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Cinema salute marks 20 years

March 10,2017 15:18

Rachelle Murphy, Green Mountain Film Festival executive director, holds a handful of movie tickets Monday in the festival's office. The festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary and ticket sales kicked off to a busy start at the 38 State St. ticket ...

Rachelle Murphy, Green Mountain Film Festival executive director, holds a handful of movie tickets Monday in the festival’s office. The festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary and ticket sales kicked off to a busy start at the 38 State St. ticket office. STEFAN HARD / STAFF PHOTOMONTPELIER — The Green Mountain Film Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
The cutting-edge indie- and foreign-film extravaganza has become a calendar event for many, marking the emergence from the dark days of winter through mud season and into the dawn of spring.
This year’s nine-day festival runs from Friday, March 17, through Saturday, March 25, and offers 49 features and 31 short films representing 32 countries. Venues include the Savoy Theater, City Hall Auditorium and the Pavilion Building Auditorium, and there will also be a number of guest lectures at venues around Vermont’s Capital City.
For Rick Winston, former owner of the Savoy Theater where the festival made its fledgling start, the 20th anniversary is testament to the power of independent filmmaking and community embrace of the festival.
In 1997, he and former Savoy Theater co-owner Gary Ireland were approached by a trio of film fans — Cindy Leyung, Shaun Garvey and Jane Knight — who proposed holding a weeklong film festival.
“They proposed a film festival and put it together with our input,” Winston said. “It was a modest success. Shortly after that festival, Shawn and Cindy left, and Jane remained. It seemed like it was a oneshot deal.”
There was no festival the following year, which Winston said makes this year’s “20th” anniversary something of an anomaly.
“A year and a half later (after the first festival), one of our projectionists, Chris Woods, a community organizer extraordinaire, asked us casually one day if we had any plans to do another film festival,” Winston remembered. “We said, ‘If you’re involved, sure.’ But that’s why the 20th anniversary is kind of funny, because the first year of the festival was in ’97, but there was none in ’98. And then in ’99 was the festival we ourselves at the Savoy put together.”
When Winston’s partner at the Savoy left Vermont after the 1999 festival, Winston’s wife became a co-manager of the theater and volunteer film festival coordinator and ticket office coordinator.
Winston said his projectionist continued as program director of the festival for two more years before Carlos Haase took over the role, and was subsequently appointed festival director.
“From there, we just watched the festival grow and grow every year,” Winston said, noting the number of venues expanded to include auditoriums at City Hall and the Pavilion Building. Guest speakers on film were added to the festival.
The job of running the festival in recent years passed to Rachelle Murphy, who first worked as a volunteer in 2009 and 2010 while still a high school student in Montpelier.
“I’ve known Rick Winston for a number of years,” Murphy said. “I used to go to the theater all the time, see movies and rent videos from Downstairs Video (the Savoy’s former video rental outlet).”
After moving to California, Murphy returned briefly to work as a volunteer for the 2011 festival. Her love of film led her to write her master’s thesis on the Savannah Film Festival, after which she returned to Montpelier and reunited with festival management.
“That was the year I coordinated the 2014 festival, and it just snowballed and I got more and more responsibility. Now, as the executive director, this is my third festival,” Murphy said. “This is a passion project and one I have a lot of love for since it started my love of all film festivals. So it was nice to be recognized and asked to lead the organization.”
Leadership of the Savoy Theater has changed hands in recent years. In 2009, Winston sold the theater to Terry Youk, who made a number of changes to stay competitive, including conversion of the former Downstairs Video outlet to a second theater, moving to digital video format, and getting a liquor license to sell wine and beer. Last August, the theater was sold to James O’Hanlon, the theater’s projectionist for two years.
In much the same way that Winston’s projectionist breathed life into the festival when it first began in earnest, O’Hanlon is dedicated to supporting what became a Vermont institution during two decades in the place it was born.
“My role primarily is as a venue host,” O’Hanlon said. “The festival is a huge part of the theater. It creates a lot of good will with the theater, and people associate with our theater. As a film lover myself, I appreciate varied content, stuff that is off the beaten path that isn’t going to make it into the big, major theaters. My personal preference and goal is to make this kind of thing happen more frequently.”
“We’re all very excited about the anniversary of the film festival,” Murphy added.” Twenty years in any nonprofit is quite a milestone and one we’re very proud of. The festival has become quite the event in March — it’s the thing to do. We’re really excited that it’s been going this long and hopefully will for many more years in the future.”
Festival tickets are available at 38 State St. (second floor, above Salaam), by phone at 223-5000, or online at www.gmffestival.org.
stephen.mills @timesargus.com

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