By David Ryback
For the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, every year is a new challenge. The world’s largest Jewish film festival will return for the 16th time, and the second time as an independent nonprofit organization, from Jan. 26 to Feb. 17.
The 15th festival’s 177 screenings of 65 films drew a total audience of more than 38,600 people.
“AJFF is a recognized cultural institution adored by its dedicated audience,” festival Executive Director Kenny Blank said. “We offer a surprising diversity of the highest-caliber films, an opportunity for film enthusiasts and the culturally curious to experience unforgettable and universal stories on the big screen. These are often major new releases, direct from the international festival circuit, which would otherwise not be available to Atlanta audiences.”
With the announcement of the lineup for the 2016 festival coming in mid-December, Blank talked recently about the first full year of the festival’s independence from the American Jewish Committee and what’s ahead.
Ryback: So, Kenny, what’s on tap for this year’s slate of films?
Blank: Well, we’re still in the process of making the final selections.
Ryback: What’s the process? How are the films selected?
Blank: To start with, there’s a committee of about 200 people who look at the potential choices. It’s a very rewarding volunteer experience.
Ryback: Wow! That’s a lot of people.
Blank: Don’t forget that we’re now the world’s largest Jewish film festival, with about 38,600 moviegoers this year. Not that we’re competing, but we’re now bigger than the San Francisco festival. Anyway, we get about 500 to 700 entries for the festival that are evaluated, usually from May to November. They’re either submitted, or we invite them.
Ryback: How do you hear about them?
Blank: Well, the timing is great in that a number of key film festivals take place in the summer and fall preceding ours. There are the Tribeca, Sundance, Berlin and Toronto festivals, for example.
Ryback: There are not many of these films coming from Atlanta itself.
Blank: You’re right. Atlanta has closed most of its independent art movie theaters. So that makes for a larger community of movie lovers coming to our festival. Sometimes we’re the first to premiere highly prestigious films in Atlanta. Some of the better films are released just before our festival, timed to be considered for the Oscars, and that’s great for us — perfect timing, you might say. We try to have a well-rounded set of films. The theme hasn’t been decided yet, but I can easily promise you and your readers that there will be some outstanding films.
Ryback: And the festival is planned for late January, is that correct? Any new venues this year?
Blank: Yes, late January. There are some new venues, as a matter of fact. We are returning to Atlantic Station, Lefont Sandy Springs, Regal Cinema Tara and Regal Avalon on Old Milton Parkway in North Fulton. New ones include SCADshow, the former 14th Street Playhouse space, which SCAD Atlanta has transformed into a state-of-the-art movie theater with new seating. Also, for closing night, we’re moving from the Rich Auditorium to Symphony Hall at the Woodruff Arts Center.
Ryback: Kenny, what is your role as the leader of this complex enterprise?
Blank: My role is to listen, absorb what the bright staff and volunteer leadership in our organization are saying, and then consolidate all that to help grow an increasingly valuable and appreciated community asset. We’re always undergoing transition — that’s what success for us is all about. And all this with a small full-time staff of very hardworking individuals and a budget of over a million dollars.
Ryback: What are some of the challenges for the festival’s choices of film?
Blank: For one thing, we choose to avoid any advocacy influence. We want to present an independent, artistic approach. We need to be independent enough to show a diversity of points of view, for sure not embracing any particular point of view. I think being Jewish means always asking questions.
Ryback: After 15 years of growth, the festival seems to be taking a larger perspective of its mission.
Blank: Yes, I believe it’s more important to understand the community’s needs than to impose any particular point of view. Don’t forget that our venture includes fundraising and marketing as well as film programming. We’re open to input from all segments as to overall direction.
Ryback: So what’s new for this year’s festival?
Blank: Well, two things. First of all, we’re moving more into additional programming beyond the festival’s sold-out screenings. We’re allowing for more screenings throughout the year and potentially going even beyond this to include other types of nonfilm programs. Second, we’re interested in venturing forth into more community engagement — for example, encouraging more understanding between Jewish groups and the larger community. After all, great storytelling is universal. We want to reach out to other ethnic and cultural groups, such as the Muslim and LGBT communities. What are their needs? How can we help create a community more dedicated to a shared humanity?
Ryback: Sounds like a real shift in philosophy.
Blank: Yes, we’re transitioning away from one-way communication to mutual respect and true partnership with other segments of our community. I’m hoping that these efforts result in more authentic partnerships and programming.
Ryback: Are you having any effect on the Atlanta film-producing community?
Blank: Actually, we are moving in that direction. The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival is all about great films. So filmmaking is connected to that. After all, we’re the biggest exhibitor in Atlanta of U.S. and worldwide premieres. So we also want to promote and encourage filmmakers not only here in Atlanta, but also worldwide. That’s a part of our strategic planning, our long-term goals. All this in only 15 years, when the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is about 35 years old. So I think we’re growing fairly quickly and I hope strategically as well.
Ryback: So is the Atlanta festival becoming a thought leader in film production?
Blank: We would like to encourage the next filmmaker generation to consider more Jewish themes, not only locally, but around the world. Over 20 countries are represented in our festival. We wouldn’t mind achieving more international recognition.
Ryback: Any changes in the structure of the organization this year?
Blank: This is the first year we’ve become an autonomous nonprofit organization. As I mentioned, our long-term strategy is to become a cultural institution so that those supporting it are not only supporting the screening of marvelous films, but also other related events that go beyond the schedule of the screenings. This involves a yearlong planning process, engaged volunteers to advise and inform us to greater heights, and increased financial investment from the community. Don’t forget that ticket sales only cover 20 percent of our expenses. Eighty percent comes from funding. So we need philanthropic support for sustainable, long-term growth.
Ryback: So that’s what you see from the center of the enterprise. Do you ever get feedback on your performance as a great leader of such a successful venture?
Blank: I just see myself as a steward. When the time comes for me to move, I want to make sure that I leave it in the best place possible. For me, it’s all about integrity — to do my level best getting people fired up to create a festival where attendees get a chance to see friends and neighbors so they can compare their reactions to the films they see. I love hearing all the people talking in line, commenting on the films that excite them, just enjoying the heck out of this very social annual event. I think it’s quite unique — you don’t see that in commercial theaters.
Ryback: You’re quite right. There’s nothing like the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in the South, maybe even across the world. There’s a very haimish feel to it, coming out of the core of the Jewish community and now reaching out to so many other segments, both locally and internationally, as you mentioned. You’re doing a great job, it seems.
Blank: Just a steward. A facilitator and consolidator of others’ efforts.