The Local Creative Series is a collection of interviews with people who contribute to Miami’s growing creativity. We pick their brains and share their musings in hopes that others are inspired to see the potential not only here in Miami, but perhaps in their own cities as well.
Our next featured creative is Igor Shteyrenberg, the executive director of Popcorn Frights Film Festival and Miami Jewish Film Festival. Igor tells us what it’s like to build a film fest from scratch, how he deals with the stigma that horror is not an art, and which local filmmakers we should be watching. (Not to mention how his horror fest saved Wynwood from Zika.)
By Rebecca Wagoner
How did you come into the creation of film festivals?
One of Popcorn Frights’ initial core values was that it had to embrace the brilliant diversity of film genre and showcase the best international films that pushed the artistic envelope and redefined genre expectations. From the get go, we knew the Festival's purpose was not solely to provide entertainment but to open the minds of our audience to the artistic integrity of the film medium, its creators, and innovators. In these last three years, we far exceeded this goal. Popcorn Frights has not only become the largest genre film event in the Southeastern United States and one of the fastest growing film festivals in South Florida, but it's also now a burgeoning network for so many in the community to connect with each other as well as filmmakers from around the world.
What’s the most striking difference between co-directing Popcorn Frights, a festival you helped create from scratch, and solo directing the Miami Jewish Film Festival, which was founded when you were a kid?
Launching a wholly fresh and original Festival that's unique to a community brings all sorts of branding and outreach challenges. You're having to create an infrastructure, an identity, a following from the ground up, all the while striving to promote the promise of something totally unknown but utterly worthwhile that's still to come. On the other hand, inheriting an already recognized Festival with an established audience may at first appear like a cinch, but it actually presents just as many intricate challenges. For instance, how do you launch programming initiatives that try to develop new audiences without threatening to distance or entirely lose your current fan base?
Do you have more creative freedom selecting films for Popcorn Frights vs. other festivals?
I'm fortunate in both Festival platforms that I serve as an executive director [and] I have equal measures of support to be as freely creative and curiosity driven. What this freedom and trust have allowed is for me to develop one festival completely from scratch into the largest and most exciting genre film event in Florida, and with another, to grow it into the third largest Jewish film festival in the world, as well as one of the most respected international film festivals in the United States. But this is not a solo effort. My colleague at Popcorn Frights, Marc Ferman, has been instrumental in developing the festival's brand and fostering our audience. Without his leadership and vision, Popcorn Frights would not have been able to soar so quickly and so high. At Miami Jewish Film Festival, our lay leaders and board have been pivotal in establishing a solid infrastructure of support that has allowed the organization to rise beyond anyone's wildest imagination.
What’s been your proudest moment at Popcorn Frights?
We are proudest to share our festival's bright spotlight with so many of our local filmmakers. This year's inaugural Homegrown: 100% Pure Fresh Squeezed Florida Horror program centered on reinvigorating our audience's engagement with Miami's local filmmakers and Florida’s homegrown talent. The sidebar was designed to be a springboard for new filmmakers from Florida and a space that helps forge a new direction for Miami's genre scene by further cultivating and nurturing its growing film community. This year's lineup was composed of highly original stories with one of the entries, Buzzcut, actually winning our Festival's Audience Award for Best Short Film.
What's more, with the immense media reach Popcorn Frights draws, major production companies and studios based in NY and LA have started to reach out to us inquiring about the local talent we showcase at Popcorn Frights, as well as the emerging filmmakers we help discover and give voice to from around the world. We hope this is just the beginning of many more opportunities Popcorn Frights will offer filmmakers to help kickstart their careers.
Have you had any notable obstacles with Popcorn Frights?
It's unfortunate there is still a confused stigma about genre cinema amongst so many, assumptions ranging from that it's exploitative, not an art, a bad influence, and so on and so forth. It's these falsehoods that we are challenged to stand up against by showcasing not only a vibrantly diverse and internationally robust program but one that circumvents expectations of horror or genre film conventions.
Moreover, we never could have imagined how absolutely vital Popcorn Frights was to the South Florida community until Miami was faced with the Zika crisis last year. All of Wynwood was basically shut down for outdoor activities at the time. Hardly any traffic was passing through and business lights were sadly dimmed. With this depressing cloud of doom hanging over everything, we kicked off our second annual edition completely uncertain of our festival's future. But to our utter disbelief, students, film lovers, and local residents looking for something exciting to do and break the spell of Zika fear all turned out in unprecedented numbers to the festival. Wynwood businesses that may have been on their last legs were given hope to pull through another week, one more month, because of the crowds the festival was drawing back into the area. It was an extraordinary experience and one which made us realize just us how essential Popcorn Frights was to our South Florida community.
Are there any local filmmakers we should keep an eye out for?
We would not be doing our due diligence as curators if we didn't encourage your readers to see Buzzcut, a Key West set LGBTQ-interest apocalyptic zombie comedy that just begs for discovery. The directors, Jon Rhoads and Mike Marrero, took a brilliantly fun revisionist approach to a tired horror genre and made a crowd-pleasing hit that won this year's Festival Audience Award for Best Short Film. Jon and Mike are filmmakers worth keeping a close eye on as they are rising talents in the industry with a very bright future.
Is Miami an ideal spot for putting a creative idea in motion?
This really couldn't be a better time to take chances, pursue a dream, and be creative as we are in the midst of a flourishing art scene in Miami. The city truly holds limitless opportunities to be ambitious or seek discovery.
How far fetched of an idea is it to create a film fest from scratch? Any advice for those interested?
With new pop-up festivals launching every year, the question isn't whether it's possible to launch an event from scratch, but how do you manage to sustain it? You need to ask what is it that will distinguish your event from all the others that will have film lovers wanting to come back for more again and again? A clear minded budget and strong community partnerships are just as important, especially if you're flying solo without any local funding prospects. And lastly, know who your audience is and try to establish an honest connection with them. Remember you have a promise to sell them and they will hold you to it.