It was just supposed to be a way for people to see independent movies that don't normally make it to local theaters. And it was just one guy, Keith McDaniel, and his wife, Dana, running the show for their friends and neighbors.
"I just decided one day to start a film festival in Oak Ridge," McDaniel says. "I had been to one film festival in my entire life at that point."
McDaniel, a independent documentary filmmaker himself, started the Secret City Film Festival in 2004. He says he didn't do it to make money—he considered it a success when he broke even.
"It was more of a passion—providing an opportunity for filmmakers to screen their movies in a public venue, and to network, and to learn from each other, and for them to meet visiting filmmakers. It just grew and grew. It was a great time."
It grew so much that McDaniel moved the festival from the actual Secret City last year to Knoxville's Regal Downtown West Cinema 8. And that was when things began to change for the little film festival.
Dogwood Arts, which had plans to expand its promotion of the local film scene, had taken note of McDaniel's festival. As executive director Lisa Duncan explains, the organization didn't want to compete with any existing film festivals. So when she and McDaniel began to realize they could work together, it seemed like a good plan to join forces and utilize the combined strengths to make a bigger, better film festival.
And so the Knoxville Film Festival was born.
Over the course of four days (Sept. 19-22), the festival will show 75 films on two screens at Downtown West Cinema—everything from full-length features to shorts to documentaries—from directors who hail from 18 different states and three different countries. Filmmakers from all over will get together for four workshops, a discussion led by screenwriter Michael Miner, and question-and-answer sessions after each set of films.
For McDaniel and the tight-knit film community of Knoxville, a city better known for television production, this film festival will be a celebration and promotion of local art that's mostly been existing off the radar.
"Things like this film festival and other competitions just help facilitate the growth of our community and the energy of the community, and the opportunities for those filmmakers. To me, that's what it's about: providing opportunities for people who want to make films," McDaniel says. "I started it for the locals. As far as I'm concerned, the local film community is always going to play a significant role in the film festival."
McDaniel got his start in the filmmaking business about 15 years ago, when he made his first documentary, a look at Roane County's history.
"I didn't know anything about historical documentaries. I knew I liked Ken Burns," he says with a laugh. "To be honest, [the film] was not very good, but I just fell in love with the process."
Over the years, McDaniel connected with other filmmakers in the area and elsewhere as he pursued movie-making. In 2006, he made a documentary on the integration of Clinton High School in 1956. McDaniel says that in order to get the attention he felt his film deserved, he needed a high-profile narrator. He got James Earl Jones. McDaniel flew to New York, and spent an afternoon directing the legendary actor.
"He was a kind and gracious and wonderful man, and it's the kind of experience I'll never forget," McDaniel says.
But the film, The Clinton 12, also wound up being something of a catalyst for the evolution of the Knoxville Film Festival. McDaniel submitted it to a long list of festivals, and spent most of 2007 traveling to about 35 of them in support of his film.
"I was gone almost every weekend," he says. But while he was on the road, he learned a few things. "As a film-festival director, I was able to see what they were doing, what worked, what didn't work. It was like school for me for a year."
One of the most important things McDaniel picked up on was the sense of camaraderie at some festivals, and the key was having a central location where all the films were screened.
"I realized that I liked the film festivals where they weren't spread out all over town. I like the fact that we can go and stay there in one place," he says. "And up until this year, I've only had one screen. So everybody that's at the film festival—they go in and watch the movies together and come back and talk about it."
But it wasn't just focusing on creating a sense of togetherness that helped the festival grow. One of the most popular aspects of the festival, McDaniel says, is the Seven-Day Shootout competition, where teams of filmmakers have seven days to shoot and produce a movie that'll be screened and judged at the festival. There were also workshops for filmmakers to attend and learn from each other about various aspects of the process. Eventually, he says, attendees started wondering why the festival was still in little Oak Ridge.
"People said, ‘Why don't you move to Knoxville?' And I said ‘Well, it's the Secret City Film Festival. I can't move it to Knoxville.' But in reality, probably 90 percent of my patrons came from Knoxville or the Knoxville area. So last year, I thought maybe I should," McDaniel says.
But about a month before last year's event, McDaniel got a call from Dogwood Arts. They wanted to have lunch and talk to him about his festival.
"I was happy to talk with them and give them any advice. But I think the conversation became, ‘Well, do you think there would be an opportunity to work together?'" he says. "The film festival was my baby. I started it, I ran it, I made the decisions. They weren't always popular decisions, but they were my decisions. And I had a real sense of what I wanted it to be. Fortunately, the Secret City Film Festival had already established itself as what it was. We kinda used that as a foundation and said ‘How can we build on that foundation?"
Dogwood Arts' mission is to promote the arts, culture, and natural beauty of East Tennessee. And though they'd had some great success in the visual and performing arts and music, film was an area they hadn't really broached. So why did they decide to promote Knoxville as an independent film haven?
"It not only gives our creative talent an outlet for their films to be screened, it also provides an opportunity for our judges, our advisory board, and our sponsors to see their work. And so, the best case scenario is that their film is bought, distributed, and makes a big screen someday," Duncan says. "From a statewide perspective, we have invited 75 filmmakers to come to Knoxville to see how beautiful and what unique filming locations, shooting locations, that we have in Tennessee. It's not just about promoting our arts and culture. It's also about generating an economic impact for our community."
So far, the partnership appears fruitful. Dogwood and McDaniel have been able to use their respective skills and contacts to create a bigger, better film festival than the Secret City Film Festival was last year.
"As far as scope and scale of the film festival, we've made a huge leap between this year and last year," McDaniel says. "Last year we had 11 film blocks. This year we have 20. Last year we just had one screen. This year we're having two screens running all the time. To be honest, we've almost doubled the number of films that we're screening. We've almost doubled everything we're doing."
The festival's workshops include discussions on how to make features, documentaries, and how to act on an indie film set. A discussion session with screenwriter Michael Miner, who worked on RoboCop, Deadly Weapon, and Anaconda: Blood Orchid, will focus on science-fiction movies, special effects, and movie magic. It's events like that, McDaniel says, that offer local filmmakers their biggest opportunities.
"I think it provides a great opportunity for them to network with other filmmakers. I know there are lots of filmmakers who are working together now just because they met at a film festival," he says. "Businesses have working events. That's what a film festival is for filmmakers. It's a chance for them to get to know each other, to learn from each other, and work together."
And for local filmmakers (and current film students) Grant Bromley and Ben Neal, that's exactly what they hope to do at the Knoxville Film Festival.
Bromley and Neal shot their first feature film, Dreams of the Wayward, in their hometown from May to July 2012. The story centers on a young man trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life—on the streets of Knoxville. Bromley, who wrote the script, says he had the parable of the prodigal son in mind while writing.
"It's not a Christian film, but it's kind of an archetypal story," he says.
The two asked a bunch of school and church friends to act in their film for free, which is how they were able to keep their budget at $2,500.
"Ben does all the cinematography, we edit together, and of course we directed it together. I actually act in the lead role. So we're cutting a lot of costs there. So all the money's going to equipment," Bromley says.
None of the expenses came out of their pockets, either.
"We set up a Kickstarter for it. The goal was to raise $2,500 in 30 days. We ended up raising $2,798," Bromley says.
When it came time to actually do something with the film, the festival route seemed the most obvious. And when the duo heard about the Knoxville Film Festival, Bromley says, "It just clicked because we shot the film completely in Knoxville. There's not a shot in the film that doesn't take place in the city. It was kind of perfect, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that they would like it."
And though they waited several months to find out if they'd made the cut, they both say they're looking forward to the upcoming events. "We have an independent filmmaker panel on Saturday morning. We're looking forward to being on that panel," Neal says. The panel is called "So, You Want to Make a Feature?" and will include four other filmmakers who will talk about their experiences making their movies.
And though Knoxville's production sector mainly focuses on television, Neal and Bromley hope they and the rest of the local filmmaking scene can carve out a space for more feature films to be made in their hometown.
"We feel that by starting to make feature films in Knoxville, maybe others will follow. We're going to continue to make feature films in Knoxville, so hopefully the scene will grow," Neal says.
Not just any film is going to help garner local movie-makers the attention they want. The movies at the film festival have to be good, says McDaniel.
"We could just get a whole bunch of films and slap them up on the screen and say ‘Hey, y'all, come!' But that's not what I want to do," he says.
When it comes to actually choosing films to screen at the festival, McDaniel uses WithoutaBox.com. The site is a "clearinghouse for films," McDaniel says. Filmmakers can create profiles for their movies. Film festivals can create pages for their events with details on how, what, and when to submit films.
"We have a larger number of films submitted because of Withoutabox.com. And the more films you get, the more choices you have. So you can choose films that are a better quality," McDaniel says.
About 50 films were chosen after McDaniel put together screening committees to score the submitted films. McDaniel chose the final 50 based mostly on those scores.
"Back in the old days, I'd just watch everything and decide. But now, what I wanted to do was involve more people," he says.
Additionally, 21 teams completed the Seven-Day Shootout, and their films will all be screened at the festival. And they're going to be worth seeing, McDaniel promises.
"They're great. The level of quality has really increased the last few years. Once they submit it, we're going to screen it. If it's not good, we're going to screen it. The number of films that are not very good has decreased. The number of films that I consider really good has increased," he says.
Though McDaniel created the festival for filmmakers, he insists it's not elitist and exclusionary. The Knoxville Film Festival won't be full of high-minded talk about cinematography techniques and special effects, he says.
"One of the biggest things I want to accomplish is to get the public more aware and interested in what we're doing. The film community is there. We kinda need to reach beyond that and get the general public," he says. "I'm just a regular old guy who loves movies, and I don't want to feel uncomfortable when I go some place. That's what I want for the film festival—for it to be a place that's engaging and entertaining, and where people feel comfortable and have a good time.