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By Katy Nesbitt
Growing partnerships with the Liberty Theatre and EOU are giving the Eastern Oregon Film Festival (EOFF) room to spread its wings, providing more creative experiences for filmmakers and movie enthusiasts alike.
Coming into its 13th year, EOFF Director Christopher Jennings said when renovation is complete at the historic Liberty Theatre in La Grande there will be regular screenings of independent movies.
“We want to build out a program and not be only a festival,” Jenning said.
Over the years the festival has proven that films bring tourism, bringing business to restaurants and hotels. Jennings said he hopes to double or triple that impact over the next few years.
Jennings said the festival has also created a cultural buzz in the community and he hopes to strengthen the relationships the film festival has developed with the university, students, businesses, and film fans.
Beyond expanding independent movie viewing in La Grande, EOFF wants to make Northeastern Oregon a destination for writing and filming movies. Through its emerging residency program, Jennings said he hopes EOFF can encourage the film industry to consider using the backdrop of the region’s majestic scenery to write, collaborate and shoot movies, bringing economic impact as well as artistic talent to the region.
“If a film shoots for three months, that’s good for the economy,” Jennings said.
In spring 2021 six filmmakers, chosen from 80 applicants, spent a month at The Lodge at Hot Lake Springs working on screenplays. Jennings said the goal was to create a group of filmmakers who represented different experiences and levels of engagement in the industry. The cohort included a seasoned, award-winning producer; younger filmmakers of shorts and documentaries who wanted to develop feature films; even a budding artist right out of film school.
Screenplays came to Hot Lake in what Jennings called, “A nice variety of levels of writing at different points in the creative process.”
During their month at the resort the residents wrote screenplays that could be produced locally.
“Each of them wrote their own screenplay and used the region to season their work,” Jennings said.
During the four weeks, time was made to scout potential filming locations. In order to get a big picture of the surrounding landscape, Jennings said a flight was arranged over the Wallowas.
There was no structured routine, Jennings said, besides check-in meals each week and opportunities to workshop their storylines with each other.
Jennings said the residents watched movies together two or three times a week at the resort’s screening room and critiqued the films afterward.
And if hosting a retreat for filmmakers in a valley between two spectacular mountain ranges at a hot springs resort wasn’t enough of an amenity, Jennings said the residents had access to Eastern Oregon University professors.
“A couple of the filmmakers went to EOU and worked with faculty who helped them do research, connect with students and clubs, and build networks here locally,” Jennings said.
During last spring’s inaugural residency program Jennings said the public was invited to hq, an event venue in downtown La Grande, to hear script writing samples and story pitches.
Jennings said, “We also talked about how to enrich the community, how to make it more enchanting for filmmakers to want to make movies here, and that EOU is a real asset, connectings students with film production and writing.”
Jennings said most of the funding for the residency came from EOFF’s general fund, along with a $1,000 sponsorship from EOU and other grant funding. He also credited Hot Lake for offering discounts on the room rates.
Following a couple tough years for events, a residency wasn’t offered this spring, but Jennings anticipates an increase in festival revenue this fall and expects to offer the residency program again in 2023.
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