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Throw a dart at a map of the U.S. and it’s fairly certain you’ll land on a city that hosts a film festival. And if less-established festivals can’t take credit for introducing critically acclaimed works into the marketplace a la Telluride, Sundance and SXSW, many of them can be credited for being well-attended, attracting top-shelf talent and being a regional platform for smaller films that might not otherwise see the light of day. One such event is the Nashville Film Festival, originally established in 1969 and running April 14-23 this year.

The city has always been known as the world capital of country music — a genre with a more conspicuous presence than ever in the pop charts, not to mention Grammy’s top categories. But its role as a cultural hub has extended beyond country to pop, the fine arts and cuisine. Celebs such as Nicole Kidman, Hayden Panettiere, Jack White and Justin Timberlake have purchased properties there in recent years and the major talent agencies have established outposts in Music City.

“(Nashville) was already growing thanks to being a creative center,” says Brian Owens, fest artistic director. “This city has been soaring, and the festival has soared right along with it.” Owens admits most of its audience is regional, but he adds the event is becoming “more of a destination festival.”

And while locals will get to see offerings that originally appeared at Sundance like Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation “Love & Friendship,” and “Sing Street” from Irish director John Carney (“Once”), the 10-day showcase, which doles out a total of $56,000 in prizes, touts its own history of discovery.

This New Zealand helmer Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” will be shown as a Special Presentations Feature.

It gave Craig Brewer his first prize for “The Poor & Hungry.” His next feature would be “Hustle & Flow,” which figured into the 2006 Oscar race. Other alumni include recent indie phenom Sean Baker (“Tangerine”), whose first film “Take Out,” won two fest prizes in 2004, Joe Swanberg (“Hannah Takes the Stairs”), Kris Swanberg (“Empire Builder”) and Joel Potrykus (“Ape”). “Even the Duplass brothers played their short ‘Scrabble’ here long before they produced basically everything,” Owens says.

Nashville fest’s growth in yearly attendance has correlated with the city’s growth, including a big bump in 2015. “We had roughly 42,000 attendees,” Owens says, which was up from 2004 when the event broke 10,000 in attendance for the first time. From 2009, it’s risen from approximately 25,000 to the current numbers. Owens estimates that the event will draw 45,000 for this year’s edition.

“A few things led to this, our growing reputation, the changes in how submissions are handled and the fact we’ve become one of only a handful of festivals that qualify shorts for the Academy Awards in all three short-film categories.”

Nashville fest has gained a reputation for its many music-related films, which include this year’s “American Epic” from Bernard MacMahon, which features T Bone Burnett, Jack White, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Elton John, among others; and Chusy’s work in progress, “Born in Bristol,” about the so-called Bristol Sessions that took place in 1927 when musicians recorded songs that would go on to be known as the “Big Bang” of country music.

“This city has been soaring, and the festival has soared right along with it.”
Brian Owens, NFF artistic director

There’s also an entire competition devoted to music documentaries. “We’ve world-premiered docs like the Oscar-nominated ‘Glen Campbell … I’ll Be Me’ and also docs about the Blind Boys of Alabama, Sam Bush, Rob Thomas, Chris Thile and many others,” Owens says.

This year, for the first time, the fest attracted close to 5,000 submissions, up from 1,700 in 2008 when Owens started. Three years ago the fest added a screenplay competition, which drew more than 1,600 entries this year, while the Nashville Writers Conference will piggyback onto the festival during its closing weekend.

It’s also attracting more and more buyers. “Though we’re not a full-fledged market, we’re working on that,” says Owens. “But, it’s Nashville and we try to make sure everyone has a really good time.”