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Kent Marks of Stony Brook Film Festival

Festival / Interview / by Festival Formula

  • Tell us about your festival

We are a 10-day festival that takes place at Stony Brook University, which is about halfway between Manhattan and the Hamptons of Long Island, NY. We’ve been running for 24 years now and have developed our own way of doing things. For instance, rather than showing films at different venues throughout the day, we show each film at one incredible venue – the Staller Center Main Stage – in the evening, plus a few afternoon screenings on weekends. Our theater has a 40 foot screen and we generally get around 600 to 800 people for each screening, which is a huge audience for most of our filmmakers. Starting in the middle of July we show two features each night, pair each feature with a short, and provide an individual Q&A for each feature and short. We have managed to cultivate a savvy, cinema-loving audience that trusts that every film we select is worth their time, and honestly most of our filmmakers are rather amazed at the level of interest they get from our public. We know filmmakers are usually strapped for cash, so we keep our entry fees low, and if you do get accepted we offer travel support, really nice hotel accommodations, meals, after-parties, swag, and a good time.

Thora Birch and Brian Cox enjoy a moment at the US Premiere of The Etruscan Smile
  • What made you start your film festival?

It all started with Alan inkles, the director of the Staller Center for the Arts. We are located at a large university that is close to great beaches, wineries, and New York City, and we had a big theater that wasn’t getting much of a work-out during the Summer. The initial challenge was coming up with something fun we could do to get people in the doors while most of the students and faculty were away on vacation, and since we already had a healthy Fall and Spring film series, Alan decided to add a Summer Film Festival. What began as a bit of an experiment eventually became one of our biggest successes.

  • What are you most looking forward to in your next edition?

I honestly love the whole thing. Watching the films (again) with our audience, seeing what happens during the Q&A, going to the parties, etc. But since I’m a bit of a film-nerd, I really like the time I get to spend with the directors, writers, actors – even the producers – beforehand, just talking about films.

Love & Spirit actor Michael Totten watches his director Helen Cross during their Q & A
  • What have you learnt the most from being involved with a film festival?

That nobody is more important than the audience. Alan and I co-program the festival together, and while we like to take our regulars out of their comfort zone from time to time, it has to be done with respect and sensitivity. If the majority of the audience doesn’t enjoy the film at some level, it’s not good for them, for us, or the visiting artists. These are live screenings, and without an appreciative audience we might as well close up shop and go home.

Writer/Actor Ryan Bennett takes a question following the World Premiere of Take Me to the Waves
  • How does your selection process work?

We get between 1500 and 2000 films submitted to us online, as well as hundreds of others from distributors around the world. We have to pare these down to about 20 features and 16 shorts (which includes docs). For about five months a very small team screens the submissions and discusses every film we think could play here. Our only criteria are that they need to be good films (both technically and artistically) AND they need to be films that we believe will captivate, thrill or amuse our audience. Sounds easy, right?

  • What’s your protocol for sending out rejections?

We try to email our submitters as soon as possible after the submission period is closed. Since we are reviewing films throughout the five-month submission period we are actually finished with that process a lot sooner than many submitters are used to, so they sometimes think we can’t possibly have watched their films. But we have, and our coffee budget is a testament to that fact.

  • Length of short film – discuss…

For short films we say no longer than 30 minutes, and we try to stick to that, but we will consider pretty much anything if it’s really good. We’ve had a few that were a bit over the 30 minute mark, and we’ve also shown some quite short films as well. A few years back we had a very clever film that lasted all of 60 seconds which stayed in the mix for quite awhile until it sadly got nudged out by some better films.

  • Describe your festival in five words or three emojis

I get paid for this?

  • What’s a personal favourite film festival of yours?

The Stony Brook Film Festival, of course. Honestly, after giving 7 months of my life to this every year, I’m not looking for another festival to attend. If I did, I’d probably go to the Toronto International Film Festival – they tend to have a good line up, and being in Toronto they may have the only staff that’s more polite than ours.

Director Zach Bandler and actress Meg Steedle talk shop with Jury award winning Director Amy Wang at an after party
  • What do you wish more filmmakers did, and didn’t do?

As someone who previews a LOT of films, I can tell you nothing is more frustrating than a good film that is 90% there. Whether it is one weak actor – please think twice before casting friends or family, one scene where the sound or camera work is sloppy, or an ending that just doesn’t quite work, it takes very little to hurt an otherwise good project. Do yourself a favor: get impolite, critical feedback from impartial filmmakers before you decide your film is done. I’ve had to say no to some films I really wanted to say yes to, due to a few scenes.

  • What questions do you get asked the most by filmmakers?

Besides asking for a waiver? (We start off at $10 – seriously). They often ask what trends we’re seeing in submissions, but I think what they are really asking is what are we getting tired of seeing. I only answer that question off-the-record and in-person.

  • What’s your favourite film?

Good Lord, does anybody actually answer this question? How could I possibly choose?

  • And drink of choice whilst the festival is underway…?

During the screenings I drink water. But at the after parties, I’ll take a Stout. Maybe a Porter.

Kent Marks (left), Associate Festival Director & co-programmer, with award-winning director Samantha Green Davidson (for Thrasher Road) and Festival Director & co-programmer Alan Inkles. (photo: Nick Koridis)


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