NEA Arts Magazine

Film Stars

Cleveland Presents an International Film Festival

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Michael Cunningham beside the podium looking at  Marcie Goodman who is looking up at him

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Cunningham accepts the Cleveland International Film Festival's 2008 From Page to Projector Award from Marcie Goodman, the festival's executive director. Photo by Tim Jafrane.

Cleveland, Ohio, may be better known for its orchestra, but many residents consider the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF) a local treasure. Since 1977, when the festival screened just eight films, Executive Director Marcie Goodman and her staff have been committed to presenting foreign and independent films that might never make it to a Midwestern multiplex. To be sure, the festival has booked its share of art house hits -- including the 2008 documentary Young @ Heart -- but the majority of movies screened at the festival would never see a Cleveland marquee, Goodman said.

For its first 14 years, the festival hosted screenings at a variety of theaters in the metro area. In 1991, Tower City Cinemas became the festival's permanent home. Since 2006, festival admissions have held steady at 52,000. In 2008, the festival received an NEA Access to Artistic Excellence grant to support its programming: more than 130 features and some 160 shorts. Features are selected mostly by CIFF's artistic planning staff, while volunteers select the best from the 1,000 shorts submitted in response to a call for entries.

Festival administrators work with educators and community leaders to plan awards and related programming. In 2008, more than 5,000 schoolchildren attended matinee screenings and talkbacks. CIFF also partnered with a local library to bring in Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours. After accepting the festival's new From Page to Projector Award for writing novels that successfully transfer to the big screen, Cunningham declared the honor his favorite, other than "this thingy called the Pulitzer Prize." These educational efforts and community partnerships are two reasons why the NEA consistently awards grants to the Cleveland festival. "There's great cachet from getting money from the NEA," Goodman said.

Local cineastes aren't CIFF's only fans: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently named it as a qualifying festival in the category of Short Films, meaning that CIFF Best Live Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film awardees may qualify as Oscar nominees.

But perhaps the greatest testament to the festival's popularity are the more than 3,000 people who bundled up and braved a late-winter blizzard to attend screenings at the 2008 festival's opening weekend. Many of those moviegoers spent the night in Cleveland's Public Square, trapped by some 15 inches of snow that fell while they were indoors watching Jump, The Flight of the Red Balloon, and In Search of a Midnight Kiss.

"It's sort of like a badge of courage," said Goodman. "To this day, people say, ‘I was there during the blizzard.'"