The annual Oxford Film Festival celebrates the art of independent cinema by discovering and encouraging filmmakers in North Mississippi with screenings, workshops, and educational programs throughout the five-day event.
Founded in 2003 by the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, the non-profit holds year-round events in competition and showcase settings with a variety of film categories.
“We have a handful of events throughout the year,” Executive Director Melanie Addington said. “One is the February film festival where we show over 200 movies, have panels and workshops, and bring in industry people and celebrities.
“We also do monthly screenings. This month, we are partnering with the Burns Belfry Center to do a series on diversity and film, and we are calling it Monday Movie Night.”
Addington became executive director of the Oxford Film Festival in 2015. “I was actually the first paid employee for the festival,” she said, “but I have worked with the festival since 2006 in various ways. I also direct, write, and produce films along with serving on the Mississippi Film Alliance as its president.”
Addington said she begins working on each festival about 14 in advance. “Because there is a lot of insurance and paperwork that goes into preparing for the festival along with working with sponsors, filmmakers, and training over 300 volunteers,” Addington said.
The festival requires dedication and handwork through many volunteers so everything runs smoothly throughout the five-day festival.
Assistant Director Kayleigh Graham is one of 300 film festival volunteers who helps make the festival a success. “I started volunteering for Melanie three years ago by organizing the awards ceremony party,” she said, “and I fell in love with the festival.”
Graham helps prepare for the festival by working closely with Addington to make sure her vision for the festival is realized.
“I really am just the jack-of-all-trades, and I help out where I can,” Graham said. “I help plan parties, process mail, and reach out to sponsors. I basically get to to do all the fun stuff that makes the festival work.”
Addington said her favorite part of the festival is bringing filmmakers from all over the world to Oxford and showing them what Mississippi is really like.
“Most people have a pre-conceived notion of what Mississippi is like, so being able to help break the stereotype is awesome,” she said. “Being from the state of Mississippi, I like to support things that showcase us in a positive light.”
From fundraising to programming, more than 1,500 movies are viewed throughout the course of the year to determine the final program. The festival also works with different studios to get bigger films.
“This year’s opening night film was “The Last Movie Star,” featuring Burt Reynolds, Clark Duke, and Ariel Winter,” Addington said. The festival has also had celebrities visit over the years. This year’s main celebrity was actor Danny Glover.
The February festival is held at the Malco Commons along with events at the Oxford Conference Center, The Powerhouse, The Ford Center, and other party venues.
“About 7,000 people attend and another 3,000 people watch the live streams of our panels and workshops,” Addington said. “We try to make our live streams as free and available to everyone as possible.”
Film submissions from over 54 countries are usually watched from May to November by different programmers to determine the final 200 films that will be played at the festival.
“We don’t necessarily decide on the best of the best when picking the films, but there are several programmers that decide which films fit the overall theme the best,” Addington said. “We have a variety of categories ranging from animation, documentary, features and shorts, Mississippi narrative and documentary, music video and documentary, LGBTQ, and kid film festival.”
The LGBTQ category was started in response to Mississippi’s House Bill No. 1523 two years ago.
There are now competitions that filmmakers may compete in new to the festival this year.
“We offer a $10,000 cash prize competition, which is partnered with Artist Vodka, a sponsor of the festival,” Addington said. “The winner gets $10,000 from the festival and an association with Artist Vodka. There is also a short screen play competition that anyone in the world can compete in that I really enjoyed.”
The film festival ends with the Hoka awards given to the best film in each category. The awards are crafted by engineering students in the Center of Manufacturing Excellence using a 3-D printer.
“After the festival wrapped up this year, I finally discovered that my favorite part of the film festival is being able to hand filmmakers money to produce more films,” Addington said. “I also love being able to see new work being produced. The privilege of having creative stories from all over the world come to Oxford is so rewarding.”