The Indie Memphis Film Festival will begin its second decade when the 11th edition of the festival launches in October. But Indie Memphis seems to be entering adulthood this spring, becoming a fully independent entity and hiring its first full-time executive director in the person of 37-year-old film-fest veteran Erik Jambor.
For most of its first decade, Indie Memphis has been run by self-employed accountant Les Edwards and his wife Emily Trenholm under the umbrella of local arts organization Delta Axis. But late last year, after securing a then-anonymous commitment from local venture capitalist Bob Compton to fund a full-time executive director's position, Edwards set out to push the organization to a new level. After nearly a decade of helming Indie Memphis, Edwards decided that the festival couldn't continue to grow without a different management structure.
"If [Indie Memphis] is going to go to the next level, it's going to have to be with someone who can work on it year-round," Edwards said earlier this year. "It's going to take someone who makes their living working in this industry." Edwards is now chair of the Indie Memphis board.
Enter Jambor, who first met Edwards at the International Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas in December. A Birmingham native who went to film school at Florida State University, Jambor returned to his hometown to co-found the city's Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, which he ran for the fest's first eight years, from 1999 to 2006.
A film editor by training and "lapsed filmmaker" now ("I'm one of those kids who used to make Super-8 movies in the backyard, adventure movies, or stop-motion animated movies with Star Wars figures"), Jambor was introduced to the world of film festivals when his 1996 short film Gamalost (which he wrote, directed, and edited) premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival.
"I kept talking to friends about all these great films I saw at festivals out in the world," Jambor says, "and finally they'd say, well, stop talking about them, because we're never going to see them here. So we started brainstorming about starting our own festival."
Jambor built Sidewalk from the ground up, turning it into one of the most lauded small film festivals in the country. It was cited by Time magazine as one of the dozen or so best festivals "for the rest of us" and by MovieMaker as a "film festival worth the entry fee."
Jambor left Birmingham last year to run the BendFilm festival in Bend, Oregon.
"It seemed like a good place to further some of the ideas I had with Sidewalk, the notion of filmmaker retreats, where filmmakers could connect," Jambor says. "But Bend itself proved to be a little too isolated for the budget we were able to put together. It was an extra flight from Portland or Seattle. It was harder to get people there. And there wasn't much of a filmmaker community in central Oregon, so I couldn't be as connected as I was trying to be."
Enter Memphis. Jambor was eager to return south, and with his sister living in Cordova, Memphis was a good fit.
"[Indie Memphis] was appealing to me because of the film community that's actually here," Jambor says. "In Birmingham, there wasn't a homegrown film scene until we started the festival, whereas Memphis has a richer tradition that resonates [outside the city]. There are great things we can do that build on the first decade of the festival."
Jambor started the job in March but kept a low profile early on, learning the city and setting up shop at Indie Memphis' new offices, which overlook the trolley tracks at the corner of Main and Peabody Place downtown.
Because the Sidewalk and BendFilm festivals are also in the fall, Jambor had never been to the Indie Memphis Festival before taking the job.
"It's still pretty early right now," Jambor says of his plans for Indie Memphis. "We're doing some brainstorming to figure out what things to include and for me to get an understanding of what's happened in the past. Going back and looking through the festival programs, I've found that so much that I'd want to do already has been done. They've done a great job with just a volunteer staff."
The communal aspects of the Sidewalk festival, which online film-fest addicts write about romantically, probably provide a clue to Jambor's philosophy.
"We wanted to do something community-based, [something rooted in] what makes a festival festive instead of having a screening-series mentality," Jambor says of Sidewalk. To that end, Jambor and his fellow festival founders thought of Sidewalk as a film version of a popular Birmingham music festival. The music festival that provided inspiration was one "where they'd block off downtown streets and set up stages and there was a feeling of exploration and discovery that we thought was cool, where you didn't have to know any of the bands, you'd just walk around and let your ears guide you. A headliner might make you buy a ticket for a day, but when you get down there you find other things you like.
"I see a film festival the same way. We can have ticketing that emphasizes exploration and discovery. I want everyone intermingling and hanging out. We should play up the fact that you can walk over to Boscos after a screening and end up hanging out at the bar with a filmmaker whose work you just saw. So it extends beyond just going and watching a film in a big room. Normal audiences who have never been to a film festival can still feel connected."
As for Indie Memphis, Jambor says he plans to maintain the festival's status as a showcase for local filmmaking and maintain its regional "Soul of Southern Film" peg, but he also wants to expand more into other areas.
"I think that's what you'll see us moving to in the second decade," Jambor says. "With the Soul of Southern Film awards and Hometowner awards in place, there's plenty of room to bring in more great work from other parts of the country."
In terms of programming, Jambor suggests he'll aggressively target and pursue films based on his own film-festival travels and connections.
"You can't rely on the random call for entries, because you don't know from year to year who's going to happen to see your ad and know about your festival and send in a film," Jambor says. "A lot of filmmakers [with films at the big, early festivals like] Sundance and South by Southwest, if they've done well, they're then busy and aren't thinking about festival strategy for the fall. So you have to be out front thinking about what films you want to invite in."
Jambor also will work on more non-festival programming, seeking to increase Indie Memphis' year-round presence. In addition to its monthly microcinema series, the organization has also sponsored two events this year, a screening of Compton's celebrated education documentary Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination and an invite-only screening of Ira Sachs' Married Life, both with the filmmakers in attendance.
Jambor will continue this strategy of bringing filmmakers and audiences together with a screening of the hour-long political documentary Considering Democracy: 8 Things To Ask Your Representative at Studio on the Square at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 19th. Filmmaker Keya Lea Horiuchi will attend and lead a post-screening discussion.