(Story originally posted on OceanCity.com)
The first Ocean City Film Festival took place last weekend, from June 8 – 11, and it was successful in more ways than one.
First, I want to clarify that I’m not really writing this as a journalist, but as a co-director of the festival, so my outlook isn’t super objective. However, we’ve gotten some really good feedback so far, and nothing catastrophic happened over the course of the weekend, so I’m fortunate enough to not have to report on anything terrible that might have happened. Instead, I get to talk about the adventure of it all, and what we learned from the experience.
I will say that there was a lot of stress involved in planning the festival, especially since none of this has ever been done before. Not in Ocean City, anyway, and the closest that William, the festival director, and I had come to the festival circuit was a one-day volunteer stint at the Maryland Film Festival. We were optimistic, maybe naively so, that such a function could succeed in this town. But because of the incredible amount of support from the passionate and hard-working people at the Art League of Ocean City, as well as our volunteers, our sponsors, and the filmmakers themselves, many of whom were Delmarva locals, it did succeed.
Going into this, we had no idea if there could be an established community for film in Ocean City and the surrounding regions—we didn’t know if anyone cared enough. We invited a lot of our friends and acquaintances from Baltimore, knowing that if we didn’t draw in any attendees, at least we’d have a few Baltimorean bodies in the seats.
One thing we learned is that, while vacationers are not coming to Ocean City during the summer to sit in the dark and marathon movies, there are locals who really care about film and other art forms, an entire world of culture that people don’t typically associate with Ocean City. There is a small underground culture for art that, right now, is mostly being nurtured by the Art League and groups of friends who get together for drinks and discussion every once in a while. One of our biggest successes with the festival was bringing these people together to network so that they can collaborate in the future and expand the underground. While there’s an endless supply of family entertainment in OC, there isn’t much for artists, and we’d like to change that.
So, that being said, here’s an abbreviated run-down of what happened: Thursday was our opening ceremony, which was held at the Plim Plaza Caribbean Pool Bar. There was food and drink and a musician playing acoustic cover songs. Most importantly, there was an opportunity for filmmakers and film lovers to meet and mingle, and invite one another to attend their film’s screenings over the weekend. William spoke, followed by local filmmaker Dan O’Hare and local actress/retired teacher Gwen Lehman, who were also on the festival’s judging committee.
Screenings happened on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at venues across Ocean City including the Art League, Fox Gold Coast Theatre, Dunes Manor hotel and Francis Scott Key resort. The 702 film submissions we’d received in total were narrowed down to about 130 of various genres, from horror to documentary to youth shorts by directors who haven’t even graduated from elementary school yet.
The screenings themselves were a major learning experience for us—technologically, by some miracle, there were only a few minor mishaps, but the crowds in each showcase varied greatly. Some screenings only saw a handful of audience members. Others, like the horror and regional mid-Atlantic showcases, had much greater attendance. Regional mid-Atlantic, I get—we prioritize Maryland and especially Delmarva-based filmmakers, and who doesn’t want to see something that was filmed in their own backyard? The horror turnout I didn’t expect as much, although the landscape here can be pretty desolate and eerily quiet at times, so for all I know, the Eastern Shore is becoming a horror hub.
There were two workshops over the course of the weekend, one about microbudget filmmaking and the other about screenplay writing, both hugely important topics for aspiring filmmakers. On Saturday evening, there was an awards ceremony at the Art League where, after much consultation by the judging committee, three awards were given out. The Celluloid Crab, which is the best use of analog equipment or practical effects, went to Mike Reilly’s short film “Ellie,” and without revealing too much, I will say the film involves a Tinder date gone awry and copious amounts of fake blood. The Pink Flamingo, or the film most uniquely reflective of Maryland life, was awarded to “Malpractice,” a Baltimore-centric buddy comedy. The Verdict, the award for judge’s choice, was given to Joe Dimaio’s “Sonder,” a beautifully shot coming-of-age short. Award winners were given prize baskets with swag from local businesses and, more valuably, the pride of being recognized by Ocean City’s premiere film fest (I’m only being a little tongue-in-cheek, I swear!).
Our closing reception was at Touch of Italy on Sunday night, which is where the Damn Fine Film (aka Audience Choice) award was given (after I painstakingly tallied over 300 online votes). Art is subjective, and I’ll be the first to admit that awards in general mean next to nothing. However, while the film that took home Audience Choice excelled in its use of archival footage, documentary and storytelling, I was surprised that it even qualified for the award. Rob Bell III’s “Bern” is a documentary about Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential candidacy, Black Lives Matter, and how “Bernie or Bust” voters effected the ultimate results of the election. “Bern” won Audience Choice, and what this means, I’m not sure yet. It could be a reflection of the changing demographic and values of people on the Eastern Shore, or of young people in general. It could mean that the climate in Ocean City is shifting, and that it’ll see more art, activism, and politics in the years to come. This could be a very broad and biased assumption to make, but I don’t know. All I know is that “Bern” won Audience Choice at a film festival in Ocean City, and that means something.
Overall, the first Ocean City Film Festival was a ginormous learning experience for those of us that organized it, and for the locals that found their kin over the weekend. I am happy to know that a film festival can exist here, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next year.