An interview with James Harmon II about starting the Sanford International Film Festival

James and the Tommy Awards!

As the filmmaking fool, I love sharing my experiences diving into the filmmaking world. I thought it would also be great to share some other start-up stories of filmmakers, writers, cinematographers, festival programmers, actors, and anyone else involved in the film world with you all. I hope to include artists at all stages of their careers, from hobbyists to professionals, who can share their perspectives on taking the first steps toward making films.

I am excited to feature James Harmon II today. James is a high school video production teacher, advisor for the Sanford Film Club, independent filmmaker, drummer, and of course, film festival director for the Sanford International Film Festival, which is what we’ll be discussing today! SIFF has run for three years and we here at Filmmaking Fool have attended parts of all three. It’s a great fest thriving in a film-enthusiast pocket in Maine, and it’s always a great time!

What inspired you to start the Sanford International Film Festival?

James with Anne Bobby, Haley Norman, and Corey Norman

This is a wild story. I crashed into the role from my work with the Sanford High School Film Club. My students made this feature-length movie about some do-nothing seniors who make a high school bucket list. It was supposed to premiere at the Lewiston Auburn Film Festival in 2014, and a couple of weeks before the premiere, the director of that festival was arrested on child porn charges.  I had met him three times–at their previous two film festivals, then one day film club had posted about our latest movie, and he replied to the post asking if we had any roles, we did, and it was almost time to start filming, so we gave him one. He seemed approachable and friendly on set. This guy was a city counselor for one of Maine’s biggest cities, the editor of a magazine, keynote speaker at a high school graduation the year before. He was on the 40 under 40 list of influential Mainers.

Film Club had two films screen at that festival in previous years and it was a fun festival. It was a complete shock when I saw his mugshot on my Facebook newsfeed! We were among almost 50 filmmakers who didn’t know what was going to happen to that festival for about 10 days. I had requisitions for a bus and lunch money out, and we had no idea whether it would go on, collapse, or evolve into something else. I heard from another local filmmaker after a few days that there were some meetings among the LAFF staff and some prominent Maine filmmakers about holding another event to screen the biggest movies that were supposed to play at there, which would’ve left us out along with a lot of other filmmakers, so I started thinking about maybe organizing a local screening.

Then I got a cancellation email from their former tech guy. All of the filmmakers who were supposed to show films were CC’d, and I immediately thought that I should invite these guys to come show their movies in Sanford. Before letting that idea loose, I contacted this community group called Synergize Sanford about holding a film festival in Sanford. I knew we had venues, and a bunch of people willing to volunteer. That email went out probably at around 10:30 PM, right before bedtime for me. The next morning, I had an email from Mayor Cote saying he was interested and wanted to set up a meeting. We ended up playing about twenty films that were supposed to play at LAFF 2014, and we also picked up about fifteen more great films from all over New England.

How did you create it? What was the process like from idea to activation?

In my mind, it was a celebration of the films and the filmmakers. The first festival wasn’t about competing, or winning. It was about our community coming together, opening up to these filmmakers to show some great movies. Thinking back about the pace of the first festival, it was bonkers! We went from an idea sparked by a late night email to a 37-film international film festival in two months. It was incredibly fast, messy, and fun.

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently at the start?

I would probably have talked to Smitty’s Cinema right away. The first year we operated out of a huge church, a neat community theater called Nasson Little Theater, the cafeteria at the high school, and the auditorium above Sanford City Hall. I would’ve scrapped the church screen, the cafeteria screen, and maybe even the auditorium screen in favor of comfortable spaces with the best atmosphere.

How do you get the word out about the Sanford International Film Festival?

We’ve had the best response from Facebook, but we’ve also been very outgoing with radio, print media (sending press releases and following up), and getting on TV in southern Maine, and on our PEG channel. The first year we had so much coverage from city council meetings, social media posts, local and regional newspapers, local television programs and radio shows. I spoke at Rotary, another board member spoke at Kiwanis, someone else handed out fliers at a parade, yet I’d still run into people who hadn’t heard about a film festival in Sanford. Reaching people is difficult, but we just do our best with what we have, and it’s always worth it!

What is the most exciting film you’ve been able to include in the Sanford International Film Festival? (Or what film do you feel luckiest you were able to get access to?)

This is so tough! I’ve seen over 2000 submissions, and I feel extremely lucky that every one of those filmmakers chose us. Even if they had a waiver code, or made it in as a student when that was free, they still took the time to read about Sanford, Maine, and decided we were worth their time.

When it comes to favorites, I have a lot of those–including some that weren’t even chosen to screen at the festival. Let’s get specific though. I felt extremely lucky to be screening The Hanover House the first year. I wanted to see it so badly because I had been hearing about it for a whole year prior.

I also feel fortunate to have screened Bridge and Tunnel, Jason Michael Brescia‘s s second feature.

The second year we showed over 140 films. Organizing that festival may have taken years off of my life, but it was an amazing event. That year opened my eyes so much to the movies being created around the world. The Extraordinary Mr. Júpiter
from Puerto Rico, Directed by Federico Torres. I’ll never forget watching it for the first time; I cried, it was so good.

We also landed this amazing feature called Wildlike that year, starring Ella Purnell, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Geraghty, Ann Dowd, Nolan Gerard Funk, Diane Farr and directed by Frank Hall Green. In 2016 we put on another amazing program. I just looked over it again and I’m flooded with incredible scenes from these movies!

I also feel very lucky to have programmed several of your films at SIFF. TEN, Magnetic, and most recently Blood of the Tribades, which—out of all of the submissions I’ve seen—is definitely a top five horror movie for me.

Any tips for someone looking to start a film festival?

I suggest you surround yourself with a team of awesome people who get things done, communicate well, and treat everyone right. I suggest you program a lot of shorts, and try to work in as much comedy and lighter stuff as you can. Depending on how many programming hours you have, get some great features too!

Don’t forget to honor your local filmmaking scene! Filmmakers are the reason film festivals exist; if you have them nearby, encourage them. Audiences care about the local films, but it also just feels right to help develop your local fimmaking scene. Get someone who loves making websites and knows about SEO to work on your website, and don’t procrastinate. If you know you need to write an email or make a phone call, just do it because tomorrow you’ll have dozens more!

Any tips for filmmakers who have a project they’d like included in the Sanford International Film Festival? What makes a good fit for the festival?

Please submit to us through filmfreeway!

We have a team of judges who love watching and thinking about films, and I watch and take notes on every submission as well. Like I said earlier, shorts are more likely to be selected just because it’s easier to fit them into a schedule, but if you’ve made a feature, and you know it’s good, please send it! We program all sorts of movies, and we’d absolutely love to see anything that’s out there! Our submission window opens January 1, 2017 for our fourth festival, which will happen in October 2017.

What are the future plans for the Sanford International Film Festival?

We want to keep putting on a great show, and keep getting better and learning from our experiences. Our fourth festival is in development right now; we’re talking about scope, dates, more or less planning the bigger details.

Keep up with James and the Sanford International Film Festival at: