The Louisiana International Film Festival's new executive director Sarah Mason has new ideas for the festival but is quick to point to the foundation that's already been built.
The festival will continue to feature stories from a Southern perspective, especially films shot in Louisiana or by Louisiana filmmakers, while including more diversity — films directed or produced by women and people of color. And the organization will focus on more opportunities for education, mentorship and training in the film industry.
"We want to bring economic growth, and we want to bring tourism, and we want to bring attention to Louisiana," Mason said. "But we also want to start conversations and bridge gaps. I'm a real believer that storytelling, and arts in general can do that."
Earlier this year, Chesley Heymsfield, the festival's founding executive director, stepped down from the position but will remain a member of the festival's board. After a brief search, LIFF hired Mason, who filled the role at the beginning of October.
Mason, a Los Angeles resident, has a long history of working with film festivals, including Sundance, Comic-Con International, the Dublin Film Festival and American Film Institute's AFI Fest. Along with producer roles and writing for television and film, she has worked with companies merging new technologies, like virtual reality and augmented reality, with filmmaking. And in 2015, Mason established The HMC Network, "an online media network celebrating the stories and culture of genre fiction."
The 2019 Louisiana International Film Festival takes place April 4-7, and a few additions already have been planned, including horror films, episodic content and virtual reality projects, Mason said. Submissions to LIFF 2019 are now open. More information can be found at lifilmfest.org.
An edited transcript of our conversation with Mason follows.
What attracted you to the Louisiana International Film Festival?
The passion they have — I'll tell you a few things. One is that I've never seen, in all the years I've been working with festivals and different organizations, the community buy-in this festival has. The enthusiasm in Baton Rouge for this festival and what Chesley has been able to do for it and getting people engaged, I honestly haven't seen before — where everyone's just, “I'm in. I want to be a part of it. I want to do this. We want to keep it going.” That is infectious to me. I was instantly attracted by that.
Then there's a lot of opportunity here, certainly with the amount of film production that's happening in the state. I'm interested in bringing more education and training, economic development and film tourism. Those are things that I've spent a lot of time in — particularly film tourism in the Comic-Con, genre fiction world, building technology like augmented reality apps for people mapping filming locations around the world. And I think that there's opportunities here that we can leverage. I’m interested in a bigger organizational structure than just the festival. That's our flagship; it's important. I want it to strive and grow. I want to connect with different festivals here. But I also want to build out the organization so that it's sustainable.
When you say "build out the organization," taking a large overview, what is LIFF?
I see LIFF as a cornerstone for arts education, training, cultural awareness, bringing people together. There's an opportunity for LIFF to be really a center point for the arts and arts education in the state of Louisiana as well as the South. There's a really deep history of storytelling in Louisiana that's different than other Southern states, you know. There's a soul here that I think is very — it's fascinating to me. I think that that's something that can be built upon in terms of attracting more storytellers and being a center for that.
Are there programs you would like to expand on or start, or certain concrete details you already have planned?
LIFF has a partnership with the folks that own the Lincoln Theater. And they have obtained a grant to restore and do some infrastructure changes to the theater. We're working with them to build beyond a community center for arts: a training facility. That's a project that I'm really interested in.
I really am a believer that education is key to economic development, ultimately. That's where I want to focus my attention.
Is there anything you feel like could be scrapped from LIFF? Is there anything you feel hasn't lived up to potential?
I mean honestly I don't know in terms of — I think the festival will evolve and we may make changes in our programming. I want to bring a lot more genre fiction and horror to the festival. That's something we're going to have a category specifically for. I'm interested in including more diversity, working with women directors and women cinematographers. And also technology: I really want to bring more technology to the festival. That's something that I've spent a lot of my career doing as well as at different events that I've worked with. So augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, artificial intelligence — that kind of stuff.
Are there resources here to be able to do those sorts of things?
That's something that as part of an education and training program, we want to build out. I want to bring people from the outside in to help build those resources. As far as what resources are already here, I'm still learning that. But I think we can build those things, and I think that there's there's opportunity for that.
Along with more education, more diversity, working with more women, are there other things that you would like to expand with the film festival itself?
Those are my initial main areas that I want to focus on, but I really want the festival to continue highlighting Louisiana filmmakers and storytellers. We'd like to broaden that to be the focal point for Southern filmmakers, too. But you know, women, people of color, LGBTQ rights, — storytelling from a lot of different perspectives is something that I'm really interested in working on.
And just really being a place that brings together a lot of different storytellers from around the world. It's already an international festival, but I'm bringing in a couple of board members that are based overseas and have experience in different areas of technology.
How do you hope to raise the prominence of a film festival like this?
A bunch of things. I think that they've already done an amazing job with this festival and there's a lot of prominence. You know, certainly the brand’s known in the state. And so I'm going to be building on that. I think the education piece is part of how you raise the bar. I mean, certainly, if we got an unbelievable film here that everybody said, "Oh my god, it was discovered at LIFF." That would help. But I think that if you're creating a festival that's doing things that are part of the conversation that people in the country are having — and I also really would like to be a starting point to bridge gaps between the blue and the red. I think that we're poised to be able to do that because it's a red state but there's a lot of blue in this red state.
Storytelling is something that bridges gaps. We're in a very tough position in the country right now. We're on two different sides, everybody's picking a side. Traditionally storytelling has been a place where everyone can come together. Working with Comic-Con for years, everybody from all over the place comes — there's red state people, there's blue state people. No one cares when they're talking about their favorite "True Blood" characters.
How do you see the health of the film industry here?
I think that they are bouncing back from some perceptions outside of Louisiana that there was not a long-term plan for tax incentives. And they are now assuring people that they're dedicated to this because, obviously, they want to bring people in to film here. And understandably, people are concerned about the tax incentive, where the money's going — are we getting anything out of this?
One of the things LIFF can do is help, help promote bringing more production into the state and having it be something that's going to work for everybody.
Are there certain funding opportunities that you'd like to tap into?
LIFF has done an amazing job with this community, and the community's been very generous. We're going to do some real structural formations with the organization. For example, we have a film society which is connected to LIFF, so we're going to try to identify these things as part of LIFF and make it branded so people really understand. We're going to be doing monthly screenings and will formalize that. We want to build sort of donor circles and memberships and really kind of come up with a plan for community outreach beyond what's already happening. In addition to that, outside of the state, I'm going to be working with different corporate donors, many of whom I've worked with for years on the technology side.