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Letter to the Editor: A Response from the Richmond International Film Festival

“Kentucker Audley, the Richmond International Film Festival and A Checklist for Avoiding Bad Publicity,” by Lauren Wissot, an article based around contributing editor Wissot’s trip to the Richmond International Film Festival, drew the following response from Heather Waters, the festival’s founder and producer. Aside from editing out email signatures and footers, we are reprinting it in full.

Dear Scott,

When Lauren Wissot contacted us about covering the Richmond International Film Festival (RIFF) for your magazine, we were excited about the national press (“Kentucker Audley, the Richmond International Film Festival and A Checklist for Avoiding Bad Publicity,” published May 7). However, what followed was in stark contrast to her solicitation to cover the festival and the request that we cover her expenses.

While I appreciate Ms. Wissot pointing out that we were gracious hosts, the article not only takes a malicious tone, but is a miscarriage of the truth. I am writing to request that you consider the information below and publish a response.

Here are the facts from our experience: (1) Contrary to her statement in the article, Ms. Wissot invited herself. [From her email]: “I’m a NYC film critic and contributing editor at Filmmaker magazine who covers about a festival a month for the publication. A programmer friend suggested I look into your fest, thought it might be of interest since I like to highlight under the radar, regional events when I can. That said, do you offer any travel and hotel accommodations to press? It would be quite fun for me to cover RIFF for Filmmaker, budget allowing.” Second email: “Thanks, Heather! Yeah, like I said, the fest certainly seems like it would be of interest to me.;) If you could find out more about transportation, I’d appreciate that. (Alas, Filmmaker magazine doesn’t have a festival budget.) I’d actually be coming from L.A., probably returning to Santa Fe/Albuquerque. (I’m a traveling programmer and filmmaker myself!).”

(2) The dig about RIFF putting her up at the fashionable Berkeley, while the shorts filmmakers got the Holiday Inn Express is distasteful and inaccurate. The Berkeley Hotel was one of our two sponsors and simply had a room available to accommodate her last minute request. There were several filmmakers staying at the Berkeley, several at the Holiday Inn, and others staying at various places around town. Her comment was false and entirely unnecessary.

(3) Lauren made little effort to attend the events, see the films, or do much research with the filmmakers, audience, or event sponsors. The week following the festival, she emailed to say that she was likely NOT going to cover RIFF, because it had poor programming. This would have been acceptable had she seen the bulk of the films but my staff can account for the fact that she spent hardly any time doing that. In fact, the week after the festival I had to gather up 12-14 screeners for her just so she could actually watch them for the first time.

Third email: “How about if you send me your personal top 10 selections via Vimeo or Without A Box links and I’ll watch, see if it changes my mind. I’m totally open to that. I actually did attend at least part of most of your screenings – and then walked out of them (as I couldn’t find anything to rave about). Like I said, I’m happy to cover, but I can’t pretend the films grabbed me like, say, Little Rock’s fest or even Thin Line in Denton, Texas. Those were programs that kept me glued to my seat…”

Ms. Wissot was only present for ten to fifteen percent of the films, at best. And even in that small percentage, she left the theater after five to ten minutes, which she actually does confess to in the article. Further disturbing is the fact that she went to great lengths to say how bad the programming was, and this was even before seeing one film. I found this very odd. It seemed to me at that point that she had an entirely different agenda from her original intention: she wanted us to hire her as a programmer. Further, while here, she spent the bulk of her time sleeping until mid-afternoon and then roaming Carytown, Monument Avenue, and doing other non-related event things in town.

RIFF does not claim to hold ranks with fests that have been around for ten or twenty years. We are only going in our fourth year. That said, we have had many exceptional short films that were not mentioned in her article and also some features that warrant merit. While I do agree that the latter category is still developing, we are genuine in our efforts to bring great films to RVA, and promote well deserved filmmakers in every way we can.

Based on many of the filmmakers’ comments, there are a lot of things RIFF is getting right. One of our objectives is to promote artists that often get squeezed out by the bigger guys. We don’t play favorites. We want to be a platform that provides equal footing for established filmmakers and emerging artists alike.

Additionally, there are many other things that make RIFF unique and newsworthy including our annual in-house productions, which Ms. Wissot questions the objectivity of. This, too, is distasteful and inaccurate considering the fact is these productions do not compete in any way with RIFF’s other programmed films. The film productions are specifically designed to be a collaborative platform for artists — between writers, directors, Virginia crew, etc. — and the annual short production award, a unique mechanism to help bolster the careers of writers who want nothing more than to see their work come to life on the big screen. RIFF actually puts up the money for the bulk of these projects, and more often than not I have personally put up the money myself out of my own pocket because I am passionate about indie production and helping develop it in the area. These productions bring something quite dynamic and unique to the festival and to the film community.

(4) Further, RIFF produces several industry and community events that make it unique, like this year’s Décor Gallery Event featuring work from Barry Bruner from the Ron Judkin’s film, Finding Neighbors, which was one of this year’s feature films. Or this year’s city-wide bike ride & Hardywood Brewery event with live music entertainment. This was created to engage the community and filmmakers around one of this year’s feature documentaries. The bike ride was led by the film’s director, a professional world cyclist on the women’s tour. Or RIFF’s annual Filmmaker/Music Showcase, which is designed to introduce filmmakers to some of Richmond’s and DC’s hottest musicians. It provides a performance and networking platform that brings these artists together and opens up opportunities for potential work together in the future. These are just a sample of the unique things RIFF does each year, all of which provide a rich experience for filmmakers, writers, and film patrons alike. Had Ms. Wissot taken the time to attend all of them, I’m confident this article would have pointed out the great things RIFF has going for it. If nothing else, it certainly would have been a much fairer assessment.

These issues present a case far different than the one Ms. Wissot presented to your readers. On top of it, the malicious tone in which she presents the inaccuracies is deeply concerning. To have someone invite themselves and request that we cover the costs (yet say the opposite to your readers) and then arrive and have them take on an entirely different agenda is unfair and unethical. To make that worse, she has a national platform. This is a misuse of power and a poor reflection on Filmmaker Magazine. Ms. Wissot is certainly entitled her opinion but spreading a negative one to your readers is disturbing considering the discrepancies in her article.

It would only seem fair to give an opinion after someone has taken the time to experience the festival. Unfortunately, Lauren even admits in her article that she did little of that while at RIFF. Her skimpy coverage does not merit such negativity and is a misuse of her position.

I look forward to your response. I would very much appreciate one that includes an apology and most importantly, a correction that reflects the truth.

Sincerely,

Heather Waters
Founder & Producer, RIFF
Richmond International Film Festival
www.RVAFILMFESTIVAL.com

(Editor’s Note: Filmmaker allocates its festival budget to include travel to a number of festivals, including Sundance, SXSW, Toronto, Cannes, and Tribeca. Some other festivals do provide visiting journalists accommodations and sometimes travel, which will be noted in our pieces.)

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