In 10th year, Macon Film Festival continues to grow

Nearly a decade ago, Tabitha Walker and Craig Coleman sat inside a Subway restaurant listening to Tony Long Sr. pitch the idea of a film festival for Macon.

Long wanted an event for the Cox Capitol Theatre, which he had renovated, and he thought Walker, who had been involved with the Savannah Film Festival, and Coleman, a Mercer University art professor, would help him get the festival off the ground.

With the 10th annual Macon Film Festival set to begin Thursday, Walker admits she can scarcely believe just how far the festival has come.

“If you said to me at the time that this is where we’d be 10 years from now, well, we would have been very surprised,” she said. “The film festival has established itself as one of the most reputable film festivals in the Southeast. It’s something I’m very proud of, and Tony and Craig are proud of.”

Certainly, the festival wouldn’t have been able to attract a Hollywood legend of Burt Reynolds’ stature to be its featured guest a decade ago. Nor were the quality and quantity of submissions of films from the earlier years comparable to what festival organizers have seen this year.

Perhaps the most significant change for the festival is moving from its traditional February date to July. Festival President Julie Wilkerson said the Macon Film Festival already has made more money than last year’s event, thanks to added perks like a VIP Lounge for a certain level of pass holders as well as a badge that gives access to both the film festival and Bragg Jam, an annual Macon music festival.

Wilkerson said the move is important for a few reasons.

By foregoing the February spot on the calendar, the festival no longer has to compete with much larger festivals that were going on around the same time -- the Sundance Film Festival in January and South by Southwest in March. Wilkerson said filmmakers often had to pull their films from the Macon festival if they were selected for the others, because those festivals required the films to make their debuts at the event.

“(Moving to July) really opened us up” for submissions, Wilkerson said.

For example, the Saturday night special screening of “Slow West,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and stars Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee, might not have been available to screen in Macon in February.

Moving the festival to summer also gives the festival a chance to partner with Bragg Jam, which will take place next weekend, giving Macon the same vibe of movies and music that takes place at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas.

The Macon Film Festival will feature several music-based movies and documentaries, including “Take Me To The River,” “Mavis!” and “How Sweet The Sound: Blind Boys From Alabama.”

Walker, the festival’s programmer, said the festival’s board met with experts to discuss ways of improving it. One suggestion was to give the festival a clear identity.

“One thing Macon is known for is its music history,” she said. “So now we’re looking at grouping films that have a little more Southern flavor and a music flavor.”

Southern author Lauretta Hannon, who grew up in Warner Robins, will be contributing to the Southern flavor. A documentary based on her life, “Raised in the South of Normal,” is in this year’s competition. Friends of Hannon’s are throwing a public party before the screening, which will take place at Grant’s Lounge at noon Saturday.

“The filmmaker decided which festivals to target with the documentary, but I let him know early on that the most important festival to me would be the one in Macon,” Hannon said by email. “I consider it my ‘hometown’ festival, and having grown up in Warner Robins, it means the world to me to have the Georgia premiere on my old stomping grounds.

“A key part of the documentary deals with my return to the old neighborhood in Warner Robins and what I discover there after 20 years away. So it’s meaningful on many levels to be part of the Macon Film Festival. I’m honored to be there. I guess Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again.”

While the party for Hannon isn’t an official part of the festival, Wilkerson said many similar events related to filmmaking are now taking place before, during and after the festival to capture that synergy. For example, the festival is partnering with the Macon Arts Alliance and C4 Atlanta for the “Fundraising 101 For Filmmakers” workshop to be held Friday from 10-11 a.m. at the 567 Center for Renewal.

The festival also will hold the Central Georgia Showcase July 23, which will highlight two locally shot movies by midstate filmmakers: “Zombie Crush” and “The Legend of Seven Toe Maggie.”

In addition, the festival, Bragg Jam and the Macon Film Guild will present the music documentary “The Wrecking Crew” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday with an after party at Gallery West.

“This is what we wanted to happen -- other things coming up at the same time,” Wilkerson said. “It just gives more things for people to do.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.