Cleveland has become synonymous with the idea of movies. Disney’s Marvel filmed much of its 2012 Avengers in Cleveland. Cleveland natives; the Russo Brothers filmed their Apple original (and pet project), 2021’s Cherry in town. Most recently the Netflix hit film White Noise (2022) was also filmed around Northeast Ohio. While Cleveland has had its share of amazing contributions to the film industry, it also has an amazing event in which enthusiasts from the city (and beyond) celebrate films from all over the world each year: The Cleveland International Film Festival!
This is the Cleveland International Film Festival’s 47th year. What started as an eight-week celebration in Cleveland Heights has turned into a national (if not world) renowned event spanning 11 days at five theaters. Not just any theaters! The festival takes place at Cleveland’s prized Playhouse Square, the second-largest theater district in the country!
CleveRock had a chance to speak with Patrick Shepherd, Associate Director of the CIF. Shepherd is one of the amazing people that help operate this event year after year.
When asked what CIFF 47 has in store for this year:
“Well, we’ll have 192 in-person screenings at Playhouse Square. This is our second year at Playhouse Square, our forever home. There are 121 feature films, 199 short films, and, as you know, we’ll have 11 days of the CIFF 47 festival at Playhouse Square and immediately followed by CIFF 47 Streams which will run from April 2 – 9. All of the short films will be available on the streaming platform but there has been a trend downward of the number of feature films that are willing to be on the platform. So a ‘pro tip,’ see if the film you want to see is streaming so that you might be able to prioritize to be able to see all that you want to see in person”
With so much today going on streaming platforms, CIFF is still one of the few festivals that even offers a streaming option. When asked if that is why some films may have a preference for being streamed versus being available only in person, Shepherd replied:
“There’s a lot of money that goes into the production of these films. These are investments for people and for companies and I think the internet, even though not all reasons are the same, but in many cases, they want to monetize the theatrical run. They want as many eyes on it as possible. (After the festival) Many of these films are going to have nationwide streaming. As a film festival patron, you’re going to want to pay attention to what’s streaming and what’s not.”
Speaking of in-person versus watching something online, Shepherd was asked about the transition to its ‘forever home,” Playhouse Square:
“(Playhouse Square) is our third home. We were at the Cedar Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights from 1977 to 1990. Then, the festival moved downtown to Tower City back in 1991. Our attendance back then was somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000, but of course, we spent 29 years over at Tower City and grew quite a bit. In December of 2019, the board of directors unanimously voted to move the festival to Playhouse Square after a search that lasted about a decade, because the situation at Tower City was insecure. We were one of the only reasons Tower City (Theaters) stayed open as long as it did. Back in 2013 as theaters moved over to DCP digital projection and those theaters were going to close unless somebody made the investment. So we needed to make the investment of half a million dollars to keep those theaters open and retrofit them all to digital projection. Tower City was a great home for so many years, but we really were in need of a forever home, run by a nonprofit organization like Playhouse Square, and worry about the wishes of a for-profit entity. Last year was our first year at Playhouse Square and we are just so fortunate”
We inquired if Playhouse Square, in addition to the performing arts, had a history of cinema in its past.
“Playhouse Square is an incredible home, it has those theaters, many of which were built 100 years ago and some of which were made for silent movies. Later on, many of them were movie theaters for much of the mid-century so we are glad to repurpose them back to their original intent. You should see those filmmakers’ eyes when they walk into those lobbies and auditoriums.”
With the capacity of each theater being so much larger, Shepherd was asked if capacity would still be increased compared to the Tower City theaters, which had limited seating.
“One of the things to bear in mind is screening caps. Screen caps have been in place before and even when we were at Tower City. Any time we get a license to screen a film at the festival, they tell us how many seats can be filled. The interesting thing is that the screening caps actually closely matched the screening caps at 250-300 at Tower City, but sometimes they would increase it to a second theater. Now, we have theaters that are much larger than anything in Tower City. For instance, the smallest is the Allen Theater with about 500 seats., The Upper Allen has North of 700. The Ohio Theater has 1,000 and the State Theater has 3,000. So there’s plenty of room, even if we reach the screen cap for people, to spread out. People are now much less anxious about getting to the seats extra early.”
There are two nights that particularly stand out when it comes to the film festival. Opening night is special. It works to kick off the event with a special screening, followed by a party and fundraiser.
The second most important night is the closing night, which is not only another special screening but also where all the awards are handed out. When asked went into the selection of the film for opening night, Shepherd replied:
“The thing about opening night is that it’s the only night of the festival that you do not have a choice. We’re making the decision for you. It is a sponsored event and a lot of sponsors have opening night tickets and so you want something that is more accessible and, this year we happened to even have a family film, ‘Butterfly in the Sky,’ which is a family film. It’s about the PBS TV show ‘Reading Rainbow’ and to goes in line with a Cleveland initiative called Cleveland Reads (from the Cleveland Public Library). Those who participate can be eligible for prizes just for reading.“
If anyone had had a chance to watch the Oscars in the last 100 years, it’s become apparent how important it is for diversity and inclusivity in film. That issue would need to be first addressed in film festivals that qualify for awards.
“One of our main initiatives is our Ground Breaker Award and Program which elevates either a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) or AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) and there’s a $5000 cash prize that goes along with it as well as there being an entire program of Ground Breaker features that are all PIPOC and AAPI directed,” Shepherd explained. “Last year, we celebrated an indigenous filmmaker, we’ve celebrated black filmmakers, and I’m certain in a few years we’ll celebrate a Latin X filmmaker. For a long period of time, for decades, we’ve been elevating and promoting Black Cinema, Latin X Cinema, Queer Cinema, and Asian Cinema. Those are sidebars of the festival. And so, diversity and inclusion are a very important component of the festival. “
While this year CIFF has still kept part of the streaming component that was brought on during the pandemic, Shepherd was asked how much the in-person portion compares to the streaming component.
“What we are as an organization and as a festival is to bring filmmakers to Cleveland to engage audiences with the newest and best films from around to world and we help people learn something along the way and that education and exhibition are at the core of our mission. While streaming will likely be a part of what we do going forward, we’re doing everything in our power to get people back in person at the festival.”
Shepherd and the rest of the team at The Cleveland International Fim Festival are working hard to bring this amazing experience to Clevelanders and those who are in town to experience the festival. Playhouse Square has created a wonderful home that makes for a wonderful movie-going experience. To think that this festival has been going on for 47 years is truly incredible.
Like many of these incredible things that go on in Cleveland, this nonprofit works hard all year long to put this experience together for everyone. One will have a chance to see films from all around the world. There is also a very good chance that someone who helped produce the film will even be present to answer any of your questions or say “hello” afterward. Cleveland might be the Rock and Roll capital, but the city also making our way to being one of the leaders in film as well!