Interview with Chicago International Film Festival Programmer Anthony Kaufman

The upcoming Chicago International Film Festival is not your average fest - with Pitch Sessions and Industry Days, there are ample opportunities for filmmakers of varying experience to get involved. IFP Chicago's Courtney Griffin spoke with veteran festival programmer, Anthony Kaufman, about how you can get the most out of this year's event. 

CG: Industry Days provide ample opportunity for filmmakers and industry professionals to, as the site states, “connect, share ideas and find inspiration.” For those who will be first-time attendees, can you  give us an idea of what we can expect this year?

AK: We’ve already announced producing veteran Jim Stern as our Industry Tribute, who definitely fulfills the "inspiration" part of what we're doing. Not only does Jim have some fantastic and diverse credits as a producer and financier--from LOOPER and HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE to Steven Soderbergh's SIDE EFFECTS, Todd Haynes' I'M NOT THERE to the Oscar nominee AN EDUCATION, he's also a candid and savvy observer of the entertainment industry.I'll never forget this great keynote speech he gave in 2009 (which is still a worthy read here: We'll be announcing other confirmed guests from New York, L.A. and Chicago, including distributors, acquisitions executives, producers and screenwriters, who can give solid and specific advice about what's going in the entertainment world right now.


Additionally, IFP Chicago will co-host the Pitch Sessions during Industry days. It’s a unique opportunity to pitch your project to industry professionals. Why is this important?

It's important in three ways for Chicago filmmakers: 1) For the filmmakers who have been selected to pitch their projects, it's a huge honor and a privilege to be able to pitch their films to key decision-makers in the industry and receive direct feedback. 2) It's also great that IFP Chicago helps develop and workshop the projects so they're ready to go public with them. And 3) for those in the audience, it can help them hear from industry veterans about what's good, what's commercial, and what they are looking for, or not looking for.


What are the key benefits to attending one or both of these events? A lot of our followers are independent filmmakers just getting their start, so how can Industry Days and the Pitch Sessions be of benefit to them?

There are a lot of creative and passionate filmmakers in the Chicago and Midwest, but making films is hard, very hard, and making a good film is even harder, and getting it seen and released is ever harder. So there are so many facets of financing, making and releasing films, so Industry Days provide both a reality check on the challenges of the business, but also offers the information to surmount those challenges.


The Chicago International Film Festival is renowned for showing a diverse slate of films every year, and as a programmer you contribute heavily to that selection. How do you decide what is festival-worthy?

First, let me jump off my previous answer, and say: I know how hard it can be to make a really good movie. And because we watch so many movies every year, I've become particularly attuned to what makes a film programmable and watchable and when that's not the case. The toughest part is that a film may have all the elements--fine acting, a good script, solid direction--but even that's not good enough to make it into film festivals and distribution. So not only does a film have to be good, but it also needs to be fresh or original or innovative or something to make it stand out from the crowd!


What does your year look like as a programmer? When do you start screening films and when are final selections made?

Let me work backwards because that's where we are now: The final program is locked at the end of August, but we are seeing and confirming films throughout the year. There's a couple months of down-time after the Festival in November to December, and then when Sundance kicks in, I'm definitely scouting for U.S. Indies again. It's a long time to wait until October, but this year, for instance, we confirmed one of my favorite films from Sundance 2016, Antonio Campos' CHRISTINE, which is opening in theaters after the Festival.


Are there any films that have been selected that stand out to you?

We've only announced the first 25 films or so, and they're all great! But I would reiterate the startling power and central performance of CHRISTINE. I'm also a fan of a debut American indie film called ARE WE NOT CATS, which came up through our submissions and is having its North American premiere with us. It's a cool little discovery. There's also works by big world-class auteurs like Asghar Farhadi, Mia Hanson-Love, Ken Loach and Christian Mungiu.


In addition to programming you’re a film journalist, with work published in the New York Times, Filmmaker Magazine, IndieWire, and several other publications. With your finger on the pulse of the industry from several perspectives, how would you assess the current role and state of independent film?

That's a big question! One of the areas that I've continued to focus on as a film journalist is the ever-changing distribution landscape. I'm fascinated by VOD and digital distribution as both the savior and the death-knell for indie cinema. Platforms like Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, etc have changed things dramatically, but there is also a persistent need for old-fashioned theatrical distribution, which still gets publicity, reviews and people's attention more than just sticking your project on the Internet. A couple of the panels we have this year, "Standing Out from The Crowd: Promoting, Positioning and Premiering Your Project" and "Distribution 5.0: Navigating the Changing VOD/Theatrical Marketplace" were set up explicitly to deal with these issues. As always, it's the best of times and the worst of times. At Industry Days, we'll be sure to explore both sides.

Filmmakers here is your chance to make some contacts and save some cash! IFP Chicago members received a special discount on Industry Days registration. Members can enter your membership number to receive the discount. Don't know your member number? Shoot us an email at info@ifpchicago.orgCLICK HERE to register. 

Submissions for the Pitch close on September 2, 2016. CLICK HERE to submit your project today!