cinema Grill.

Indie Memphis will host the “Collierville Encore” on Nov. 11. Some of the most popular films from the primary schedule will be re-shown following the festival at Malco Collierville Towne Cinema. In the past, screenings were shown simultaneously in Collierville and Midtown.

"Having the whole staff being focused on [the Collierville Encore] a week later will add a lot more to it," Watt said. “We are trying to make sure different areas of town have easy access to the festival.”

A complete schedule will be announced during a preview party at The Rec Room, located at 3000 Broad Avenue, on September 26.

A record number of entries have been submitted this year. Around 200 documentary, experimental, narrative, and animated features and shorts will be screen.

More information can be found at Passes are available. Tickets to individual films go on sale to the general public on Oct. 10.

“Our hope is that every day you are frustrated because there’s more than one thing you want to go to. That means we’ve done our job,” said Watt.

Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.