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MVFF: Behind the Scenes - Roll Film

Mill Valley Film Festival founder/executive director Mark Fishkin and director of programming Zoë Elton, on curating the signature MVFF experience.


How do you maintain the festival’s unique low-key vibe while also introducing cutting-edge ideas and adapting to an ever-evolving market?
Mark: From the [festival’s] inception, we said we wanted to be professional but unpretentious. Change is a really important part of what we do. We have to focus on the present and the future.
Zoë: I think that also epitomizes what the Bay Area is. There’s a welcoming sensibility, but there’s also an inquisitiveness about who we are, what we are, and what we’re doing.

MVFF always features wonderful special guests. Who comes to mind as one of your favorites?
Zoë: The first year we sort of officially did our “Mind the Gap” program [which focuses on women in film], we were honoring Sir Ian McKellen. He said, “But I’m a man! I think it’d be good to do something about women I’ve worked with.” He did just that, and it was extraordinary.

Can the excitement surrounding some of your higher-profile guests sometimes get out of hand?
Mark: Things have changed, and we do get more protective [of our guests]. People want to take photographs, but we still try to create an easygoing atmosphere and make it as enjoyable for the guest as it would be for the audience.

Your “Mind the Gap” initiative has been one of your most successful innovations. How has that program been coming along?
Zoë: As a program director, I’ve always been driven by really wanting to make sure that we have programming that encompasses a lot of different sensibilities, a lot of different geographies. Throughout our history, making sure that women are [included] has been important, and it really became more compelling several years ago when we did a panel with Stacy Smith [of USC’s Annenberg School of Communication], who coined the phrase “inclusion rider,” which you may have heard at the Oscars this year. One of the ways of making change is to translate that into what you do in your work and in your life. Then, we can start to push things forward.

What conversations and themes do you see bubbling to the surface at this year’s festival?
Zoë: Race in America is definitely front and center [this year]. We’ve seen a number of films addressing black issues in America on the festival circuit. We’ve also consciously started looking for films that address a young adult audience, the same kind of audience you would see reading YA novels.
Mark: There was a film we showed last year called Life and Nothing More, and we’re distributing that film now. It highlights race in America but also represents films with nonprofessional casts, which may develop into a focus as well.



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