Part 1. Continuing on from Josh’s departure from the Philadelphia Cinema Alliance post-Cinefest…
C: What were your motivations behind the Piazza-based Awesome Fest?
JG: I wanted to demand an urgency with our film programs with Awesome Fest. If I’m going to build a community, I want to start grassroots from the ground up. So let’s take these big movies, big movies in my mind, let’s turn them into events and provide them to the city of Philadelphia for free of charge. How much more can you possibly do? That was my goal, to build a summer of free outdoor screenings. The reason that I started doing what I was doing was because of Rooftop Films in New York City. To sit outside under the moonlight with cool, friendly people to watch these movies and be a part of these events is fucking awesome and that’s what I wanted to put together. When I put Awesome Fest together, it took literally a week, it’s not rocket science, y’know? I think I’m most proud of Awesome Fest. We put an artist who lives in a castle in Portugal, we took his robots, we put them on a ship and shipped them from Amsterdam to Philadelphia and gave him his first North American gallery opening. We had a pig roast, dude came in from Portugal, that shit’s cool and it was all free.
C: Where did the funding for events like that come from?
JG: A lot of it was out of pocket and from generous sponsors like Zipcar, FlixFling. I demanded a lot from distributors, it was funny because at the beginning of the series we were spending a ton of money on screening fees and by the end of the series the same studios were sometimes paying us to show their movies.
C: It takes a unique mindset to spend your own money showing films.
JG: It’s like any business, you’ve gotta spend money to make money. I never thought twice about it.
JG: The biggest disadvantage of the Piazza is the million of things going on at once. It’s not really a venue where you can command people’s attention and respect. We were showing Shut Up, Little Man!, the most offensive movie of all time, and there was a wedding party taking pictures, which to me was amazing. But again, if I’m trying to build a community where people respect films then its obviously not the ideal place to do something like that. The advantage though is that it’s a one of a kind venue. It’s always a process trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work there. I’m going to keep developing the summer series, but as far as the Piazza is concerned I’m not going to use it nearly as much as I did last year.
C: Is the name “Awesome Fest” on hold for now?
JG: Its on hold for the time being. I’m just keeping that on the backburner, with my track record, y’know…
C: Prior to your involvement with the Film Society, what was your impression of the organization?
JG: These film festivals were a part of my childhood in a sense, these were festivals I was going to and discovering new films at. I’ve always liked the guys behind the Philadelphia Film Society, I think Michael coming on board kind of extended the outreach and provided some sort of personality behind the whole experience. You can go out forever and just show movies, but how are you really giving back? It’s about building a community, it’s about networking, it’s about the artists creating. I think that all organizations were lacking that. For a city with so much personality, where is it?
C: So do you think they recognized that and it led to their approaching you?
JG: Absolutely. I think that’s a key part of why any group is going to succeed. It’s all about adapting and reacting to the times. There should always be some form of change and if you recognize that then you’re going to succeed. I don’t think I’d be there if that wasn’t acknowledged.
C: Were you at all hesitant when they first approached you?
JG: Yeah, only because I had started my own company, something that I thought was becoming pretty successful. It’s hard to take on something that’s not yours, but it’s good to have a staff, it’s good to have knowledgeable, professional people. Everyone at the Film Society, no matter what people think, are really into what they do and they’re like children when it comes to film. It’s good to be part of a team, that was the main reason I decided to do it.
C: When they approached you, did they cite any specific goals that they had in mind for the future?
JG: Yeah, I think everything we just discussed, it was important to them. Personality, developing a year-round program, reaching out to the community more. Again, it’s tough because the Philly Film Society wasn’t necessarily theirs. They’re taking an organization that was failing miserably monetary-wise and having to carry that on their shoulders while you trying to continue. There isn’t a lot of money being poured into the art community right now. Andy Greenblatt does an amazing job running it as a professional business.
C: Can you mention any of your plans with the Film Society?
JG: Yeah, again, I think it’s about doing things consistently so I want to take these programs everywhere throughout the entire city and I want to support everything that’s in the film scene whether I like it or not, I just want to bring it all here. I want to do it outdoors, I want to do it in coffee shops, I want to do it in bars, in theaters, wherever we can possibly bring an event I want to do it and that’s my goal. I want to add some personality to it, that’s me, that’s who I am. I want to take the film world and turn it cool. Everyone always goes, “Film, the arts, it’s so nerdy, it’s so geeky.” I don’t think so at all, I think it’s important to pave the arts culture in any city.
JG: Absolutely. At least that’s my goal. I’ll add whatever I can to that. It’s not just up to me, I’m not the only person doing things, I think it’s important to partner with people. You look at people like Joe Gervasi and Exhumed Films and what they do, people who’ve been there for years and years and it’s like, “Why don’t we help what they do and work together and team up and become a force?” If you’re just going to focus on your shit then that’s not something I want to be a part of. It’s not about what I’m doing, it’s about working together.
By the end of 2012 I’ll have events at eight or nine venues throughout the city. Maybe even sooner.
C: So there may be a regular event every night at the week at various venues.
JG: That’s my goal, every single night of the week. As much as I can do. Definitely multiple times per week. I’d like to get a little repertory theater here, even if it only seats 90-100 people.
C: Do you think that Philadelphia has enough interest in film screenings to support your plans?
JG: Maybe not, but it will. You’ve gotta force the hand, there’s gotta be consistency. It’s not like Field of Dreams, you’ve gotta keep fucking building it and build it for a long time. I don’t think it’s something that’s gonna happen over night, I think we’re doing it right now.
C: What were your thoughts on the most recent Philadelphia Film Festival?
JG: I thought the program was incredible. I think October is a tough time frame since you’re so far away from Sundance and SXSW. You’ve got Toronto, but a lot of the Toronto films are movies that are just going to be distributed at some point anyway. If you look at this festival and you compare it to festivals like AFI you’ll see that it’s almost the exact same program, they got everything they could get. Would I have done something different? Everyone would have done something different.
C: The main complaint that was sent my way was that the programming was on the mainstream distribution side of things. Does that characterize the festival in a positive or negative manner?
JG: I certainly hope not negative. You have over 140 films, how many of those have distribution? Maybe 40, 50, 60 tops. And those are the films that people want to see. Martha Marcy May Marlene was being released two days after its festival screening and it sold out. These are the movies that people actually want so it’s about finding a happy medium. Would I have picked different films? Of course, but that’s not a knock on the Film Society or their programming team, everybody has what they like. I thought the program was absolutely fantastic.
The bummer for me was things like Paradise Lost 3 where only 30 people showed up. It’s such a good movie, that’s a movie that should sell out in seconds.
C: Do you think that there’s a certain audience in Philadelphia that needs to be catered to?
JG: You take any movie that’s good and if it’s good then I feel like anyone can enjoy it so it’s about introducing these movies to people who haven’t heard of them and encouraging them to accept and enjoy them. If you program a movie and people know about it and they want to see it then they’re going to see it, I don’t need to cater towards that crowd. It’s about getting the people that don’t know, if you rock star it and make it seem cooler than it may be, look at the Alamo Drafthouse/Ain’t It Cool model. Those guys rock starred the hell out of it to the point where that was the cool thing to do. That’s how we need to do it in Philadelphia. I don’t think they have more film fans than we have.
C: When 30 people show up for Paradise Lost 3 and MMMM sells out then there’s evidence of a greater mindset.
JG: There’s always gonna be. Take a Hollywood film that makes hundreds of millions of dollars and then take an independent film that doesn’t gross a million dollars. The more accessible movies are always gonna sell more and have more fanfare. It’s about introducing those indie films.
JG: As long as you keep the audience engaged, again, it’s all about adapting and reacting. Digital distribution and movies going day and date to On Demand certainly don’t help, but you can’t let that bother you. There are so many movies out there and if you put together the right event with the right organizations then film festivals will always be there. I’ll be shit out of luck if they’re not.
C: I get a lot of e-mails from aspiring film programmers about getting into the profession, do you have any advice for them?
JG: You just do it, it’s just about producing. If you’re gonna do something then make sure you finish it. Accept the challenges, don’t become cocky, let your ego go at the door. You hear people go “I’m a programmer, how cool is that?” It’s not really that fucking cool, you’re a fucking nerd, embrace it. Wear fun on your sleeve cuz if you’re not going to have fun and are just going to bitch and moan like so many people do then what’s the point?
C: Are there any considerations that young people in Philly should take into account when approaching the public exhibition of movies?
JG: Always pay your exhibition fees. Always get the proper releases. It’s a business like anything else, you’ve gotta follow it the right way. The most important thing you can do is be a part of it, support the local artists and filmmakers, you’re on the same level as them and without their help you’re nothing. Without the audience I’m nothing.
I dropped thousands over the summer putting Awesome Fest together and I think a lot of people think that’s crazy, but if you’re gonna do it then do it.
C: And it feels worthwhile at the end of the day?
JG: Yeah, because you’re doing it. It’s all about the follow through for me. I always said when I would talk to film schools or wherever that you can start as many things as you want, just be sure to finish them all. You never want to be the dude that starts things then stops them. There’s a ton of those dudes out there who just spray their hate on everyone else. I do a lot of things wrong, but I do it and if you’re gonna knock that then knock it, but I encourage and certainly help. I love to see people do shit, it makes the world go round.
Follow Josh’s film programming work at filmadelphia.org.
Author: Eric Bresler
Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.