In its infancy, the Miami International Film Festival was a scrappy upstart, screening a carefully cultivated selection of 20 to 25 films at one venue, the historic Gusman Center for the Performing Arts.
But the festival turns 30 years old this year, and it’s a full-size grownup now. When organizers from Miami Dade College fire up the projector Friday night at Gusman’s Olympia Theater, they’ll be rolling out one of the largest lineups in festival history. By the time the final credits conclude on the night of March 10, 117 feature-length films and 12 shorts from 41 countries will have been shown at various venues around Miami-Dade.
The growth has come at a cost. The festival’s original co-founder and director, Nat Chediak, patterned his event after the New York Film Festival, which screened a similarly small number of films, opting for quality over quantity. The size of the program made the festival manageable — one could conceivably see every movie — making it a shared experience at which viewers could debating the single picutre they’d seen in the lobby afterward.
But in the late 1990s, the trend for regional festivals was to expand and get bigger, figuring the more options you gave the public, the bigger turnout you would receive. Just as other cultural jewels like the Miami Book Fair International, Art Basel and its satellite events, the Winter Music Conference/Ultra Music Festival and the South Beach Wine and Food Festival started focused and compact but swelled to enormous proportions, the film festival has followed suit and spilled out of Gusman and all over town.
It took awhile for festival organizers to make it all work. Florida International University, which held the festival reins when it first expanded, ran the event with a budget decifit for several years before handing it over to Miami Dade College. There, too, the event proved hard to tame: The college burned through three festival directors before hiring executive director Jaie Laplante, who in three years on the job has restored freshness and excitement to the fest.Although the festival doesn’t have the international reputation of world-class events such as Cannes or Toronto, its profile continues to grow among regional festivals, drawing the attention of aspiring filmmakers as well as established ones.
The work that goes into assembling the sprawling event is formidable, especially considering the festival only has four full-time employees (the remaining staff is seasonal).
Andres Castillo, a festival programmer and assistant director of content and creative development, says the festival received a record 500-plus submissions this year. They were filtered by committee into a manageable array for Castillo and Laplante to sift through.
To round out the lineup, Castillo, Laplante and other programmers traveled to the major festivals in Cannes, Toronto and Sundance.
“I watched 600 movies in preparation for this year’s festival,” Castillo said. “I know the exact number because I wrote them all down so I could count afterwards.”
The festival’s original identity as a showcase for Ibero-American cinema holds strong, Castillo says, but the staff works hard to make sure that emphasis does not exclude films from all parts of the world.
“We have movies like Ping Pong, the story of eight players from five different countries who are competing in the ages-80-and-up category in the Table Tennis Championship in China, or Reality, a satire on reality TV and modern-day celebrity directed by Matteo Garrone, who previously made Gomorrah,” Castillo said.