The ‘Moonlight Effect’: Local film festivals celebrate Miami talent

Cast and crew of 'Moonlight' accept the Best Picture award onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. Kevin Winter Getty Images
Cast and crew of 'Moonlight' accept the Best Picture award onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. Kevin Winter Getty Images

Just call it the “Moonlight Effect.” Established Miami film festivals are carving out a space to fund and promote locally-made movies. This, of course, after “Moonlight” surprised the world and won Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards.

At the Miami Film Festival, “Moonlight” has inspired the new $10,000 Knight Made in MIA Award, which will reward a filmmaker for South Florida content and opened to applicants June 1.  Executive Director Jaie Laplante called the international success of “Moonlight” unexpected, but said he and his team welcomed the new attention to Miami’s creatives.

“We at the Miami Film Festival asked ourselves ‘How can we extend this magic, this watershed moment that ‘Moonlight’ and its subsequent awards inspired?'” Laplante said. “We can’t give an Academy Award, but we thought we could create this new permanent award to reward local stories.”

Some critics have accused the Miami Film Festival of neglecting the efforts of the local film community. But Laplante, who became director in 2010, said those complaints come from people who are “not looking deeply” at the festival’s 35-year history. As much as 25 percent of the Miami Film Festival’s program has featured local artists or works based in Miami, he said.

But Laplante was not shy about giving credit to “Moonlight,” a film that explores black masculinity and sexuality in the context of one of Miami’s roughest neighborhoods. The scope of the Miami Film Festival spans far beyond Liberty City, the childhood home of “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins and Tarell McCraney, whose autobiographical play was adapted into the award-winning film. The Miami Film Festival has been lauded as a platform for filmmakers from Spain and much of Latin America.

“It’s quite obvious and we readily admit that ‘Moonlight’ is the new direction and inspiration of this award,” Laplante said.

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Festival director Jaie Laplante, posed with movie star actress Rossy De Palma (left) and director Jessica Mitrani as they arrived at the red carpet for the presentation of the Traveling Lady, a short film by Colombian-born director Jessica Mitrani at the 34th Miami International Film Festival at the Olympia Theater in Miami, on Saturday March 04, 2017. PEDRO PORTAL

Victoria Rogers, the vice president of arts at the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, which is a major partner of the Miami Film Festival, said “Moonlight” is emblematic of the kind of art the foundation seeks to fund.  Since 2012, the Knight Foundation has poured about $6 million into the American independent film industry, mostly in its program communities. Nurturing production of “Moonlight”-caliber movies through the new Knight Made in MIA Award was a no-brainer.

“We believe in this film community and we want to help it grow, for more voices to enter into it, and for all sides of Miami and South Florida to be shown,” she said.

That a local film with a $1.5 million budget has influenced an international film festival to refocus its programming to Miami’s film community is a testament to the “Moonlight Effect,” which ushered a swell of pride in Miami and its filmmakers’ creativity and placed a spotlight on Liberty City. 

The “Moonlight Effect” can also be felt in local nascent festivals. 

Igor Shteyrenberg, the co-founder of Miami’s Popcorn Frights Film Festival, said local films have been a focal point of the horror-movie fest since its inception three years ago. But for this year’s program, which begins Aug. 11, they are introducing a new Miami series called “Homegrown: 100% Pure Fresh Squeezed Florida Horror.” Shteyrenberg said there is a new appetite to see what local filmmakers can create.

“‘Moonlight’ has fueled a new interest and excitement for Miami voices,” he said. “The new role that we see for Popcorn Frights is to give voice and give a place of needing to the brilliant local filmmakers who are out there and want to tell genre-specific stories.”


But the ties to “Moonlight” don’t end there. For Homegrown, the Popcorn Frights Film Festival is teaming up with the Borscht Film Festival, a celebration of Miami movies made by Miamians, to present two titles created by Borscht alums. Andrew Hevia and Lucas Leyva, co-founders of the Borscht Film Festival, introduced Jenkins and McCraney with the dream that the two Miami-raised men would collaborate.

Shteyrenberg said it was “only a matter of time” before the Borscht-Popcorn Frights partnership – possibly another example of the power of “Moonlight.”

Rogers said she expects the “Moonlight Effect” will continue, but she can’t place her finger on just how great it will be.

“I think [with] the gift of ‘Moonlight,’ the total impact of it has yet to be felt,” she said.

Popcorn Frights Film Festival

When: Aug. 11 – 17, 2017

Where: O Cinema Wynwood 90 NW 29th St, Miami, FL 33127

When: Check

90 NW 29th St, Miami, FL 33127

Miami Film Festival

When: March 9 – 18, 2018

Where: Various locations

Submissions for the 35th Annual Miami Film Festival opened May 15, then June 1 for the Knight Made in MIA Award. For more info: