Summer Peacher has spent most of her life on the West Coast. And it was in California, while working with the Beverly Hills Film Festival with her husband Brian (a native of Summerville and a College of Charleston graduate), that she came up with the idea to bring a similar event to Charleston in 2007, even though they still resided in the Golden State.
But after four years of running CIFF from another time zone, the couple, along with their 20-month-old daughter, finally packed their bags and made the Holy City their permanent home last May. Now, with the festival going into its fifth year, Summer is still adjusting to both its continued growth and her new life in the Lowcountry.
"The idea is that each year, we want to get bigger and better," Peacher says. For 2012, the CIFF team — after partnering with Charliewood Pictures and installing a board of directors — hopes to expand on past festivals. "We tried to take all the feedback from last year and translate it into what we can improve on."
Charliewood Pictures is a new production company whose goal is to develop, support, and promote South Carolina-based films. Denis Gallagher, founder of Charliewood, believes his local entrepreneurial experience can be an asset to CIFF. "I draw circles around the Charleston area and Charleston area businesses that need to be involved in this and can obviously leverage this festival," he says. He believes in keeping the event's focus on South Carolina and, in particular, Charleston, to further not only the festival, but all aspects of local filmmaking. "Bringing films and bringing action here is going to be critical, because the more you bring here, the easier it is to sell the buzz and excitement to the business community and the community at large," Gallagher explains.
Out of this year's 83 film selections — which include features, documentaries, shorts, and animation — 20 were made in South Carolina. "Our main goal as a festival is to provide a platform for local film and local filmmakers to showcase their hard work and to showcase Charleston," says CIFF Marketing Director Ron Krauskopf. Unfortunately, even with close to 25 percent of this year's films coming from local filmmakers, there were a few that didn't make the cut, which led to some unhappy South Carolinians. "We try to support everybody we can," Krauskopf goes on. "It would be nice to say they're all just grandfathered in, but at the same time, we also try to focus on quality and bringing in the best films we can."
This year's festival will kick things off on its opening night, Wed. April 11, with a Sundance Film Festival award-winner. Director Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank, which won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize in Utah this past January, stars some big names like Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, and Jeremy Strong, with Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of the robot. The dramatic comedy, set sometime in the future, follows Frank, a grumpy old man living by himself. Worried about their father's health, Frank's children buy him a caretaker robot. Frank's initial hesitancy toward the idea slowly wears off, and he begins to treat the autonomous being like a true friend. The film will be screened at Sottile Theatre, a venue that is another new addition to CIFF this year. Robot & Frank isn't set to hit theaters until later this year or early the next, so Peacher is excited to offer festival-goers a sneak preview of the heartfelt chronicle.
While film is the name of the game with CIFF, Peacher and her team are also bringing more art and music into the mix this year. Beginning on opening night, an artist will start working on a moving mural, which will travel from theater to theater throughout the festival. "We don't want people to just come to see a film," Peacher says. "We want them to come and have the full festival experience." On the final night, the Music Farm will host a send-off party with tunes courtesy of the Drive-By Truckers.
CIFF has also reached a notable landmark in 2012. After five years, the festival is eligible to become an Academy Award qualifier. In layman's terms, this means that films screened at CIFF could have a chance at winning an Oscar. For Peacher, who someday hopes her festival becomes the "Cannes of the South," this milestone is exciting. "That would really put us on the map, because then everybody would want to submit," she says. Peacher imagines becoming a qualifier would not only increase applications but also boost attendance and tourism in Charleston. "If it gives them a shot at an Academy Award, you would be stupid to not want to do that."
Although being accepted into the Academy's guild is undoubtedly a goal for everyone involved with CIFF, it would simply be the icing on the cake for the young festival. For Peacher, though, who is still balancing the festival — which she claims has always been her baby — with a real baby at home, the past five years have been a dream come true. "The idea whenever we started was to go into it and hope it will be well received, and so far, everything I've hoped for has continued to happen," she says. However, being the forever goal-oriented woman that she is, settling is not in her plans. "Charleston is already a place that people want to come see," she says. "Down the road, what I want, selfish as it may be, is for people to come to Charleston to go to the Charleston International Film Festival, and then as a bonus, they get to see Charleston."
The Charleston International Film Festival takes place April 11-15 downtown at the Sottile Theatre (44 George St.) and in Mt. Pleasant at Cinebarre (963 Houston Northcutt Blvd.). To see a complete schedule, visit charlestoninternationalfilmfestival.org.