By Amy Geiszler-Jones - Photography by Madison Ham
Over the past 15 years, Wichita’s own Tallgrass Film Festival has become one of the hottest tickets around – not only for filmgoers, but for filmmakers, too. It’s even gotten the attention of another festival director who knows a thing or two about making films: Robert Redford.
“Local art-driven events like the Tallgrass Film Festival not only have a positive impact on Wichita’s economy but also add to the quality of life in this city,” said Redford, the founder of the Sundance Film Festival and an award-winning actor and director.
For the third year in a row, Moviemaker magazine has touted the festival as one of the “top 50 film festivals worth the entry fee.”
“Film is such an accessible art. Who doesn’t like movies?” said Lela Meadow-Conner, who’s currently serving as the festival’s creative director. She has held various positions, including six years as executive director of the Tallgrass Film Association, the festival’s parent organization that sponsors other film-related activities throughout the year, including the 24-hour filmmaking venture, Down to the Wire.
Meadow-Conner, who knew Tallgrass founder Timothy Gruver from their days in the film industry in Los Angeles, has been involved with the festival since its inception as a three-day festival in 2003. On its 10th anniversary, the festival expanded to five days. This year’s milestone festival takes place Oct. 18 to 22. Last year’s festival drew a record-setting 16,000 people to 194 film-viewings.
Word has spread in the moviemaking industry about the festival. This year, the festival received a record 2,000-plus film submissions. A local programming committee curated the submissions down to about 50 feature films and 100 short films.
“I like to say we’ve whittled it down to the ultimate playlist,” Meadow-Conner said.
This year’s lineup includes a prominent focus on women in front of and behind the camera, as well as a celebration of South African movies, according to organizers. The schedule includes the opening night and North American premiere of “For the Birds,” a film set in 1970s South Africa that tells of a young nurse ruffling feathers as she shows what it means to be an independent woman, and the closing night film, “Served Like A Girl,” that chronicles the lives of female veterans vying for the title of Ms. Veteran America.
The festival gets its tagline, Stubbornly Independent, in part because it showcases independent films. Meadow-Conner said some people still don’t understand the concept of an independent film. She has a simple explanation: “It’s just a movie. It’s a movie made without the millions of dollars from a studio behind it but with a great story.”
The tagline also reflects the attitude behind the festival. It was sort of a stubborn venture, borne out of a “why not Wichita” attitude. Rather than maligning Wichita as being in the middle of nowhere in an area void of culture, festival organizers showcase the city’s entrepreneurial spirit by embracing independent filmmakers and in the process expose Wichitans not only to new films but a new relationship with its city. The festival also draws many out-of-town visitors.
That’s one reason Nicole Howerton got involved. Owner of Howerton+White, which is the festival’s creative design and marketing agency on record, Howerton saw the potential the festival had to lift up Wichita.
It was important, she said, to position herself and her business alongside a venture that wanted to enrich and build culture – with culture in this case referring to both the art aspect of the festival and the mindset of Wichitans about their community.
Not only can festival-goers see films, they can rub shoulders with filmmakers, actors and more at the parties, meet-the-filmmaker and other educational events that make up the five-day festival.
In the past, celebrities such as Elliott Gould, Cloris Leachman and Gary Busey have made appearances. This year, Rose McGowan, who starred in the TV hit “Charmed” and in several movies, is scheduled to come to Wichita to accept the festival’s Ad Astra Award on Oct. 19. Her directorial debut film, “Dawn,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, will be shown that evening, as well. More than 60 visiting filmmakers from all around the world are expected at this year’s festival.
“That speaks to opportunities for businesses and people to be engaged with this organization,” said Howerton, citing how businesses can take advantage of volunteer opportunities as a pride of community and team-building efforts. She sees this kind of cultural opportunity as a benefit for businesses to use when recruiting, too.
More 330 volunteers helped in various capacities last year, from projectionists to drivers to filmmakers and more. This year, more than 400 volunteers are expected.
The festival takes place in the heart of Wichita at some historic venues, allowing Wichitans to explore different parts of their city in different ways. The nine film-viewing venues are Venue 332 at the Scottish Rite, the Ruffin Building, Wilke Family Center at First United Methodist Church, Roxy’s Downtown, The Orpheum Theatre, Kansas Leadership Center, Wichita Art Museum, the Wichita Public Library and even the ICT Pop Up Park. Party venues include Union Station and the former Greyhound bus depot in downtown Wichita.
“It’s walkable,” noted volunteer and incoming president of Tallgrass Film Association’s board of directors April Johnson,who helps plan some of the special events surrounding the festival. Wichita’s Q-Line is running a special route to hit all the festival venues.
With the idea of engaging both film buffs and novice attendees, festival organizers have created various different ticket packages, from a TALLpass that gives one access to everything to a one-day binge pass for Saturday, Oct. 21, to individual movie tickets. A special VIP lounge is set up for Oct. 19 to 22 at The Lux, where those with a VIP TALLpass can imbibe in happy hour, get a massage or makeup session, eat meals and hobnob with visiting filmmakers.
For more information and details on Tallgrass Film Festival evens, visit tallgrassfilm.org.