A little over five years ago, sitting out on his back deck and enjoying a drink, Oak Ridge resident Keith McDaniel had an epiphany: What East Tennessee really needed was its own film festival.
"There are so many filmmakers in the East Tennessee community," he mused aloud to his wife, Dana. "Where do these filmmakers have an opportunity to show their films?"
The answer in this primordial, pre-YouTube era? They didn't, especially with the recent expiration of Knoxville's ValleyFest. So, with a nonchalance perhaps fortified by his recent libations, McDaniel announced, "I think I'll start a film festival and call it the Secret City Film Festival!"
Typically, such backyard proclamations are left under the shade tree that inspired them. But in this particular case, McDaniel was not deterred by sober reality. Equipped with a jovial nature and Kris Kringle cheeks, McDaniel proceeded to launch the very event he had envisioned.
"I had been to one film festival in my life at that point, but I love an adventure," says McDaniel, who's also a full-time filmmaker of documentaries such as The Clinton 12, about the integration of Clinton High School in 1957. "We had about 40 films that we screened. I kinda felt guilty for charging people to see most of them, to be honest, but it was a nice little weekend."
Now in its fifth year, the Secret City Film Festival (SCFF) has grown into a can't-miss event, drawing filmmakers from around the country to the Oak Ridge Playhouse for a long weekend of moviegoing (about 60 features, documentaries, shorts, and cartoons), workshops, and parties. While it has expanded in scope beyond McDaniel's original intentions, the festival is still a strong supporter of local film with a celebration of East Tennessee filmmakers on Saturday night and a special tribute to Maryville-based character actor David Dwyer on Sunday.
It has also retained the quality that distinguished it from the start: niceness. Unlike larger festivals around the country, SCFF takes care to treat all the filmmakers with a personal touch.
"I don't want to be a Sundance," says McDaniel. "I don't want to be a Nashville. Nashville is a wonderful, huge festival, but I can't see us having premieres or bringing in celebrities. That's not what this festival is really about. It's for the little guy who wants a chance to show his film and to have an audience. As one filmmaker said last year, you come to this festival and you're gonna get the appreciation and accolades you think you deserve for making your film. People are here to watch films and to appreciate the films and the filmmakers."
McDaniel operates the festival under the umbrella of his own company, Secret City Films, and starts working on it about six months before the first film is screened. He's nearly a one-person operation, gathering entries via the filmmaker website Withoutabox.com, watching every single submission, selecting the final lineup, organizing the workshops, signing up festival judges, and coordinating the screening schedule. Being the sole arbiter of SCFF's film lineup also means making judgement calls on what's worthy and not so worthy, which can sometimes conflict with the pure notion of "art." What if a film's content goes beyond what may be deemed permissible for the area?
"We've gotten films that were completely inappropriate for our community," says McDaniel. "I can be criticized: ‘Art is art, and you should show whatever it is.' Well, yes, to a certain degree, but you also have to know your audience and what are they going to enjoy or come back for or respond to. Fortunately, there's not been very much I've had to draw the line on. We don't do things just for shock value. We may show things that may not be everyone's cup of tea, but they're very well done, artistic and creative. There may even be films that I didn't really care for, but they're really well done. And there a lot of people smarter than me coming to the festival who can appreciate that!"
McDaniel attends to every facet of the festival's management without any sponsors underwriting expenses: "I'd like to break even one of these days. I tell people my goal every year is to see how little money I can lose." But keeping SCFF small and personal is probably also one of its strengths as a film festival that can attract solid talent. Which is exactly how McDaniel wants to keep it.
"I'd much rather go to a small festival and be treated well than go to a big festival and be ignored," he says. "I've been at bigger film festivals where they didn't know who you were, and they didn't really care unless you are a celebrity. I think enough filmmakers have been to both to know, ‘I want to go someplace where people see my film and they tell me they like it.' What's the point of going to a festival if you don't hear that when you show your film? We're a nice, medium-sized film festival, and there are hundreds of those across the country, but if you do it right you get a reputation."
That growing reputation attracted over 150 submissions this year from all over the United States, as well as Russia, Hungary, Spain, Australia, Italy, and France. (France's Davy Sihali is scheduled to arrive for a screening of his Cam2Cam.) Surprisingly, one of the festival's early obstacles was in capturing the interest of filmmakers right here in Knoxville, who apparently didn't want to make the drive to Oak Ridge.
"I couldn't get the Knoxville film community to attend—and we kind of started it for them," says McDaniel. "I think it goes back 60 years to the difference between Knoxville and Oak Ridge. During World War II, Knoxvillians didn't like the Oak Ridgers with the muddy boots coming to Knoxville, so there's always been competition, I guess. Sometimes I find the attitude that if it's not done in Knoxville, it must not be any good."
Last year's event drew a bigger Knoxville audience, and McDaniel is hoping for more consistently packed shows at the event's one screen. Again, he views their single 334-seat venue as a strength; whereas bigger festivals spread out their screenings at four or five theaters around the city, at SCFF moviegoers and moviemakers hang out together in one place and talk. And that may be the biggest benefit to directors showing their work: vindication that they're doing something worthwhile.
"We spend so much time by ourselves achieving our artistic vision, most of us sit there and go, ‘Oh, man, this is crap.' Or, ‘This is really good.' We don't know if it's any good or not! We hope people like it, but for us to show it and get that validation that, ‘Yes, your work is worthy of the time you put into it,' that's very important."