VFF programmer Wesley Harris stays focused on film integrity

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Wesley Harris has helped shape the Virginia Film Festival into an attractive forum for major studios to test an intelligent audience. Wesley Harris has helped shape the Virginia Film Festival into an attractive forum for major studios to test an intelligent audience.

Program and operations manager Wesley Harris has served on the staff of the Virginia Film Festival since 2005. He started as an intern (for this writer) and was promoted to program coordinator while increasingly taking on more of the programming responsibilities. Along the way he helped refine the creative direction as the festival’s goals shifted in recent years. Festival director, Jody Kielbasa, was appointed UVA’s vice provost for the arts last year, and Harris got his own promotion to official programmer.

“Jody and I obviously work together with input from the board, and from other community members,” Harris said. “A huge part of what I do is going to other festivals, and staying in contact with filmmakers and distributors. It’s a three-fold approach, where we have the call for entries, the stuff the board sends our way, and the things we track down. It’s a dual focus, the big tent pole stuff like Alexander Payne—and then the stuff that is of interest to people here in town—we can show The Birds, and then we can show Boston Bound.”

One of the things that has made the Virginia Film Festival unique is that no prizes or awards are given, and though some films are highlighted, the only competition between the films on the program is for the viewer’s attention in a crowded schedule.

“It’s not a marketplace,” Harris said. “We don’t have people here seeking distribution deals. And we’ve consistently been told, by board members, by filmmakers, and by attendees, that it allows for a less stressful environment. It’s more free and loose, and—to use a bold term—it’s a more pure experience. It’s about the sharing, and the taking in of these films, without a pecuniary concern; the conversations that we craft around them.”

The festival’s success has meant increased recognition among the film industry’s power brokers. “We’re lucky that we’ve established ourselves to such a degree that we’re valuable to distributors like Sony Pictures, Fox Searchlight, Roadside [Attractions], and The Weinstein [Company],” Harris said. “That’s why we were given these premier preview screenings. They recognize that the Charlottesville audience is an intelligent audience, and one that’s going to—in the most organic way possible—do some of their work for them. [The audience members] have opinions, and share them, and they value that opinion to such a degree that we’re now bringing in a greater amount of these new releases.”

During the festival’s first two decades preview screenings were a part of the programming, but rarely the focus. Often it was an opportunity for a filmmaker to give wider exposure to a film that had slipped through the critical cracks or for the distributors to test the audience for insight on how to promote it.

But over the past few years, the Virginia Film Festival has hosted a wide selection of films that have gained critical buzz at larger festivals, films whose Oscar season release dates are highly anticipated by plugged-in audiences. For those eager for an early peek at movies like August: Osage County, Nebraska, or Blue is the Warmest Color, the VFF gives them a leg up compared to other audiences around the country.

“We’re still outside of the festival circuit,” said Harris. “We’re right on the cusp. We’re crossing that line into the circuit to a small degree, but it’s still very appropriate. We get approached by the Weinsteins, whereas in the past it would have been the other way around.”

Although much of the festival’s programming happens months in advance as films are making their international debuts elsewhere, Harris and Kielbasa are occasionally ahead of the curve. For example, in the weeks since they’ve announced the French film Blue is the Warmest Color, it’s become a hot topic in the arts press around the world.

That foresight is also valuable when a local film starts gaining national or international attention. “Our closing night film is Blue Ruin, which is directed by Virginia native Jeremy Saulnier and it was produced here in the state,” Harris said. “The star, Macon Blair, is a really strong lead.”

Harris said the film was brought to his attention by Kathryn Stephens of the Virginia Film Office (who unfortunately passed away several months ago) when it was still in pre-production. “It was granted an award during the director’s fortnight at Cannes, and now it’s been picked up by a boutique branch of The Weinstein Company, so we’re sort of bringing it home-,” he said. “There’s no more organic tie than that—the guys who made it are from here, it was shot here, and then it goes and gets picked up. We’re dedicating that screening to Kathryn.”

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