Last week I wrote about the Portland Film Festival, which kicks off this evening with the premiere of Sex Ed. I very much enjoyed Sex Ed, but I was more critical of the festival's overall programming—the volume of which is intimidating, and the quality of which is hit-or-miss. Since I was curious how the festival's programming came about, I sat down with the fest's executive director and co-founder, Josh Leake, to get some background on the festival and hear about how the Portland Film Festival's selections are made.
MERCURY: How did the festival get started?
JOSH LEAKE: A couple of years ago I entered a video contest with Intel, like a 30-60 second video, and I ended up winning 10 grand. And it was fun! And then I entered another contest with Siemens and I got second place. This was within a couple of months. Then I saw this film festival in New York [Tropfest NYC], hosted by Hugh Jackman and the Motion Picture Association of America. I entered a short film that ended up winning $20,000 and I sang onstage with Hugh Jackman.
So I had that film, and I was fortunate enough to get that film into other film festivals around the world. And I was like, "This is pretty cool." I went to Raindance in London and sat next to Jeremy Irons. It was an eye-opening experience. Film festivals are great places to network for filmmakers, to meet people, to see what's going on in the world. There's a filmmaker out there making a movie about everything. And if it's any good, it's going to be at some of these bigger film festivals.
I basically took everything that I liked about other festivals and stole it. So like, in the morning Sundance does a coffee chat thing, where they bring in the directors and talk to them, and people get free coffee and doughnuts. We're doing the same thing, but we're doing it at McMenamins.
So what's your role in the festival?
We're a new festival, so it means I do a little bit of everything. A big festival, like Sundance, maybe has one person who responds to Facebook messages, and one person who responds to Twitter. A lot of what I do is managing a lot of volunteers. We're a volunteer [organization]. No one with the festival gets paid.
We have something like 210 filmmakers—actors, directors, DPs—coming, for over 130 films we're screening, which is pretty awesome. last year we [had] 70 filmmakers, and we only screened 84 films. So it's kind of amazing the amount of people who are excited to come and support the festival.
How do you select the theaters?
In a perfect world I wish we could do it at one theater with one screens. But the theater chains who have those aren't into it. But it's actually cool, because we can use some of the venues that I think are more "Portland," like the Mission Theater, Clinton Street Theater, the Laurelhurst, Cinema 21, Fifth Avenue, etc.
What's the selection process?
That's a good question, and I know your comment was that it was a little "schizophrenic."
A little bit.
And that's the beauty of a film festival. A normal [multiplex], you're forced to choose [between] a superhero movie, a romance, and a foreign film. I think the beauty of a festival is you have the opportunity to show things that you wouldn't normally be able to see. We've got a film that's a world premiere that Mercury readers would love. It's called State of Play, about gamers in Korea who spend their whole lives playing games.
I agree with you, we have a lot of selections. There's no way for any one person to watch everything. But I love that because a lot of these films are awesome films. Like Sex Ed. It's a funny film, a great film. And they could have gone to other bigger festivals, but they were like "Portland's fun" and we gave them opening night. But we're also screening a local film called Glena, about a 35-year-old single mom who becomes an MMA cage fighter. [Glena was produced by Leake. —Eds.] So there's a lot for everyone.
But was there anything in particular you were looking for?
A lot of festivals in Portland have lenses: The Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival, the Portland Queer Documentary Festival. And I love those festivals, and I support them. I love the Portland International Film Festival. I went to more screenings at PIFF than most people do, because I love movies. I just think that Portland needs to see more than the eight American films that PIFF shows every year.
[At the Portland Film Festival], we love films in general—we don't necessarily say it has to be a documentary, it has to be a narrative. What we say is, "We want a good story and good sound." Those are my two things. Why do we choose films? I like good stories. We had between 50-100 [volunteers screening films] and what is different in our film festival compared to others, each film was screened three times. Last year we had something like 600 submissions, this year we had a little more than 800. And each film was either given a thumbs up or a thumbs down. And each film that got a thumbs up was reviewed by four management-type people.
I also curated a lot of films. I've been to like eight festivals this year, like Sundance, Slamdance. I have a film that's making the rounds, and it really gives me an opportunity see stuff that plays well. [The subject of] our closing night film, Bronx Obama [about presidential impersonator Louis Ortiz], he's going to walk down the street and people are going to think he's Obama. He was on Colbert a couple of weeks ago. I met him at a festival, and I was like "Hey, you should come to Portland," and he said, "I want to!" People love Portland!
There seems to be a big emphasis on getting the people who make the films to show them off.
Portland sees the value of film production. It brings a lot of money into town. That's why the mayor came to our announcement party, because when film productions come to Portland they bring their money and they spend it. This is the best advertisement that Portland can do, is bring filmmakers to Portland for a week. They're not going to watch films every day. Jason Momoa, from Game of Thrones, said he wants to come to Portland and check out some breweries. He wants to go out and drink. Haley Joel Osment wants to go on one of those bike... drinking things. The mobile bike bar things. Everyone's really excited to come and hang out in Portland.
There's two different types of festivals—there's festivals where you can meet the filmmakers, and there's festivals where there's a red rope. There's you and then there's the people on the other side. We're not keeping people out, we're bringing people into film. We have more than 10 acting classes sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild. We've got classes every day on screenwriting. We've got the guy who [co-wrote] The Doors movie. The guys who [wrote] Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. All these amazing creators are coming to support our festival, and we're really excited.
The Portland Film Festival runs through Sept 1, and featuring a whole lot of films—and if we all play our cards wrights, Haley Joel Osment on a cycle pub. Our writeup can be found here, and a complete schedule can be found at portlandfilmfestival.com.