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Oxford Film Festival 2017 kicks off this week

The following excerpt is from an article featured in the February issue of Oxford Magazine.

Oxford has long been hailed as one of the literary bastions of the South, but that’s not stopping it from bolstering its film credentials too.  The 14th annual Oxford Film Festival kicks off this week with more to show for its decade-plus run than ever before.

Boasting 12 different categories and 151 films, it’s no wonder Movie Maker magazine has ranked the event as one of its “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee” poll for the past three years.

The festival launched in 2003 under the auspices of the former director of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, Elaine Abadie, and Neil White, who had a movie in the Magnolia Film Festival in Starkville that same year.

The idea for OFF came to him while having lunch with Elaine during a respite.

“We had been there about a day, and I said, ‘we can not only do this, but we can do this a hell of a lot better,’” White said. “And so we came back and gathered some like-minded people and said, ‘let’s do it.’”

Even from its inception, the festival has attracted notable Hollywood talent. During its first year, there was a screenwriting panel that featured David Hayter (“X-Men,” “The Hulk”) and David Sheffield (“Coming To America,” “The Nutty Professor”). Two years ago, James Franco came to town to screen his version of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.”

Addington takes over

A festival is only as successful as the person running it all, and OFF is lucky to have Melanie Addington, its current executive director.

Addington was a volunteer during the festival’s second year and has been a part of it in some capacity ever since.

“I became involved with the festival because a friend was a screener and told me how fun it was,” Addington said. “I stayed involved because I figured out after attending just how special something like this was for our town.”

After her tenure as a screener for a few years, Addington became a co-director of the festival. Soon after, OFF started to grow more than anyone had anticipated.

“Around year 10 or 11 we realized this is getting bigger than we can handle as volunteers,” Addington said. “So (the co-directors) all quit in 2015. The festival went through a transition of ‘do we it kill it completely? Do we give it to the university? What do we do with it?’”

Thriving as community event

Thankfully, they didn’t ax it. A steering committee decided to keep the event as a non-profit and make it more about the community than ever before. In that same year, Addington was hired as the festival’s first full-time executive director.

This year, some of the featured films are more high-profile than any that have been screened at the festival before. Opening night will host a showing of the Mississippi-filmed “Strange Weather” directed by Katherine Dieckmann and starring Academy Award-winning actress Holly Hunter. A 20th-anniversary screening of Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy” featuring Oxford-based actress Joey Lauren Adams will be held with Adams and other actors from the 1997 film in attendance.

On the cutting edge

LGBTQ films have long been in the DNA of the festival, but this year, they’ll be getting their own category.

“We’ve always shown LGBT films, that’s not something new for us, but we never really made it a focus before,” Addington said. “But after the Religious Bill and the response a lot of people had in the state, both positive and negative, we decided it was important to make more of those voices heard.”

This is one of the ways that OFF has stayed on the cutting edge of film and ways to move the medium forward. Attendees have noticed this evolution as well, and it’s paid off with increased ticket sales each year.

“(Last year) we were almost at 4,000 attendees,” Addington said. “When we started, it was around 500 to 1,000, if that. So it’s increased greatly over the years. The way ticket sales are going, we’re looking at another increase this year.”

Fourteen years later, White is in some ways surprised as to how the festival has grown exponentially.

“I’m so proud of it, and I’m so glad they didn’t leave me in charge, or it would be exactly where it was,” he joked. “You start something and hope somebody will make it bigger and better.”