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“Festivals Should Reflect Their Community”: Eric Allen Hatch on New/Next Film Festival’s Inaugural Edition

A woman sits in a chair wrapped in a blue bath towel with a matching one wrapped around her head.Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs

In November 2022, the Maryland Film Festival announced it would stop public-facing operations the following year, including the following year’s edition of the festival and new and repertory screenings at Baltimore’s Parkway Theater, in order to “prioritize a planning process to develop a new business model and plan that will chart the future trajectory of the organization.” Barely six months later, the New/Next Film Festival was announced, running from August 18 to 20 in the festival’s previous home, The Charles Theater, just a few blocks south of the Parkway. 

Leading the charge, or at the very least facilitating it, is Eric Allen Hatch, a programmer at MdFF during its heyday from the mid-2000s to the early 2010s, before his contentious departure in 2018. I met up with Hatch early this July on a sweltering mid-Atlantic afternoon at Beyond Video. When he opened the front door the vestibule was covered with DVD returns from the mailslot, a chaotic sight that can only be described as comforting to a movie lover—the rental business is still alive and well. Not unlike New/Next, Hatch co-founded Beyond Video to fill a void—in this case Video Americain, the local rental chain that had been an anchor for the film community for decades, and, in a sense, where Hatch got his start as a programmer: “I was at Video Americain for six years and everybody in Baltimore came to that store—you had to know everybody’s taste and find things that worked for them, even if it wasn’t your taste.” 

While working his first stint as a video store clerk, Hatch was also writing for the free alternative weekly, City Paper, another erstwhile institution of Baltimore culture, doing album reviews before joining their rotation of film critics. With his profile growing, he started putting together screenings series big and small—free repertory 35mm showings, mostly of 1960s and ’70s international film, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, as well as smaller screenings at the tiny DIY venue hiding on the side of the Red Room, a used book and record shop of which he was also a co-founder.

In 2007 a programming position opened up at MdFF, and “one of the first films, maybe even literally the first disc I popped in—because back then you had to have a DVD to send [a film] to a film festival—was Hannah Takes the Stairs,” Joe Swanberg’s third feature. Mumblecore was never a movement, aesthetic, or ethos—it was a number of disparate filmmakers across the United States that happened to get noticed by programmers as doing similar things at a similar time, who in their ragtag DIY excitement started holding cameras and acting for each other. Hannah Takes the Stairs was the crystallization of this, starring the likes of mumblecore directors Andrew Bujalski, Ry Russo-Young, Mark Duplass, Todd Rohal and Kris Rey and, in one of her first parts, Greta Gerwig. Then, towards the end of programming that year’s edition, Hatch’s friend and former Video Americain coworker, Sean Price Williams, reached out to him to take a look at the first feature he shot. “I was prepared to hate it, but that feature was Frownland—and, I mean, you do hate some things about Frownland because it is an intentionally abrasive film.” The debut (and so far only) directorial effort by Ronald Bronstein—known today as the “third” Safdie Brother, regularly co-writing with Josh and co-editing with Benny—was perfect for the kind of festival Hatch was seeking to curate. He described it as “mutually beneficial”: despite being “new to the festival world,” he was finding exciting work in “a pool of young filmmakers doing their own thing” who just needed a platform. 

MdFF became something like SXSW for the eastern seaboard, where smaller fish could make a bigger mark, but as the festival grew so did its problems. In late 2012, MdFF partnered with the Maryland Institute College of Art and Johns Hopkins University and announced they would start work on a massive renovation project of the historic Parkway Theater, which hadn’t hosted a film screening since the 1970s. Situated on the intersection of North Avenue and Charles Street, the major east-west corridor and north-facing spine of the city, respectively, it seemed on paper to be the perfect location, yet one big red flag went up with MdFF’s host, because the Parkway was less than three blocks north of The Charles Theater: “Perhaps if a microcinema had been built from scratch in another neighborhood, The Charles and MdFF would be coexisting happily right now. But as the Parkway project evolved into a major restoration and expansion project blocks away, eventually The Charles pulled out of MdFF involvement.” This led to a number of rootless years in the mid 2010s, as “the festival as an annual event went from having a five-screen DCP- and 35mm-equipped anchor venue at our disposal to having to outfit museum and university classrooms and black-box theaters around the city.” 

The Parkway “project had a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Hopkins was also wanting those rooms to be classrooms of a certain size. There were voices in financial interests and board who really jumped in strong with opinions that were not informed opinions, but people will listen to a wealthy board member more than an intelligent but broke film curator nine times out of ten in those situations. [And the] project drastically shifted the climate and workload at MdFF. Suddenly, long-absent or aloof board members and accountants whose qualifications seemed to be having money and a calculator were showing up and telling arts curators how to do their jobs,” ramping up burnout as well as throwing into question who the festival and restored theater actually were for. “One of the other things I think the Parkway got wrong was the design of the lobby and bar feeling like a fancy museum setting rather than a DIY, Station North setting. And the idea that there should be armed security guards at all times there also was poor signaling to the neighborhood. If you ask the opinion of a senior citizen who lives in the suburbs of what the Parkway should look like and who it should be for, they’re gonna imagine their friends. It’s natural—I’m only faulting them to a certain extent. They’re gonna want a security guard, they’re gonna want it to be clean, these sorts of things. An organization like that needs to be able to step outside itself and say, ‘Instead of trying to convince your friend to drive from the wealthy suburbs, what can we do to make this theater for the people who are already here?’” 

Station North has been an active target for gentrification since its designation as an “arts district” back in 2002. Conflicting interests between the neighborhood residents’ and artists’ communities and the city’s moneyed vision has led to a business district prone to upheaval, where DIY spaces and fancy-looking restaurants targeted at DC commuters and wealthy county-ites open and close like clockwork. It is easy to get cynical, especially amidst the shuttering of institutions like City Paper, Video Americain and now, possibly forever, the Maryland Film Festival. Yet Hatch points to how these scenes are “ever-shifting,” saying “there hasn’t been a moment where I’m so worried about Baltimore’s film scene in the last 15 years or so, because I feel like there’s always new energy coming up. There’s things like the New Works series [presented by underground filmmaker Jimmy Joe Roche] where they always have new names presenting stuff. It seems like Baltimore is always going to be regenerative about its film community. I’m hopeful about that.” 

When he left Maryland in 2018, Hatch wrote a piece, “Why I Am Hopeful”, arguing that films like “Moonlight, Get Out, and I Am Not Your Negro were not ‘surprise hits,’ they were the triumphant first blast of what the next 25 years of moviegoing will look like. As the successes of these and other films cohere in the marketplace, tone-deaf gatekeepers’ stale assumptions of what art house films and audiences look like will no longer fly—not artistically, and not financially. The reactionary people who, over the past two decades, have tripped up visionary cinema’s path to the big screen with their own lack of vision are on their way out.” Five years later Keisha N. Knight, another former MdFF programmer, argued that the financialization of the A-list indie festival circuit world was only getting worse through what she called the “independent film industrial complex”: “independent voices used to be able to thrive in more ragtag and aesthetically diverse ways, is now mostly a self-reflexive bourgeois echo chamber of sanctimonious gatekeepers serving corporate interests and neoliberal logics.” 

New/Next Film Festival, Hatch hopes, can fit outside this system as much as possible: “Festivals should reflect their community, they should speak to their community, but they should also give their community access to things they would never otherwise experience, and that’s always been the most exciting thing to me about programming a festival. As arthouses become more and more commodified, as festivals become more and more self-reifying, the real work in festivals is gonna be those that highlight those that aren’t otherwise gonna get a theatrical run.” Hatch has pulled out all the stops to get as strong a curatorial roster as possible up in a short amount of time, including letting anyone who lives in Baltimore send him work for consideration for free. 

So far the announced lineup includes a strong local showing from Marylanders new and old, with features and shorts from the likes of Albert Birney, Diana Peralta and Josh Polon, many of which might not have another chance to play in town after the festival. Lotfy Nathan, best known for his Baltimore-based documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, will have his first narrative feature Harka play at New/Next—a film which, after premiering at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, still has not acquired U.S. distribution. There are also Al Warren’s Dogleg and Tynan DeLong’s Dad & Step-Dad, which are making the rounds on DIY theatrical self-distribution tours; Hatch hopes they can get a boost by playing at New/Next. Even films that have already secured their distributors might not make it to a mid-sized city like Baltimore outside of a festival, and Hatch is quick to point out that there are only five screens playing arthouse films in a city of 500,000-odd people: “That’s where film festivals come in, serving as an ersatz theatrical run for these films in cities like ours so they have a chance to connect with audiences and don’t fall through the cracks.” 

Picking up where moneyed interests have failed, and with the SAG-AFTRA strike looming over the head of most festivals that rely on big-ticket red carpet events for financial solvency, New/Next’s scrappy atmosphere and strong curation feels poised to make waves that might not be clear for another decade, much like MdFF did in 2007. Our conversation wandered back to that first Maryland he programmed, and I couldn’t help bringing up an old video on Kent Osborne’s YouTube of him and the other cast members of Hannah Takes the Stairs journey through the festival that year. A proto-vlog from the more primordial days of the platform, it offers a strange bit of nostalgia towards the days when the lines between DIY and playing around on the internet were wholly blurred altogether if nonexistent, yet also is a reminder of where these filmmakers came from and what they’ve accomplished since.

Hatch joked that Gerwig’s “not answering emails in 2023.” More seriously, if he was to book her at an event, it wouldn’t be like the last time that he saw her, “sitting outside Charles Theater 2 waiting to do a Q&A to a half-full room.” It would be a big-ticket event, thrown so board members have someone to namedrop at cocktail parties. The work of finding those next great talents is part of what makes festivals like MdFF was 10 or 15 years ago, or what Hatch is hoping for with New/Next this August, so thrilling. He likened it to going to local music: “To me, it’s so boring to only go to $100 stadium shows or whatever. Go see a local band for $6 and it’ll probably be more exciting. There’ll be three acts on the bill and at least one of them will be killer. I wish filmgoing was more that way too. No, I can’t show you the new Greta Gerwig movie in 2023—you’re gonna go to the multiplex for that—but I probably will show you the next Greta Gerwig. We just don’t know who that is yet.”

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