Ryan Watt, Executive Director of Indie Memphis
Tonight at Indie Memphis, Coming to Africa
, the feature film by Anwar Jamison, which was rained out last Friday night, will screen at the Malco Summer Drive-In, along with the Hometowner Music Video Showcase, rain or shine. You can read about Jamison's bi-continental production in my Indie Memphis cover story
Last month, Ryan Watt, Indie Memphis' executive director, announced he was leaving his post at the end of the year, setting off a national search for his replacement. Watt has presided over a major expansion of Indie Memphis from a cozy, fall festival into a national example for regional film organizations. While preparing my cover story about Indie Memphis 2020, I spoke at length with Watt, but I didn't have room in that story to fit everything in. What follows is a Q&A with him taken from that interview, in which we spoke about the past, present, and future of the arts organization. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What can you say about your time at Indie Memphis?
I've loved working for a nonprofit. It's not something I ever expected I would do. It just kind of happened. I joined the board of Indie Memphis in 2014, and then in 2015, we were looking for a new exec director, and I was asked to become the interim. I just kind of fell in love with the job during that time period. And so, over the last six years, I’ve just tried to keep building the organization one step at a time and grow new programs. Now, after six years, I feel like we're in a really good place, and I think it's time to find the next leader to take us forward.
What have you learned during the last five years?
I’ve learned there’s a huge amount of amazing creativity in Memphis and throughout the country. Our submissions and the work just keeps growing in number and quality every year. From my perspective, it's no question that the Memphis film community, over the last six years that I've been watching every hometowner film, the quality just continues to get better. I feel really good about the work we've put in through our artist development programs, Indie Grants, and the youth program. Now a lot of these students are in college, and pretty soon some of the students who started in the youth program will be out of college. And so it'd be exciting to see what they create.
Why do you think artist development is an important part of Indie Memphis’ mission?
Perhaps in like a New York or Chicago or somewhere else, a film festival might be able to say that there's plenty of other resources for filmmakers. In Memphis and other cities our size, I think there's very few resources. That's why we felt it was important to be proactive about finding support for filmmakers. We just keep growing it every year, but then you always feel like we wish we could do more. We always wish we could do more, or we wish we had more cash to give out as grants, and we had larger programs.
Especially when everyone's been stuck in their homes, I think it's clear that the arts are super important to our lives and well-being, and the enjoyment of our city and surroundings, and as communal experiences. But beyond that, if you want to look at it just from sort of an economic development perspective, you learn all these skills through filmmaking. It's the most collaborative art there is. It involves a lot of teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills and meeting deadlines, and all of these things that translate into so many other jobs, whether you're going into communications, to work for FedEx, or you're working in media or all sorts of things.
One of the big accomplishments of your tenure has been a major push to diversify the festival, in terms of audience, filmmakers, and staff. How, and why, did you go about spearheading that? What have you learned from that experience?
I learned a lot. I can remember a few specific moments. I think it was the very first year when we did the narrative shorts screening, and I think there was only one Black filmmaker. A Black attendee raised his hand during the Q&A and asked, “Why is this mostly white filmmakers?” And my answer, which was technically true, was that these are the films that were submitted, you know? We were just picking the best of the films that were submitted. But what I learned over the years that I did not realize at all going into the job was that, even though I think Indie Memphis is very much like many other film festivals across the country that might try to put a spotlight on Black stories, Black communities, and Black artists, the audience and filmmakers in the city still saw essentially a white organization. There were filmmakers who didn't even bother to submit because they didn't think Indie Memphis was for them.
So that led to the hiring of Brandon Harris. who had a really strong programming vision to bring to the festival. That was how we wound up with The Invaders
premiere and some other films my second year. But I continued to learn a lot, I'd say, over the years by having very blunt, frank conversations with Black artists in Memphis. There was one conversation in particular with The Collective when we reached out to partner with them. They really challenged me. They've spoken about this many times, that they had felt with some other white-led organizations that, especially during Black History Month and when MLK50 was going on, that they're being asked to come in to fulfill this sudden need to make sure organizations are highlighting Black artists. Then they’re not feeling the partnership feels with these organizations at other times of the year.
And so, when I reached out to them, they thought of us in that same bucket. My immediate reaction was to be defensive. But I learned just so much from, I'll just mention again, Victoria Jones and The Collective, and other people about what experiences they've had that they bring with them.
So, having said all of that, I think the biggest thing I've learned is just to put your defenses down and be willing to just sit back and listen and understand the needs of Black artists and the Black community. And then, bringing on Miriam Bale as artistic director and watching the Black Creators Forum get off the ground, I tried to just step away and allow other people to lead those initiatives. It’s been something I'm really glad we were able to put in place, and I think it has huge potential to keep growing in the future.
You’ve been in the unenviable position of trying to put together a film festival during a pandemic. How did that go?
We were lucky we were a fall festival. For the spring festivals like Oxford, I mean, the train had already left the station! The whole event was planned, and then they can't do it. They had to, within weeks, throw together a virtual festival with no time to plan it. So we're very lucky that was not the case. We had sort of the opposite, where we had all year to think about ideas. You can get to the point where there's so many ideas that it's hard to make the final decisions and narrow down what the event should be. Eventually, we keep saying online and outdoors. It's just kind of the right balance of just enough stuff for Memphians to do, to get out of the house, to be outdoors in the hopefully nice October weather. Then also being online for anyone who understandably wants to stay at home. Also, there’s a huge opportunity now for people all over the country and all over the world to log in and be part of the festival.
Do you think these online innovations will last after the pandemic is over and we can have in-person festivals again?
I think there's a great way those things can work together. It doesn't have to be all one or the other. Clearly, the whole industry is going to shift a few steps in this direction, because now everyone's had to put this whole format together. So I don't think it all just gets thrown away and disappears overnight. Some of these virtual elements are going to remain even when the more traditional, in-person structure of the festival comes back.
What do you see as the future for Indie Memphis?
The important part is finding a new leader who also has a vision for what the future is, and that doesn't need to be my vision. I feel like my vision has been for getting us to this point. And so now, I think finding the right leader who sees the path forward is what needs to happen.
What comes next for you?
In the near future, I'll be announcing a business venture I'm going to be getting into. As I had mentioned in my announcement, I'm just returning to my entrepreneurial roots.