On the veritable eve of its 11th fete, the Ojai Film Festival’s new executive director, Jamie Fleming, has a lot to be proud of — and by his reckoning, still a great deal to accomplish. Coming to the helm after a year that saw some confusion in the brand, and the embattled departure of previous chairman David Shor, Fleming’s focus is fixed on what’s always been right with the world-famous film festival.
“I’ve held steadfastly that I want to focus on the positive,” Fleming notes. “I excuse myself if there’s a discussion about past difficulties. I just feel strongly that I wanted to emphasize an Ojai festival once again.” His sentiment is echoed by festival founder and artistic director Steve Grumette, who adds, “People I’ve talked to in the community – who were confused and upset last year when they thought we might be moving, or merging with a Ventura festival or something – are extremely gratified to know that we’re back to what we’ve always been, the Ojai Film Festival.
“We only had three board members left at the beginning of the year,” he continues, “and we were left with the task of rebuilding. Now we have 10 members with skills that are very useful to the project, and above all, a very congenial, very positive spirit animating the festival.”
Among the noteworthy changes this year is a centralizing ethic that centers events in the heart of Ojai’s downtown. “When I was approached to be on the board,” Fleming explains, “I said the most important thing to me, if I was going to get involved, was that we need to take advantage of the fact that we live in such a unique town that offers so much. Why would you not make your festival be part of that, and make it all one?”
“Ojai is the ideal location for a film festival,” Grumette agrees. “Not only because it’s a place where the arts have always flourished, but also due to its proximity to the filmmaking capital of the world.”
Similarly central to the fete, as it always has been, is the fest’s reputation for quality screening. “I think this is our best collection of films by far that we’ve ever had,” Grumette enthuses. “It’s been a continual process, building that quality, since the beginning, as our reputation grows throughout the world.”
This year’s catalogue features 61 films, including 10 narrative features, 15 narrative shorts, a dozen documentary features and six documentary shorts. “We have films from every continent in the world except Antarctica,” says Grumette. “I’m amazed when we get calls from all over the world. People in some really far-flung places seem to know about the Ojai Film Festival, and are deeply honored when their film is accepted — that’s very gratifying.”
Among the many noteworthy entries is the much-anticipated Pope Joan. “It’s an amazing piece of work,” Grumette notes. “It’s about a legendary eighth-century woman who actually rose to the position of the Pope. We expect it to be a very popular film.”
Along with the regular catalogue of screenings, the fest keeps to its tradition of opening the events with a free Thursday night screening. This year’s selection is the enchanting The Secret of Kells, an acutely stylized animated film from Europe.
As in previous years, the 11th Ojai fest boasts an illustrious lineup of panels and workshops, including a screenwriters panel on Saturday that’s anchored by A-list screenwriter Steven de Souza (Die Hard, 48 Hours), whose genre-defining tales have grossed in excess of $2 billion. “One of my goals this year was to really infuse a lot more of the industry,” Fleming explains, “a lot more sharing of information from the filmmaker’s point of view.”
Along with the screenwriters panel, there’s an actors panel that includes veteran actor Craig T. Nelson (also tapped for the fest’s lifetime achievement award, along with celebrated cinematographer Michael Chapman, ASC). About the panels, Fleming says, “People will get a chance to know the human side of cinema. That’s kind of the Ojai way.”
As preparations are finalized and the clock ticks down to opening night, festival heads, board members, staffers and volunteers look forward to enjoying the fruits of their labor. “We’ve really been working so hard, and that what’s making this such a positive experience,” Fleming confides, “not only for us, but for the community. I think our neighbors are seeing what we’re doing to make this an Ojai event once again; and people are responding, with an enthusiastic “what can we do?” ethic.
“Whether we have ten or ten thousand visitors,” he concludes, “we think the spirit is going to be people saying, ‘A-ha, this is what Ojai is all about.’ ”
The Ojai Film Festival, November 4-7. For tickets and more information, visit www.ojaifilmfestival.com.