WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Exactly one week before the RiverRun International Film Festival, Andrew Rodgers sat at his desk on the second floor of the festival’s rabbit warren of offices fielding phone calls, emails and knocks on his door.
It’s not a fancy office. He has a view of the wall next door, but the air around him is charged with excitement, anticipation and a sense of accomplishment.
The 16th annual festival opens today, and since he became its executive director in 2005, Rodgers, 38, has steered a struggling nonprofit organization to apparent success. RiverRun is financially stable, is recognized nationally and prides itself on being engaged with the community.
In 2005, the budget was about $252,000. This year it is $588,000, plus another $400,000 in donations.
Starting this year, RiverRun is a qualifying festival for the Oscars in the Documentary Short Subject award category. That means the recipient of RiverRun’s Jury Award for Best Documentary Short will qualify for Oscar consideration and allows the winner to forgo a standard theatrical run as long as it meets other Oscar qualifications.
Under Rodgers’ watch, the number of community volunteers doubled and the number of tickets sold has tripled.
Start in Brevard
Gennaro D’Onofrio, the father of actor Vincent D’Onofrio, started RiverRun in Brevard in 1998. It ran there for four years.
Dale Pollock, who was then dean of filmmaking at the UNC School of the Arts, had wanted to acquire or create a film festival as a way to develop more opportunities for UNCSA film students when he heard about RiverRun.
In 2002, the festival shut down for a year while Pollock and a board of directors acquired it with money that they raised from private donors and UNCSA. Pollock ran it in 2003 and 2004. Butter Birkas ran it in 2005.
Pollock, now a board member emeritus, said the budget in 2003 was $75,000. It started as a four-day festival. Now, it runs for 10.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Pollock said. “We are a major film festival now. It’s exceeded what we ever imagined it could be. The professionalism of the presentation is great. The quality of the films is great.
“I think Andrew has done a great job. The film festival world has become super-competitive. You have to negotiate and deal with filmmakers. The same movies are desired by most festivals.”
Rodgers and Pollock say they are particularly proud of this year’s addition to the festival: “Spotlight: Media Restoration & Preservation.” It’s about the effort to preserve 35mm films as more and more “films” are made digitally.
“I’m very happy that we are doing the archival prints,” Pollock said. “The festival has always been associated with the school (UNCSA), which has a great film archive, and this year we have archives coming from the British Film Institute.”
After the festival, those films will be returned to their respective archives.
“It’s really important to preserve the past,” Rodgers said. “At the same time we’re bringing forward exciting new things.”
Expansion to SECCA
This year the festival is expanding into new venues at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and Wake Forest University.
“By this point in the festival preparations, it’s something different every minute,” Rodgers said. “At some point, I’ll look up and realize … I should probably eat something.
“The thing about this job that it’s taken me a while to embrace is that there is always a certain amount of chaos.”
He got a big dose of chaos early in his tenure when a filmmaker’s mother left a party in 2006. On the way to her car she was robbed and had both of her arms broken. Staff members took her to the emergency room, and Rodgers said he called Mayor Allen Joines, who subsequently beefed up security downtown.
The filmmaker has returned to RiverRun, and the victim didn’t blame the festival, but Rodgers clearly still feels badly about it. He said it’s the worst thing that has happened,
“The best thing is the festival itself. I get to interact with filmmakers, directors, the energy, the positive feelings, the feeling that it means something to the community,” Rodgers said. “For 11 months, we toil in relative obscurity and for one week we get a high that carries us through the rest of the year.”
He stays connected to the industry by attending the Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City every January and the Toronto Film Festival in September.
“I go to look for films and interact with folks in the film industry to recruit people to come here,” he said.
The Friday after RiverRun, he’ll go to the Nashville Film Festival to judge the documentary shorts.
By the time Rodgers came to RiverRun, he had already worked in film and communications for nearly 10 years.
He performed seasonal work in the publicity departments at Sundance from 2002 to 2005 and at the Chicago Film Festival in 2003 and 2004. Rodgers was hired by Pollock and the RiverRun board of directors as a consultant in 2003 and 2004.
Before that, he worked at the Chicago Tribune and was a freelance journalist covering the film industry for various publications in Los Angeles. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and an MBA from Wake Forest University.
Rodgers met his wife, filmmaker Iana Dontcheva, in 2003 at the Chicago Film Festival. Of Bulgarian descent, Dontcheva was living in France.
“I’ve been here for nine years, and we’ve had to plan our lives around the festival,” he said. He lured her to Reynolda Gardens on the opening night of the 2008 RiverRun and, under the pretense of having their portraits made, got down on one knee and proposed.
They were married that same year and had their first child, Mia, last February.