Celebrating its 25th anniversary this time around, from August 5-10, the Rhode Island International Film Festival started out in 1983 as Flickers, a Newport film club. Founded by George T. Marshall, the nonprofit was designed as a cheap way to get a hold of foreign films that he and other film buffs were dying to see.
“We really didn’t have access to art films here in the states — this is pre-cable, pre-VHS,” recalls Marshall, the executive director of the festival. “It does seem like ancient history, doesn’t it?”
The film festival itself got going in 1998, turbocharged by screening the world premiere of There’s Something About Mary, the breakout hit by the Farrelly brothers. “That brought us a lot of attention,” Marshall says. “It put us on the map, and for years we were getting people sending us comedies because they thought we were going to hand them over to Bobby and Peter.”
By 2002, RIIFF (film-festival.org) had developed a strong enough international reputation that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put it on their list of qualifying festivals for short films. That meant that every winner in a short film category, whether narrative, documentary, or animation, would automatically be considered for Oscar nomination, skipping over the normal requirements, such as a minimum two-week screening.
“So the festival, because of the Academy accreditation, has a very high profile,” Marshall says. “People have a good experience. Our claim to fame is that we are known as a filmmaker-friendly festival.”
In 2004, Chris Gore in his indie-oriented The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide declared RIIFF to be one of the top-10 short film festivals in the country, writing that it “provides the kind of intimate festival experience that will change your life.”
“Who would have thought that this festival in Rhode Island would have a reputation on this level?” asks Marshall. “I certainly wouldn’t. All I can tell you is that our filmmakers that have been here — and we have a large alumni base after 25 years — our filmmakers are our biggest advocates. You can’t pay for that marketing.”
Marshall and other organizers of the festival are into their third five-year plan for developing the programming. He sees the organization as not only getting bigger, but also becoming more substantial.
“I think the future of the festival will include more community outreach — expansion of our education program,” he concludes. “We already have a year-round presence, and what we’re doing now is breaking out new programming. We have a Chinese Festival in September with Brown University. We’ve got a Horror Festival which is about 10 years old in October. We’ve got a Documentary Festival coming, and are at work pushing our new Sci-Fi Festival, which gets introduced big time during this main festival.”
Not bad for a bunch of film fans who just wanted to see Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.