A core group of individuals has been dreaming of a completely new film festival in Knoxville that could showcase even more of what Knoxville has to offer to the film community. Knoxville is already home to many avenues for film production and had previously offered the Knoxville Film Festival that ran it’s final event in 2022. 2023 brought the right players to the right place at the right time for a new and exciting event-Film Fest Knox, founded by Kim Bumpas, Curt Willis, Darren Hughes, and Paul Harrill.
Film Fest Knox was a collaboration of partnerships from Visit Knoxville, Regal Cinema, and The Public Cinema. This first annual event showcased and advocated for work made outside of Los Angeles and New York and highlighted what East Tennessee has to offer. Filmmakers also won $18k in prize money and mentorships, and one big winner will have their movie in an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run.
I have never stepped foot in the film industry, except for a dinner I attended years ago at Scripps before the company left Knoxville. However, that was literally only stepping foot in the building. I still knew nothing. I had a big learning curve, with more to learn. Kim Bumpas, President of Visit Knoxville, felt the same way when the planning began. This first year, the plan was to enter strongly but slowly and find what worked and what set Knoxville apart in creating a world-class film festival event.
Film festivals allow indie filmmakers to network, get critical feedback, and learn from industry expertise and knowledge. Film Fest Knox brought in talent from all over the nation to be judge and jury for the event categories and utilized local experts. Kim felt one of the perks of the Knoxville Film Festival was that it was producer-centric. Screenwriters, directors, and dreamers had access to individuals and opportunities they would not have had otherwise.
I sat in on several of the events over the weekend and felt the closeness of the community of such an interesting art that doesn’t usually draw my attention. I love to watch TV and movies, but I’m a lightweight. However, sitting in on the Elev8or Pitch screenings and speeches opened my mind to films I would not have considered before I heard the process and story behind them. It reinforces what I feel about almost everything in life. The more you understand it, the less likely you are to remain intolerant. Whatever “it” is. The more you listen, the more you know, and the more space you can give that thing/person/idea to coexist. Congrats to the winners, Catacombs, Tenebris, and Solidarity. These films were awarded monetary prizes and mentorships to take their pitches to the next level.
I had the opportunity to chat with one of the judges for the Elev8tory Pitch competition to ask some questions. Keith Thomas, Head of Development for Marcus Entertainment in Atlanta, is no stranger to Knoxville. He lived here for five years while working at Scripps, helped launch the Magnolia Network, and has many reality TV show credits to his vita (Snapped and Say Yes to the Dress, to name a couple). He has worked in the film industry for 25 years. Having attended film festivals all over, he feels Knoxville is at an advantage for up-and-coming filmmakers because we lack the pretentiousness that can be felt in other cities.
He believes Knoxville is an approachable city that welcomes newcomers to the field. His relationship with Paul Harrell allowed him to return to Knoxville to participate in this event. Thomas emphasized that relationships are vital to taking the next step, regardless of career. His advice for the budding filmmakers was to take themselves seriously, not to sell themselves short, and to look for the female perspective in film writing.
Film festivals like this one allow a platform for new talent, attract new audiences, and promote tourism and the local community to visitors. Interested producers and audiences come to film festivals looking for the next great idea that has yet to get the notice it deserves. One such film is getting that recognition now because of Film Fest Knox. Peak Season, directed by Henry Loevner and Steven Kanter and produced by Loevner, Canter, Lovell Holder, and Patrick Ward, won the event’s highest honor of best American Regional Film and will receive that Oscar-qualifying run in theaters thanks to Regal Cinemas.
Locals Curren and Elaine Sheldon won an award for the Made in Tennessee category, and their film, Country Brawlers, based on rural boxing in Appalachia, is being marketed and hopefully will find its distributor soon. My husband and I got to see this documentary and were blown away. That’s another cool thing about a film fest. It may be the only chance you get to see these incredible films, from shorts to feature length, and to have the networking and front-row seat to meet the future storytellers of cinema.
Take advantage of it next year, as it promises to be even better! The Visit Knoxville Film Office wants to bring it back again in November 2024. Anyone can join the fun with affordable access, from single tickets to all-in.