Interview with the Founder/Executive Director of the Prescott Film Festival – Helen Stephenson


Prescott, Arizona is an adorable mountain town with cool coffee shops, an incredibly hip updated Motor Lodge and some truly bizarre thrift stores I’ll let you find yourself. It also has the 7th annual Prescott Film Festival running July 17-24, 2016. I attended the festival with a feature in 2011 and it’s one of the festivals that I consistently recommend to other filmmakers. I talked to Founder/Executive Director Helen Stephenson about the festival.

Helen in SedonaHelen! You run one of my favorite film festivals of all time both as an audience member and a filmmaker. Your seats are full and your town is excited. How do you get your community so engaged?

My husband Don, who is my most ardent supporter, loves to chat it up with folks wherever he runs into them – the bank, grocery store or in line for an event. When we first started the fest – the first 2 or 3 years actually – he would figure out a way to “cleverly” insert the Prescott Film Festival into a conversation (usually carpet-bombing them with verbal marketing collateral). Those first few years virtually no one knew Prescott had a film festival. Then slowly one or two people would say they knew about us!

The second tier was involving as many businesses in the community as possible. If they did ANYTHING for the fest – put a poster in their window, donate sandwiches, give us a discount…  they were counted as sponsors. The sponsorship list was long, but folks felt involved. This method created more work than the value of the donation, but it helped get the word out and got folks involved.

Third tier – getting a lot of volunteers involved gets folks interested, gets the word out and gets them involved.

How do you choose what films you show? 

The first year films were chosen by me and the only filmmaker I knew in Prescott! Then we went to volunteer movie reviewers and used a pen and paper and DVD methodology. Now we use a proprietary software system called Film Festival Fusion which my husband, who happens to be a software architect, wrote for the film fest. Movie Reviewers watch the films and rate them on-line. The programming committee looks at the scores. The top films, those that get A’s and B’s are discussed looking at many factors. We usually have more fantastic documentaries than we can program, (but we aren’t an exclusive doc fest, so can’t program them all).  We balance the fest with docs, narratives, comedies, dramas and hope for sci-fi!  Then we look for good shorts that “match” the narratives.

I notice that on all your materials it says you especially like to consider films about horses. The year my film The Selling showed I saw the amazing documentary Wild Horse Wild Ride and some of the Mustang trainers were in attendance. There may have been tears and clapping. Are the horses your personal preference?

Horses…  yes…  Prescott is a Western town that hosts the world’s oldest rodeo. Ranches dot Yavapai County and horse property is a big seller. I, however, have ridden a horse once in my life and that was last summer. And it was terrifying. So no – though my stepdaughter adores horses, I am not a horse person. But Prescott loves horses. Last year we sold out the horse film we screened, Harry and Snowman, with over 700 seats.

Small town film festivals have to be a balance of films for a broad audience. Then you target market to that audience. We also have a large mental health industry in Prescott. So we try and find a mental health and a horse film each year. If we could find an excellent dog film that would be in the mix also.

This will be the 7th year of the Prescott film festival. How does a film festival benefit a community? 

When we started the fest in 2009 Arizona had a film tax credit. My hope was to bring filmmakers to the area; all of Yavapai County actually, and see what a fantastic place this would be to shoot their next film. The next year, the film tax credit expired and that idea went out the door. So now we bring tourists to the community. Fill the hotel rooms and restaurants and hopefully they will find time to do some museums or shop downtown  (Not when a movie is screening, of course!). There’s also the arts and culture the film fest brings. And I really love the way film festival films instigate conversation and a desire to learn more – and perhaps even open minds – to different ways of thinking.

People often think that American film is only Los Angeles, New York and Louisiana or New Mexico depending on what’s going on with tax incentives. I met several Prescott filmmakers through your festival and I know you are very supportive of the local filmmaking community. How can someone outside of a traditional filmmaking location maximize their opportunities? 

Local filmmakers rely on each other for support. It’s a wonderful thing to watch. They get together and create one film, then help each other with the next film. My “real job” is the director of the Yavapai College Film and Media Arts Program, (FMA). We have started a Film Club that we will use for networking opportunities. Prescott and Yavapai county, including Sedona, is a prime retirement place and I see a lot of professionals retiring here. FMA is presenting free workshops at the fest this year and almost all of the presenters are locals, with some being friends of locals. I believe that filmmakers can never stop learning and I hope they use these opportunities to fine-tune their craft.

Have you noticed any uptick in female directors and producers in the last 7 years of submissions or has it been the same or gone down? 

We have had some amazing films from female directors, Shelagh Carter with Passionflower, Korinna Sehringer with Shouting Secrets, Anna Mastro with Learning to Drive, and Roberta Grossman is a powerhouse documentary director. I think that the female feature directors submitting are about the same number. However, we receive a lot of film submissions from Dodge Film School at Chapman University, and those are about 50/50 male and female. So I do see an uptick coming just around the corner.

If you’ve been accepted to a film festival what can you do to make the festival directors job easier and make your film do well at their festival? 

Get your marketing materials and film exhibition copy to us quickly. Test your film and bring a back-up Blu-Ray and DVD and have them with you at all times. Be in the audience when the tech team is testing your film 45 minutes before the screening time. We are happy to make adjustments but would like that finished before the audience comes in, of course.

Do you go to a lot of other festivals?

I am very sad to say I don’t have time to go to many other festivals. With writing grants, curating films and doing the business end of the film festival, plus my job at Yavapai College, (oh, and I’m working on my master’s degree….) I don’t have a lot of time to travel or attend festivals. But – I do make the time to go to some of the festivals close by, Sedona Film Fest and the Phoenix Film Fest, both of whom support our fest in many ways. I occasionally make it to the Flagstaff Mountain Film Fest, and that’s a fun one too. I’m on a lot of festival mailing lists and enjoy seeing what they have coming up online.

Thank you and have a wonderful 7th year!