Think of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and “film” might not the first word to enter your mind.
If so, you haven’t met Jerry Dalton: a man with bold ideas for both independent film and the city where he has run the Myrtle Beach International Film Festival (MBIFF) for the last 11 years.
The festival’s next edition takes place April 2017; additional screenings will be held in September in the Michigan cities of South Haven and Niles, and other locations. Submissions are currently open.
Besides his work as MBIFF’s founder and director, Dalton assists independent filmmakers navigate distribution with his company, Dalton Pictures, which he founded in 2002. He accomplishes this through hooking filmmakers up with executives and studio heads at his festival, and also via his Independent Film Series, which places MBIFF alumni films in multiplexes across the country. Another of Dalton’s dreams: to someday host an east coast version of Santa Monica’s American Film Market (AFM) in Myrtle Beach, one of the most popular tourist destinations on the East Coast (the city’s Grand Strand beaches reportedly receive more than 14 million visitors annually).
A master pastry chef and former culinary school graduate, Dalton spoke to MovieMaker in early November about the festival he founded and his vision for the future of independent cinema.
Caleb Hammond, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Tell us about your impetus for founding the Myrtle Beach Film Festival.
Jerry Dalton (JD): I wanted a platform for independent filmmakers. I wanted to build a film festival where the films didn’t have to be repped. A long time ago I noticed that there were some great films out there, that I had seen, that wouldn’t get into some of the larger festivals, and I always found that very strange. Then as I got more into it, I found out the politics behind those festivals—the repping behind the festivals. I never thought it was fair. That’s one of the main reasons I started MBIFF, because there are a lot of great independent filmmakers who need a platform but don’t have the “Hollywood juice,” so to say, to get it. It was about the true love of the independent film.
MM: It’s been 12 years now. How has the festival evolved since its beginnings?
JD: In 2009, we started to put some of the films on the big screen in a program called Independent Film Series, which we ran at 120-plus Carmike theaters across the country. A lot of the films we would plug into that series came through our film festival. The films that came through would get the opportunity to play next to the large films that have, you know, $50-100 million P&A budgets. It provided the independent filmmaker a way to get their work out, to be seen and recognized more, and it gave the viewing audience an option outside of the standard, the traditional…
MM: …Marvel Movies.
JD: Yes. One of our films which actually won last year, Live Another Day, we released in September. It went into Regal, AMC, Carmike, Cinemark and other theaters across the United States. I believe that there’s a niche. In fact, I think it’s larger than a niche. It’s about finding the marketing strategy that works to allow the average person who loves film to know that these films are coming out and have the opportunity to be marketed to.
I find that the independent film is really scripted from the heart, whereas Hollywood films are scripted from an accounting standpoint. There always seems to be the same type of formula—same clichés, same taglines; they’re all in there. People like them—they go back to them, but then they go, “God, I wish we could see something different.” Independent film is transitioning from just film festivals and small releases into larger formats and venues. I think it’s a very exciting time to be an independent filmmaker, because that’s on the horizon. Even ShowEast this year dedicated about 15 percent of the expo to independent film. I discuss this with the vice presidents of Regal, Carmike and Cinemark to see what their feelings are. They’re the ones who are responsible for the bookings. All of them have the same opinion: “It’s coming.”
Now, going back to “why I started the festival,” I’ve watched films that Hollywood hasn’t been able to match. I’ve seen some great Hollywood films, but nothing along the lines that has the heart, the emotion, the soul that these have. When you leave the auditorium, you don’t leave and go out and have a coffee and say, “Oh yeah, that was really entertaining.” You leave talking about the film. You think about it for months. Independent film is very stirring. Film is supposed to evoke a feeling and an energy.
MM: Who are MBIFF’s personnel?
JD: I’ve got probably the most diverse judging panel in the world. We do have a filmmaker, but I’ve also got a lawyer; I’ve got a doctor; I’ve got a construction worker; I’ve got a waitress. I’ve got people from all walks of life. I think that’s the fairest that you can be to the independent filmmaker, because you’re getting a different view of the film other than just film critics, film students or filmmakers. If you can pass the test of satisfying five of the seven judges, then more than likely, you’re going to pass the test of the average viewing audience.
MM: How many of the films are from submissions versus films that are programmed outside of submissions?
JD: We don’t program. Everything comes through submissions. Everybody starts out with a fair shake. We don’t care who’s in it. We don’t care who’s attached to it, what name is attached to it, or the budget. It’s the quality of the film. That is a strict criteria for us. If you don’t do this, then you might have an independent filmmaker that’s put his whole life and soul into this film, and they get kicked out because they don’t have a bigger name. And that to me is very unfair.
I was rather shocked once, about seven years ago, when someone came up here and told me that there was a festival, about 400 miles away, that said, “Yeah, if you pay us a couple grand, we can program you.” I was shocked, because to me that’s just not right. You have some guy out there, whose maybe mortgaged his house, and he may not have a couple grand. Money should never be a prerequisite of what you put out or if you get in. If you’re good you get in, if you’re not you don’t. No politics. No pay to play.
MM: What can a filmmaker expect from having their film screened at MBIFF?
JD: The dream is always that Paramount is going to come purchase your film at Sundance for $10 million. How often does that happen, considering how many films are made? It doesn’t happen much. So you have to have a plan, a strategy. We had a panel discussion about that last year with various media professionals. We try to get media professionals in and hook them up with the filmmakers—to open a door, so they can go talk to someone. Say, “Hey, here’s my film.” Or, “What should I do?” Or, “How can I change this?” It’s important to get the people at the top—who make the decisions of whether this stuff goes through or not—in touch with the filmmaker to say, “Hey, we like the film, but maybe if you just changed the name.” Or, “If you think about taking this part out.” Or, “Let our editors take a look at it.” All at once, now the filmmaker has started a career. They’re getting paid, and they’re also getting advice on the next film, so they can make something viable. If you want to get into the business, things have to be commercially viable. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It just can’t be so eclectic that you have only three people in the world who like it.
MM: Film festivals and beach towns tend go hand in hand. How does the region and vibe of Myrtle Beach affect the festival?
JD: We try to have a casual atmosphere, so there’s no stuffiness. We want people to communicate. Everybody should be approachable. When you go to something like this, you should be able to talk to the filmmakers. A little over 80 percent of our filmmakers came to the festival last year. We want people to talk to them.
For one, the filmmaker wants to know, “How did you really like my film?” It’s like an artist who’s revealed his painting at an art show. When people look at it, you want to see their expressions. You want to talk to them. You want them to ask you questions. We try to provide that atmosphere without the stuffiness that some of the other bigger film festivals that I’ve gone to, where it’s like, “Oh, this is an exclusive club. You’re not welcome.” We don’t want that at all. We want everyone to have a great time, and everybody to communicate. Because that is how you take it to the next level, and that is how you learn.
The festival is a venue to show their work. It’s our job to try to get the people in there to view their work, and that’s what we do. But in the end, it’s all about the filmmaker. MM
Visit the Myrtle Beach International Film Festival website here for more information on submissions (which close December 30) and the festival. All photographs courtesy of Myrtle Beach International Film Festival.