Music City may soon be known as Movie City if the board of the Nashville Film Festival has its way.
While country music remains Nashville’s signature brand, the fest is determined to transform celluloid perceptions in order to compete with similarly evolving fests like Tribeca, Woodstock and SXSW.
“We want to become one of the big players,” says executive director Ted Crockett. “We want to become known as a place where deals are made.”
It’s an ambitious mission statement, given the ability of market/fest heavy-hitters like Cannes, Sundance and Toronto to command first dibs on world premieres, and act as that one-stop shop for film buyers and cineastes alike.
The largely indie lineup for Nashville fest (April 16-25), on the other hand, is dominated by Tennessee or Southeast U.S. bows and comprises 286 films, including 181 shorts and 32 documentaries.
Not surprisingly, the biggest programming coups involve world bows in the Music City Feature Competition, including “Country: Portraits of an American Sound,” which highlights the photography of Henry Diltz and Raeanne Rubenstein, and performers like Rosanne Cash, Merle Haggard and local hero Keith Urban; “How Sweet the Sound: The Blind Boys of Alabama”; and “Revival: the Sam Bush Story,” about the Father of New Grass.
Also notable in the Music City sidebar is “Austin to Boston,” about Mumford & Sons’ Ben Lovett’s back-to-basics tour; and “Sweet Micky for President,” which follows the Fugees’ Pras Michel to Haiti to mobilize a presidential campaign.
Continuing their festival rounds at Nashville are Brian Robertson’s Slamdance entry “Diamond Tongues”; Gabrielle Demeestere’s “Yosemite” (also Slamdance); existential Western “Slow West,” (pictured) which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; and David Gordon Green’s “Manglehorn,” which premiered at Venice.
Bookending the fest will be Ross Katz’s “Adult Beginners” with Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne and Joel McHale, the opener; while Shira Piven’s “Welcome to Me” starring Kristen Wiig opposite James Marsden, will act as the closer.
Requisite star power will be provided by Juno Temple, Elijah Wood, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss among others.
Nashville has been known by its current moniker only since 2003, although it dates back to 1969, when the fest was founded by Mary Jane Coleman as the Sinking Creek Film Celebration. Crockett says entries have exploded in the past five years from the hundreds to more than 5,000 hopefuls from 145 different countries. Sponsorship has tripled, and attendance has increased dramatically over the past decade from an average of 10,000 to this year’s expected 40,000.
Among its distinctions, NFF is among only 17 fests worldwide that afford automatic Academy Award-qualifying status for winners of its shorts competitions.
Amid standout interactive panels, NFF is capitalizing on EA Games’ recent music division move to Nashville with a presentation by industry vet Steve Schnur on music placement in video games.
“We thought it would be a great way to welcome them and connect our music community to the video game industry,” says fest artistic director Brian Owens.
As NFF gains traction, it is also seeking international reciprocity. “This year, we’re bringing in about 15 filmmakers, investors and entertainment professionals from Beijing,” says Crockett, acknowledging the massive revenue U.S. films are reaping in China. “I see this as something that’s going to turn into a really big exchange between their film community and ours.”