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New Head Of Tallgrass Film Association On The Future Of The Festival And The Wichita Film Scene

Melanie Addington
Melanie Addington

Melanie Addington took over as executive director of the Tallgrass Film Association this year after spending five years heading the Oxford Film Festival.

Earlier this year, film lovers in Wichita got a new ally when the Tallgrass Film Association hired Melanie Addington as their new executive director.

Addington comes to Wichita from Mississippi, where she'd led the Oxford Film Festival since 2015.

KMUW's Fletcher Powell spoke with Addington recently about what she wants to see from the festival and what it will look like this year after a year with no in-person screenings.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fletcher Powell: Favorite movie you’ve ever seen at a film festival?

Melanie Addington: Oh my gosh, the hardest question right off the bat… I mean, of recent, I would say maybe Parasite. I saw it at BendFilm Festival. Just walked in, not knowing at that time cause nobody had heard of it yet, and just discovered that, it was amazing. But I also really loved my experience at Sundance of The Greasy Strangler, which is a terrible and amazing movie. I love it so much.

Fantastic, I'm going to check that one out. So, you come to us from the film festival world already, from Oxford, Mississippi, and you've been there for a while. You started out sort of low on the totem pole there. Tell us just kind of your development through the film festival world.

Yeah, I went the first year and then got myself signed up as a screener, which was fun, getting to sort of see what came before and what the actual program was. And then within a year, because I can't keep my mouth shut, kept offering suggestions, became volunteer coordinator and then immediately a volunteer co-director. And I stayed a volunteer co-director and went to a lot of other festivals, volunteering and jurying so I could learn more, and then became executive director in 2015. And then really just came here in May, May 1st.

Well, certainly, welcome to Wichita, but what was it that attracted you to Wichita, particularly, and the Tallgrass Film Festival?

I came here when Lela [Meadow-Conner] was the [executive director] ... as a juror. And I just loved the town. I discovered Mort’s Martini Bar, I just thought Old Town was so cute. In fact, when I moved here, I moved to Old Town. I love it down here. And so, I really knew that I liked the town. I knew the film festival had a really great national reputation, filmmakers love this festival. And I wanted, you know, just like everyone in the pandemic, like, “what am I doing with my life,” and wanted to make a change. So, I came here.

You've kind of hit the ground running since you've been here. I've noticed a lot of different initiatives, programs that Tallgrass is starting up or maybe has in the works. Can you talk about some of those?

We're going to start a filmmaker alliance. I know that there's been informal Wichita filmmaker meetups. It's not anything new, but we're just going to try and formalize that a little bit and start finding out what filmmakers in town need and start providing them more resources. I hope to find funding for a grant program, so if you're listening and want to give money to filmmakers, reach me.

And then just start finding more resources. And that could be anything from in-kind support, cameras, maybe more workshops throughout the year, whatever. I just want to listen to what they need and then try to help provide that. Because our job is not just to support filmmakers one weekend a year. It's really, that's what we're supposed to be doing year-round.

And then we launched Pridegrass and that will be live in person next year, but this year we just did virtual LGBTQ screenings and a couple panels, which were great. We just launched Take 36. It's going to be in person again. So, I'm excited about that. It's going to be in August, so super hot sweaty people on screen, I'm sure. So, I'm excited to finally do something live and in person while here.

And then I think we're going to be announcing a few films we're doing in September, with different partners. So, I just recommend if you haven't yet to maybe subscribe to our e-news. And then we're just going to try and start doing a lot more year-round screenings and be around and support Wichita.

If I remember there's a Gordon Parks—

Yeah, that’s a great, I inherited that and I'm so excited. David Parks — his son, Gordon’s son — is working with us on this and it's really exciting. It's going to be a series of films that we're going to highlight from Black filmmakers. And then we're going to pick a winner. That's going to get a $5,000 cash prize from Cargill, which is great. And we're going to have all kinds of industry people here to meet them. And hopefully there's some other things in the works that might get announced soon on that. So, I'm very excited about it. I think it's great. It's a good initiative.

This might be burying the lead a little bit talking about this now rather than up front, because I think a lot of people are really curious: What is Tallgrass going to look like this year? And beyond that, what lessons can you take forward from a pandemic year, a year where everybody had to go online? Because certainly there must be some benefits from having that experience.

I think for me, learning just how much more accessible you can become as a film festival, because I think it's hard — if you're not super nerdy into filmmaking, going into a film festival can be intimidating. Like, what film do I pick out of these eight that are happening at the same time? So having it at home, you could sort of dive in in your own way and learn more about film festivals, which is great. People who couldn't go anywhere, which was the majority of us for a year, could actually experience it.

But also, it just really sort of opened up a new channel of ways we could support filmmakers. I know Tallgrass, we're going to be splitting the proceeds with the filmmakers of our virtual ticket sales this year. But before that, what we do, what is important to us, is being in person. So, October 20th through 24th, we're going to be downtown, Orpheum, Wilke, and we're going to use Groover labs, I’m very excited about, and then we'll go virtual the 24th through 29th.

So, sort of a hybrid, I guess, giving the benefit to the people who come in to see it in person, they get to see it first, and then opening that up to online. And is that something that people across the country will be able to access?

Yeah. I think we'll have a couple different “geoblocks,” is what it's called. So, if somebody can't be global, but in general we'll have U.S. or global as our options.

I think that's a really nice solution because you are then offering it to people who can't come in. I benefited greatly from film festivals or certainly around the country last year because I was able to access it.

Same, I went to so many more than I could afford normally. I mean, Tribeca virtual and TIFF — Toronto Film Festival — they’re going to stay virtual. They're going to stay hybrid forever. So, I think those who learned and did it well are really learning this could be an important tool moving forward.

Yeah, and also still making it attractive to come to the festival.

Right, well, you know, that's the thing, we aren't just Netflix, we're not just here to put films online. We are about creating experiences and letting people celebrate our community. And so that has to be the priority. But if you can't, for whatever reason this year, it happens to be a date with something else you're doing, you could still experience in some way.

What would you like to see Tallgrass becoming? Next year, I believe it's the 20th festival. This is the 19th this year. That's a major milestone, but you want to take it, of course, even further than that. What's Tallgrass 25 going to look like, or Tallgrass 30?

I'm definitely going to start developing more initiatives for year-round experiences. So not just, you know, an occasional pop-up screening, but really doing a lot more year-round. If that looks like eventually having our own art house… maybe. Everything's sort of in the, “maybe it could happen” right now. But definitely continuing to have a presence downtown, bringing people to downtown. I live down here, I love it. And I want to continue to see it develop.

But I think for the festival itself, I think we could be even larger than we are. So, we're going to move slightly up in October in the future, and really just continue to grow, both in community partners and sort of what we're doing and attracting more filmmakers, larger industry presence. I'd love to have a trade show eventually. So, yeah, everything sort of like, “this may be nice, let's figure it out and see what works.”

This year, for the 19th, we're going to have a street fair. We're going to shut down First Street and just really celebrate all the arts in town. We're doing free vendor booth setups for artists just to like—we can't get filmmakers to go all over Wichita, but we can bring all of Wichita to First Street.

All of these ideas, of course, take resources. And a lot of that falls on you as the executive director. I mean, obviously not exclusively, but a lot does fall on you as the executive director. What are some avenues that you see for that?

Well, I'm writing a lot more grants than I think we've reached out to in the past. And then also just building up our sponsor base, we'll launch a membership program in year 20 and then just reaching out to—this is an entrepreneur town, and really that's what independent film is. And so really connecting those resources together with film. And I spend a lot of time writing emails, is really the unsexy part of film festivals.

I don’t really know a lot about how the Oxford festival grew while you were there. But my assumption is that you grew it to some extent. You certainly have ideas. So just talk a little bit about that path while you were there for the five years you were there.

Yeah, I tripled the budget, I tripled attendance. I got us to 50-50 for female and male directors. And then really started focusing in more on transgender, non-binary the past couple of years. I hope I did a good job, I think it became pretty well known nationally. So that was great. Definitely there's things I would've liked to have seen, like Oscar qualifying, that I didn’t get to there. So, you know, we'll look at it here and see how that goes. And I think this town, especially, though, has so many great resources that we're not even using as the festival. And so, I want to get in to everywhere and have us everywhere.

In the larger sense, what would you like to see from the film festival community, from the film festival world, that isn't happening, or maybe that is percolating that you see could be happening in, whatever, a decade?

I think in general, when Tallgrass started, when a lot of festivals started 20 years ago, there were maybe 500, 800 festivals in the country. Now there's thousands. Every little town has one. And that's not sustainable for the long term. So, what does your festival in your community bring to the table that brings relevance to your community? Because it can't just be, "Oh, we also showed a film online along with everyone else." And so it's really about building up the next storytellers.

And really, if we don't start really attracting and building and supporting alumni, then I don't really know what the point of film festivals is anymore. Because you can just go on Netflix. So really, it's about creating experiences and creating opportunities more than just, “Hey, let's watch some films for five days.” Which, of course, is fun and super great, but that's not going to be the whole point of film festivals in the future.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.