Hawaii’s Big Island Film Festival Grows While Highlighting Indies

The fest has become a venue where celebs, filmmakers and audiences can relax and mingle

Big Island Film Fest

Back in 2003, Leo and Jan Sears traveled from their home on the Big Island of Hawaii to neighboring Maui to attend the Maui Film Festival. That’s where they became inspired to start a film festival of their own.

“We were sitting with the film commissioner from the Big Island and we said to her, ‘We really need something like this,’” Jan recalls.

“The commissioner answered, ‘Well, all it takes is someone to do it.’ Now, you don’t just say something like that to Leo. We’ve organized lots of events before. So we figured we’d start small and see what happens.”

After two years of planning, the duo launched the Big Island Film Festival in 2006; 600 people attended.

Nine years later, the fest’s latest edition is expected to draw up to 2,400 people. Leo is the event’s executive director; Jan is producer. Officially dubbed Big Island Film Festival at the Fairmont Orchid — in recognition of its largest sponsor, the luxurious resort on the Kohala Coast — the event will screen 47 films.

The titles — all of them indies — include a wide assortment of films from several countries, many with roots in Hawaii and other Pacific islands. Fest screenings will greatly enhance their odds with distributors, according to Leo. Earlier BIFF films that got released include “Chasing Shakespeare” (now titled “From Above”), “Get a Job,” “Two Tickets to Paradise,” “Remarkable Power,” “Lunatics, Lovers and Poets,” “Hog Island,” “The Drummond Will,” “Self-Medicated,” “Bachelorman,” “Little Chenier” and “Sixes and the One-Eyed Kings.”

Contrary to popular belief, says Jan, indie titles appeal to the new generation. “Teens that come say to us, ‘Why can’t we get movies like these in the theater? The stories are so meaningful to me.’”

BIFF is unique among fests in several respects. Many of the movies can be seen for free or at minimal cost. The nighttime double feature screenings allow patrons to watch films under the stars while sitting in beach chairs and enjoying snacks and drinks. The fest’s relaxed, informal atmosphere encourages easy mingling among festgoers, filmmakers and celebs.

And the BIFF’s affiliation with the Fairmont Orchid means everyone can sample some of Hawaii’s best food and wine.
Past Big Island fest honorees include execs (Jennifer Grisanti), screenwriters (Ron Osborn), directors (David L. Cunningham, David Winning) and actors (John Saxon, Kristina Anapau, D.B. Sweeney, Sarah Wayne Callies, Tom Berenger, Vincent Kartheiser, Eloise Mumford, Kate McKinnon and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).

Osborn and Grisanti return this year as seminar leaders. The two actors being honored are Portia Doubleday (“Carrie,” “Her”) and Jackson Rathbone (“Twilight” films, “Criminal Minds”).

BIFF attendees will also learn about the Big Island as a shooting location. It boasts stark lava fields, rolling cattle pastures and, of course, beaches — not to mention a 25% tax credit incentive for filmmakers. Plus, a 10,000 sq.-ft. production center is slated for construction.

BIFF offers many opportunities for discovery, says Leo. He compares it to beachcombing. “Not only is it a pleasant, relaxing experience, but you never know what little treasure you’ll find.”