Festivals Interviews

A Chat with Orcas Island Film Festival’s Jared Lovejoy, Carl Spence, and Donna Laslo

In a just under two weeks, the sleepy village of Eastsound will play host to the sixth annual Orcas Island Film Festival and its truly astonishing lineup of some of the year’s best cinema. In advance of the jam-packed weekend of moviegoing, the festival’s triumvirate were kind enough to answer a few questions about themselves, the increasingly popular event, and the lovely island itself. The interview was conducted by e-mail and was lightly edited.

Josh: Let’s start off with introductions: who are you and what’s your role with the festival? Is the Orcas Island Film Festival your year-round job? What else keeps you busy?

Carl Spence, Jean-Marc Valée, Donna Laslo, and Jared Lovejoy at the 2018 Orcas Island Film Festival red carpet (photo by Orcas Video via Facebook)

Jared Lovejoy (Co-Founder & Co-Producer): We do year-round programming, but it is not my full time job, though I wish it was. 😁 I do production, creative marketing, and business development for various clients. 

Carl Spence (Co-Founder & Chief Curator): I work on the festival year-round in terms of seeing films and talking about it to the film industry, but I’m also involved as a senior programmer for the Miami Film Festival (in March); and work with FilmFreeway as their Festival Representative. I also consult with other festivals on curation and strategy. 

Donna Laslo (Co-Director & Co-Producer): I feel like I work year-round on it, but no it’s not my full time job.  I’m an independent producer and president of our non-profit, Orcas Open Arts.

Josh: A great part of the festival is how laid back it feels (at least to attendees who don’t have to worry about all of the logistics!). Do you get a chance to sit back and enjoy it or is the weekend a whirlwind of activity for all of you?

Donna:  It’s is full-on during the festival, but it all feels manageable.  This is year six and our systems are pretty much in place. I love when the films have all started and there’s a moment where I can just take a breath, watch a film, or observe all the film lovers enjoying what we have created.  

Carl: We are all hands on deck during the festival. However, we do find time to spend quality time with the filmmaking guests at our opening red carpet event, our Saturday party, and Sunday Filmmaking Artist dinner. And we all enjoy hanging out at the Sea View Theatre and Orcas Center whenever there is a brief lull in the excitement.

Josh: Along those lines, OIFF feels very collegial, without a lot of competitions or juried awards. I see that that you’ve added a new award to the mix. What can you tell us about it?

Donna: We do give out an award each year (the Vanguard Award) but it’s not really set up like a competition. We feel it’s important to acknowledge powerful work. 

Carl: This is the second year we will be giving an individual filmmaker our Vanguard Award to honor a creative work that exhibits mastery and excellence with a story that illuminates the power of the human spirit. Last year, we presented the award to the Egyptian film Yommedine, which played in competition at Cannes. This year, we will be presenting the Vanguard Award to Levan Akin for his Georgian film And Then We Danced. It is a Swedish co-production and is being submitted to the Academy Awards as the official selection of Sweden for Best International Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film).

Donna: This year is the first year for an Audience Favorite award. The Vanguard is our pick and we wanted to give our audience the chance to engage and tell us what they liked.

Josh:  I heard that full series passes have sold out [Ed: a handful were added over the weekend — get them while you can!]. Is that an indication that overall attendance will be even higher this year?

Donna: Yes, we are expecting another leap in growth.

Jared: It’s been thrilling to see our growth rate average around 30 percent every year.

Josh: Do you have any indication of whether the mix of locals vs. visitors has shifted over the years?

Donna: Yes, we are able to track through our ticket sales the numbers for off-island guests and it increases every year. We have folks coming from all over the country to experience this festival and they are committing to us every year. I think the word is getting out about the caliber of films shown here, it’s not overcrowded, and Orcas is on the New York Times Top 52 places in the world to visit for 2019. [Edit: the 52 places traveler visited earlier this month.]  It’s an incredible combination.  

We love hosting this festival here and sharing these world class films in our small town environment.  Life on the island is like going back in time, to a simpler time that I think people crave.  

Josh: Can you tell us about what you’ve done to accommodate the bigger crowds? I see that you’ve moved the party, added a third screen, and given some films multiple showings. What prompted you to modify the format?

Jared: We’ve added a third venue this year and have plans to add a couple more in the coming years.

Carl:  Our film fans asked for more screenings and repeats. Along with sell-outs last year, this prompted us to find a solution to add capacity to the festival. 

 Donna:  And, as we grow we needed to move our party to a larger venue.  

Carl: We’ve added a second screen at the Orcas Center, which will allow us to repeat many of the films this year. In the past, we’ve only been able to show films once. Given this increase in capacity, we have been able to sell more passes and expect record attendance for our 6th edition.

Josh: I loved the simplicity of the single showing schedule, but the repeats will definitely help — especially the Cannes prizewinners! Having those on the final night made for a real challenge for “mainland” attendees! Is there a ceiling to how big the festival can get?

Donne: Since we are on a small island, there is only so much lodging available and that is a limiting factor, but that doesn’t worry us. We’ll just keep providing great content and a great experience. 

Jared: Yes, because of our limited lodging we will always be a smaller festival but this allows us to really fine tune our guest’s experience and keep the focus on the quality of the films and the quality of the experience. We’re told the intimacy is one of the key things people like about the festival. It’s easy for guests to meet visiting artists and make new friends because its not as big and hectic as some larger festivals can get. It’s not for everyone but we seem to be building a great loyal base of supporters that love film as much as we do. 

Josh: It definitely is a selling point for me! I love your success, but it’s a very special experience and I selfishly hope it doesn’t ever become too sprawling (or that it’s never too hard to sneak into the Barnacle for a nightcap) . Is the funding primarily ticket sales? Partnerships? Donations?

Carl: Ticket and Pass sales contribute 42% of our revenue with Donors, Sponsors, and Grants providing the remainder of our funding

Josh: What’s involved in gearing up for the festival every year— when do you start?

Donna:  We start in fall/winter right after the festival to debrief and start working on what we can do better for the next year. Then we start our design phase and new campaign for the next year.  In January, we start working on our finances and reach out to our sponsors and donors to secure funding.  

We also have year-round content. Aside from one-off films, we now have a great annual Spring Mini Fest (e.g., a “Nine Films/Nine Countries” with early year releases that show up at Sundance and bigger spring festivals). We also offer a free outdoor Summer Film Series where we screen first-run films in the park and at a beautiful farm with lavender fields.  Our line up this year was Amazing Grace, Apollo 11, and The Biggest Little Farm.

All year round we have our advertising campaigns that take management leading up to the festival. The most intense month is — of course — September, with training volunteers on our systems, ticket management, and venue set-up.

Josh: do you need to bring in equipment or anything to get the venues ready? (I remember something last year about needing to bring in new sound equipment for ROMA. Was that a one-off?)

Carl:  Our biggest expense is bringing in state-of-the-art DCP projection that meets Academy standards for projection. This year, we are bringing in two systems to outfit the two screens at the Orcas Center with the help of McCrae Theatrical. And yes, we did upgrade the Sea View sound system to Dolby 7.1 last year as part of our contribution to the venue and the community (and in order to secure Roma).

Josh: Money well spent! Seeing Roma with proper sound is a revelation. Speaking of programming, what’s the first film you programmed for this year’s fest? The last one to find a spot on the program? Do you find most of them through making the film festival circuit or do distributors submit directly?

Carl: The first film I invited was Leona, directed by Isaac Cherem from Mexico. I saw the film after meeting the director at a filmmakers lab and festival in Careyes, Mexico (about 3 hours south of Puerto Vallarta on the coast. It is a magical remotely-located paradise). The film is his first feature and he is quite talented and I’m excited to see what he does next.

Josh: Are each of you allowed to make one pick of a film not to miss?

Carl: I’m probably the only person that has seen all 39 feature films and three short films, but I’m sure Donna and Jared have films they are excited to see. The great thing about having a festival with only 40 films is that I am in love with all of them. They are so different, but each one of them is exceptional for different reasons. This is the first year we have been able to present a film from Fox Searchlight and I’m excited that we can show Taika Watiti’s audacious new film Jojo Rabbit. He is one of my favorite filmmakers. 

Josh: I’m very excited about that one, too! I was disappointed that it didn’t make the Telluride lineup; so it’s at the top of my list for Orcas.

Donna: I study the films that are coming out at the beginning of the year and then I watch as they drop onto our confirmed list.  This year’s programming is particularly stunning and I’m kinda giddy about the line up and can’t wait to share it.

Jared: It’s always hard to pick just one for me because there are so many great films, I think whatever anyone chooses to see for whatever reason they’ll be pleased. I am always surprised and impressed with what I see in our line up every year and this year is even better. 

Josh: Is the relatively lower profile and smaller audience an asset in terms of getting such high profile films? For instance, I imagine that it would be harder to get these extremely early screenings if the festival was in Seattle.

Carl: The major asset to getting these films is that there are a good number of filmmakers and producers who are connected to the industry that reside here on Orcas Island and the surrounding San Juan Islands Archipelago. It is award season and every eyeball that sees these films can help continue the buzz and conversation leading to the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

It also helps that I’ve been putting together festival line-ups for 25 years. Many of the people I met when I first started out are now running film companies in Los Angeles and New York.

Josh: I know that you have a return appearance from Jean-Marc Valée — what is he up to this time? And what keeps him coming back every year?

Jared: We feel so lucky to have him coming back for a fourth year. Jean-Marc loves the community and energy of the festival. He’s always very approachable and enjoys meeting people who love his work.

Donna: Jean Marc loves the relaxed atmosphere of our festival and the island. He’s such a gifted filmmaker.  From what I’ve heard he’s slated to direct the John Lennon and Yoko Ono Story and apparently he has signed on to direct and executive produce the another HBO limited series “Gorilla and the Bird,” based on the memoir of the same name by Zack McDermott. He has so much to offer. Last year he did a Master Class where he showed the first episode of HBO’s Sharp Objects and then he interfaced with his editing deck in Montreal live on screen and shared his process of editing.  

Jared: His Master Class last year was one of the hits of the festival and we had several people come just for that. 

Carl: We are showing a work-in-progress film executive produced by Jean-Marc Vallée. Having him introduce an early cut of Big Giant Wave with the talented filmmaker Marie-Julie Dallaire in person is sure to be a not-to-miss event.

Josh: Any other special guests or events that you can share? Will Oprah make an appearance at the big dance party?

Carl:  Let us know if you see Oprah. I’ve asked and she won’t be on island during our dates this year, but there is always next year!

Josh: fingers crossed!

Carl: Other guests include Leoni Sandercock, the screenwriter of The Edge of the Knife, Josh Murphy, the director of Artifishal; Dani Melia & Andrew Miano, the producers of the Farewell and a few more yet-to-be-confirmed.

Josh: If visitors take a breather from seeing movies that’s the one place they should go to eat/drink/see/do something else over the weekend?

Carl: My usual go-to is Rose’s for lunch and deli items to take back to the cabin; Brown Bear for espresso and quick bites, delicious chocolate muffins, quiches and croissants, and Croque Monsieur open-faced goodness. The Barnacle is a must for the best Joie de Vivre style and craft cocktails. The Loft,  Hogstone, and Outlook Inn are my faves for dinner. Late night burgers can be found at the Lower Tavern too.

Donna: Carl’s suggestions are great and I also highly recommend Wild Island for any meal, smoothies, juices and Phở. There’s really so much to do here: from hiking, kayaking, boating, to great eats and now we even have an Escape Room experience.

Jared: What they said 😁

Josh: Those are definitely more than a weekend’s worth of diversions! Some of those are among my favorites from past visits; so I’m looking forward to finding time to try out a few new suggestions this time. To those, I’d only add that — with apologies to the morning programming — I’ll probably sneak off to the White Horse or the Lower to catch the Seahawks game on Sunday morning.

Donna:  Thank you for doing this for us!  I can’t wait for our little island to be buzzing with excited film lovers, it’s going to be great!

Josh: As one of those very excited film lovers, thanks for the work you all do to make the festival happen and for taking the time out of your very busy schedules to chat!