Arriving between Tribeca and Cannes, the Montclair Film Festival, now in its fourth year, is carving out a unique niche offering a chance to see festival favorites from Sundance, SXSW and Toronto in advance of their release in Northern New Jersey. The festival includes several East Coast premieres, notably Sundance winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and its opening night picture, the SXSW hit Hello, My Name is Doris, as well as Time Out of Mind, the Richard Gere-led fall premiere that’s awaiting a release.. Also of note is another chance to see one of Robin Williams‘ final performances in Dito Montiel’s Boulevard, which was recently acquired for distribution this summer after premiering at Tribeca in 2014.

Situated 25 minutes by bus from Manhattan, Montclair, NJ’s Clairidge Cinema regularly houses New Jersey exclusive engagements, a role all the more vital as Montclair’s art screens have been reduced from eleven to six as shrinking windows, video on demand, and the town’s popularity forced changes at other venues. The town’s former cinemas continue to play a role in the festival in their altered forms. The Wellmont Theatre several years ago was converted back to its 1,700 seat former glory, while the former Screening Zone hosts several festival events, including talks and parties.

The festival’s executive director Tom Hall takes the reigns this year spearheading a screening schedule of over 150 films across six venues in Montclair and Upper Montclair along with live performances by Yo La Tengo, conversations with Richard Gere, Jonathan Deme, Barbara Kopple, Mavis Staples, Jonathan Alter, Patrick Wilson, Michael Ian Black and more. Kicking off today, we talked with Hall about Montclair’s 2015 line-up as well as the festival’s year round mission and future. Check out the conversation below.

The Film Stage: Thanks so much for talking with us. The festival is only a few years old with an impressive set of screenings and events. Can you walk me through its history?

Tom Hall: This is actually the fourth year of the festival. It began four years ago when Bob Feinberg, who is the chairman of our board of directors and is the chief council at WNET in New York City, and a colleague were driving around town. This guy was trying to decide if he was going to move to Montclair and the friend said, “Do you guys have a film festival? I think you guys should have a film festival.” It’s literally because a huge number of TV and media professionals live here. As someone who does not live here it’s a bit staggering when you look at the median per capita media footprint of the town. Stephen Colbert lives here along with the executive producer and writers for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report along with Jonathan Alter, who produced Alpha House and is a contributor on MSNBC, two studio heads live here, Patrick Wilson, the actor. So all of these folks got together with other folks in town, community leaders, and they decided they wanted to put together a film festival and they gave it a shot. They started small and it continues to grow exponentially every year. Thom Powers (TIFF Docs, Miami Film Festival) and Raphaela Neihausen, who runs Stranger Than Fiction and is the executive director of Doc NYC, live in town and they ran the festival for the first three years. The needs of the festival grew beyond their busy schedule and they’re still involved, however they brought me on board this summer to try to create a year-round presence. In year four we’ve expanded again. We’ve added an opening weekend. We open on Friday and now we’re ten days long. We added a competition we’re going to have audience awards and we added a jury. We’re having juries come and having an awards ceremony. And we continue to expand — we’ve already beat last year’s box office totals and we’re a few days away and we seem to be in good shape for the future — I hope.

For an upstart you’re in a great position. How you’ve been able to attract that interest from these guests?

There are a few assets we have — being 25 minutes outside of Manhattan does not hurt. For people coming in to present a movie it’s not a big ask and we’ve got a lot of New York-based film and acting talent that we can attract. It would be a lot harder if we were further away or difficult to get to. We also do a few events a year with Stephen Colbert that he works with us on, so having that is a very big help and a lot of people appreciate him and want to be associated with him. We also have other media professionals that live here. Our narrative centerpiece film is the Sundance movie Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which won the audience and jury award there. The executive producer of the film Nora Skinner lives here; she’s a member of our artistic committee and she worked very closely with us to bring the film here. Our opening night film, Hello, My Name is Doris, screened at SXSW and having seen it prior, we invited the film and they accepted. Immediately after it screened it got picked up and Roadside Attractions is holding it until 2016. However they graciously honored our invitation and Michael Showalter will present the film. So we’re fortunate due to our timing. Ww have a lot of positive assets which are helpful as a programer to bring these films here.

Can you discuss the curatorial process for Montclair? There are a few films have screened at other festivals – Sundance, SXSW, and a three that were at Tribeca this year, along with New Jersey-based films. Are you hosting any world premieres this year?

Yeah, we have a couple world premiers including Tears of God which is kind of a Claire Denis-style horror movie with Kate Lyn Sheil and Lindsay Burge, along with a few local films that are having their world premiere. Others like Hello, My Name is Doris only played at South By. We’ve got a few that played at Tribeca — I feel like we’re in good shape. We’re in year four and I don’t think we’re going to become a market festival where people are coming to sell their movies. It’s really a smaller community and we’re focused on our local and regional audience. It’s not every festival’s ambition to become a South By or a Sundance or a Tribeca. We’re more interested in bringing the best films we can and creating a really great environment for audiences and filmmakers to connect. With collapsing windows between festivals, VOD and theatrical and everything just going much faster than it used to, it’s becoming more and more challenging to get every movie we love or see everything we want. We are fighting the good fight on that front and we’re going to try grow in the right way with quality movies and become a place where artists feel its mandatory for them as they take their movies out. I think that’s a great place to be.

montclar_2015Last year at the festival I attended a panel on New Jersey filmmaking and unfortunately the news was grim on the tax incentive front. Is there a role that the festival can play in advocating and encouraging Jersey filmmaking either in an advocacy or development role?

I know that panel reflected current tax incentive front and New Jersey is not a competitive climate on that front. We found in going out, a lot of New Jersey talent maybe aren’t working in New Jersey. They are maybe telling New Jersey stories and living here but making their work around the world or in a different part of the country, so we take a broad view of what constitutes New Jersey filmmaking. There are films that were made here like Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven which I think is a great film. We also have some great local films that were made about Montclair and Montclair-area issues that are very good. They may not appeal on a national level or they may end up appealing to audiences on a national level. They did an excellent job with those projects. Long-term our goal is to launch an educational program for young people, the generation watching content on cellphones and iPads, who maybe download the copy and don’t pay for it. We’re trying to inspire an appreciation of film and filmmaking with them so we can continue to grow and give people an opportunity to work on their own projects. It’s a multi-pronged approach. One thing festivals can do is create a reverent environment for film going which I think creates an overall impression that New Jersey is a great place for filmmaking and it encourages New Jersey filmmakers uncover interesting stories and provides a platform to make great work.

As a life-long Montclair movie-goer I understand how vital the festival is. At one point we had 11 art screens, now we just have six at the Clairidge. Many of these films may not get a theatrical run in Montclair or New York City. With that said, what films should I see and what events should I attend?

We open with Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name is Doris, followed by our opening night party at the single screen 1,700-seat Wellmont Theatre and we’re going to pack it out  — it’s going to be a great night. I’m also excited to have Richard Gere here in conversation with Stephen Colbert. We have Richard’s new film Time Out of Mind which will be coming out this fall with an awards season push. The film is terrific. A lot of films that deal with an issue like homelessness seem to be cloying or someone stands up and gives a big speech at the end that solves all the problem, but Oren Moverman, who is the writer-director, is way too smart to do something like that, so it is a very powerful movie. I would also highly recommend the Yo La Tengo and Sam Green live documentary which is taking place Thursday May 7th at the Wellmont. It’s a Yo La Tengo performance live along with Sam Green’s performance of a documentary live. So we’ll have the screen playing documentary footage along with Sam Green’s performance. He stops it, he starts it, he tells stories, he narratives the film live with the band performing the score. I’m very excited about that. We also have Mavis Staples here presenting her film Mavis. She’s incredible. The movie is unbelievably good. It’s got that 20 Feet From Stardom vibe to it, with a lot of great music and you’ll walk away with a smile on your face. She’ll be doing a live event with Stephen Colbert. They’re old friends from the Colbert Report days where she was one his favorite guests and we’re excited to bring them back together. And Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a terrific movie, big film, multiple award winner at Sundance. The director and screenwriter will be here. And then we close on Mother’s Day, May 10th, with Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected, a beautiful movie about a teacher and student who go on a path of maternity together as they both get pregnant unexpectedly. It’s a really wonderful, positive story. I loved it. If people want to bring their moms they’ll leave with a grin on their face and feel good about your experience. It’s kind of the perfect button on the festival. In between we’ve got another 150 films and I could talk all day about those, but these are the highlights for sure.

Great. Anything else you want to tell us about Montclair?

The most important thing is it’s easy to get here. It’s a very simple process to get here and get around. We hope folks will come give it a try. Our ticket prices are relatively reasonably priced compared to other festivals and we’ve got something for everybody. As we grow and offer year-round programs we’re looking to make new friends and reach new audiences, so we hope everyone will join us.

Thanks so much for talking with us. I’m looking forward to the festival this year.

The Montclair Film Festival runs May 1st through 10th. Tickets and information are available at the official site.

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