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BWW Review: SEDONA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL ~ Celebrating 25 Years And The Man Behind The Screens!

BWW Review: SEDONA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL ~ Celebrating 25 Years And The Man Behind The Screens!

From its humble beginnings in 1994 as a three-day "off-season" event at the city's Cultural Park, the SEDONA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL has vaulted into prominence as an exceptional eight-day communal experience for filmmakers and moviegoers.

The turning point in the evolution of the event occurred ten years later, in June of 2004, when, struggling to stay solvent, the organization required a leader with solid business sense and motivational skills. The community made a wise choice when it plucked Patrick Schweiss from the certainty of his position as production supervisor in his family-owned business, the Larson Newspapers, and appointed him executive director.

Schweiss immediately put his instincts, his understanding of the operations of nonprofit organizations, and his managerial talents to work. He laid out a plan for the future that hinged on securing individual and corporate financial support, growing the Festival's volunteer infrastructure, and, perhaps most importantly, his conviction that there were "endless possibilities" to take the Festival to "a new level." The Board of Directors and local leaders like Georgia Frontiere, the owner of the L.A. Rams, and benefactors Herb and Linda K. Smith answered the call and walked their talk with solid and enduring commitments of hard cash...and the rest, as they say, is history.

Schweiss now embarks on his 15th extraordinary year at the helm of the Festival.

In anticipation of the Festival's 25th Anniversary and the commencement of this year's screenings (February 23rd through March 3rd), I had the opportunity and pleasure to interview Patrick.

In the course of a far-reaching conversation, the man comes across with boundless energy and a crystal-clear understanding of the essential keys to the Festival's success and the elements that differentiate it from the countless other film fests here and abroad.

In the first place, Schweiss declares, "It's about community!"

It is also, he notes, very much about a fundamental commitment to celebrate and honor the filmmaker. In return, SIFF is universally regarded by its honorees as a "filmmakers festival."

Schweiss and his team of volunteers work assiduously at cultivating an intimate environment for personal one-on-one interactions between the moviegoers and the film makers, performers, and celebrities. (Schweiss recalls, with a discernible smile, the observation of one notable director, upon arrival at the Festival, that "everyone here is hugging!")

Another of Schweiss's points of pride is the regular appearance of celebrities, who embrace the opportunity to mingle with each other and with the audience. Over the years, SIFF has hosted such luminaries as Ed Asner, Donald O'Connor, Ann Miller, Ted Danson, Nick Nolte, Tony Curtis, Jonathan Winters, Nicolas Cage, and Michael Moore. This year, Ed Asner and Richard Dreyfuss return along with Diane Ladd, Billy Zane, and Mackenzie Phillips.

Schweiss is keenly aware of and attentive to the business side of the house. He notes a basic rule of the business model: that, when ticket sales cover only one third of the organization's operating costs, community support is vital ~ and, that support gets generated when there's a compelling reason to invest and people believe that they're getting a substantial return on their investment. Schweiss has managed to make the case and build the base in spades.

On the one hand, he has succeeded in doing what too many ambitious nonprofits fail to do: manage growth intelligently, strategically, incrementally, and within the organization's means. The result has been ~ in what Schweiss humbly describes as a "natural progression" ~ continued growth in membership and audience; growth in programming; expansion to multiple venues including Harkins Theatres and the Sedona Performing Arts Center; and the construction of its own 112-seat Mary D. Fisher Theatre. (Of course, there is the added value in the Festival's unique location ~ the mystical red rock environs of Sedona!)

In addition, and far more importantly, under Schweiss's leadership, the Festival has clearly defined its inherent value, not only in the creation of a shared community experience but also in the enrichment of the hearts, minds, and souls of its audience. People may leave the theatre with a new-found appreciation and understanding of a critical and complex issue. They may discover truths in the experiences of other cultures or lessons from history. Many may be motivated to action as was the case when one couple, he recalls, was so moved by a documentary that they invested in a health care clinic in Africa!

The sum and substance of all that we discussed fits within what Schweiss defines as the Festival's artistic and business vision ~ "to show great films that make you feel something, whether it's joy, inspiration, shock, elation, sympathy, or enlightenment."

In this regard, the upcoming schedule is chock full of cinematic nuggets that fulfill this vision.

One hundred and sixty films, selected by three selection committees from more than 1400 entries from around the world, will be screened. They will include provocative documentaries on a score of socially and environmentally critical issues. A number of Academy Award contenders, including Barry Jenkins' critically acclaimed IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, will be presented. Also among the offerings this year are: TO DUST, starring Matthew Broderick; THE CHAPERONE, starring Elizabeth McGovern and Blythe Danner; NON-FICTION, starring Juliette Binoche; TELL IT TO THE BEES, starring Anna Paquin; PROMISE AT DAWN, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg; and THE BILL MURRAY STORIES, featuring, of course, himself.

All told, all the ingredients are in place for a great celebration of the Festival's 25th Anniversary. When I ask if there will be a special birthday party, Schweiss proudly responds that the quality of films this year is exponentially better, featuring an amazing lineup of world cinema. So, he asks, Why take away from that? Indeed, the Festival itself is the party and the celebration.

The Sedona International Film Festival does keep getting better and better. After five years of reviewing films at the Festival, I can attest to that unequivocally. And, I can, on behalf of all of us cinephiles, give a tip of the hat to Patrick Schweiss for keeping the reels real and vibrant.

Photo credit to Sedona International Film Festival

Sedona International Film Festival ~ ~ 928-282-1177

Saturday, February 23rd through Sunday, March 3rd

Purchase passes at

Multiple venues: Mary D. Fisher Theatre, 2030 W. Highway 89A; Harkins Theatres, 2081 W. Highway 89A; Sedona Performing Arts Center, 995 Upper Red Rock Loop Road

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From This Author Herbert Paine