Lighthouse Film Fest Leaders and Local Alumni Attend Sundance, Share Insights

Jan 24, 2018

Tens of thousands of film lovers and industry professionals converge on Park City, Utah, each January for the Sundance Film Festival, the nation’s largest, created 40 years ago, and in 2018 screened 110 independent films from 29 countries. This past weekend, attending the event (which runs from Jan. 18 to 28) were some Southern Ocean County residents and ambassadors of LBI’s popular and long-running Lighthouse International Film Festival.

LIFF founder and former Executive Director Charlie Prince described Sundance as “the kickoff for us, in terms of finding important films to bring to LIFF, and to start talking with distributors and others with films about participating in LIFF, especially this year as we prepare for our 10th year of the fest.”

Representing Oak Leaf Media – the company responsible for the “Just Beneath the Surface” web series highlighting the LBI region and for the recently released short documentary “Space Cadet,” in which James Yuhas grapples with the unsolved mystery of his brother’s death – were Director/Editor Brendan Walsh, Documentarian Kyle Griffin and Documentarian/Director of Photography Dave Niziolek.

Oak Leaf has had a short doc and a feature doc in the LIFF. This was the men’s first trip to Sundance. They stayed with a group called Chicago Media Project, invited by Surf City resident and East Gallery owner Jennifer Bryceland.

“For filmmakers, it was exciting to have an intimate experience with other filmmakers and successful people in the industry,” according to Walsh. “It definitely made some of our goals seem much more tangible. We spent most of our time on line for films, seeing films and exploring Park City.”

They didn’t realize LIFF Executive Director Eric Johnson and Charlie Prince were there until they bumped into Prince while on line for the Nicolas Cage movie “Mandy.”

“We met lots of people on the financing side of films, and the notable people we saw were Common, Nic Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kevin Smith, Will.I.Am, Joaquin Phoenix, David Wain, Jason Ritter, and Peter Dinklage,” Walsh said.

As it relates to LIFF, the takeaway for Walsh was the “destination event” feel, where the films are the focus but the parties, food, ancillary events and skiing make it comprehensive. In his opinion, “LIFF has the potential to be an all-inclusive experience just like Sundance.”

Attending the Sundance Film Festival “is a dream come true for us and a major milestone in our career,” he said. “We look forward to attending for years to come, and hopefully being able to screen something in Utah in the future.”

Johnson, who lives in Brooklyn, was at Sundance this year for the eighth time. “I love attending,” he said. Describing Sundance as “the preeminent American film festival and the kickoff for the year’s independent film scene,” he said, “It’s a film lover’s dream to be surrounded all day and night by new films and the excitement that Sundance is known for.” Johnson has been involved with LIFF since its inception and was the programming director before becoming executive director following the 2013 Festival.

Harvey Cedars residents Fred and Arlene Schragger hosted the LIFF team (Johnson, Prince and Amir Bogen) in Park City, which Johnson said was “a huge help, considering the cost of everything in Park City during Sundance!”

Johnson said he tries to see as many films as possible while also carving out times for meetings with filmmakers, executives and promoting LIFF.

With regard to noteworthy people he met, Johnson opted to “use discretion to keep our film targets a secret. You’ll have to come to LIFF in June to see which Sundance titles will make their N.J. premiere on LBI.”

“As always, it is inspiring to see new voices in cinema have their careers flourish with the acclaim that Sundance provides, particularly those who have previously been guests of LIFF.”

Prince, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Manhattan, was executive director for five years and now chairs the board. His mother lives on the Island and he has been visiting yearly since childhood. He has attended Sundance 11 times, and describes it as “the most important American film festival and (along with Cannes and Toronto) one of the three film festivals that most of the film industry makes an effort to attend. It is widely seen as having the most important films premiere at it of any American festival, where it focuses on championing a diverse array of storytellers and fostering new ones.

“In contrast, Cannes is seen as more celebrating new works by the world’s greatest established directors, and Toronto is anchored around the launch of awards season films making a push for Oscars, etc. For the U.S., Sundance is the biggest opportunity to network and develop relationships with the gatekeepers of the film industry.”

His time in Utah has been spent watching movies “around the clock”: rising at 7 a.m., getting five or six movies in per day, ending with the midnight movie, to bed 3 a.m., repeat. The LIFF teammates compare notes on films by text message during the day, he said, and in passing at 8 a.m. and again at 2:30 a.m.

At every screening Prince attends, he encounters people he’s worked with before, either with LIFF or within the film industry: distributors, publicity firms, other film festival organizers, filmmakers from past festivals, and so on. At the time of this interview, Prince was in a theater awaiting an episodic (TV) screening directed by a filmmaking friend, and had bumped into his publicist, another longtime friend, as he walked in the door.

“If you love films, it’s hard to beat this place. Many of the most important films you will want to see this year are playing here – more than you can possibly see even if you see as much as you can.  And everyone in the industry we want to make part of the LIFF family (and to continue to build existing relationships with) is here. Often after the festival I wonder how I could go 10 days sleeping four hours a night and enjoying every second of it; for me, that’s only possible at Sundance, Cannes and Toronto film fests.

“Every second counts, and it is now, as it has been since the founding of LIFF, an essential ingredient in what makes LIFF a success.”

In addition to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, the Sundance Institute holds festivals in London and Hong Kong, NEXT FEST (“where movies, music and mischief collide”), a theatrical Shorts Tour, educational programs and community events. The very first Sundance, in 1978, featured such immortal works as “Deliverance,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Mean Streets.”

— Victoria Ford

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