Bringing a Little Sundance to the Woods Hole Film Festival

Judith Laster, director of the Woods Hole Film Festival, uses the Sundance Film Festival in Utah as a model on which to improve her festival. She also attends Sundance to network with other festival organizers.IMAGE COURTESY JUDITH LASTER - Judith Laster, director of the Woods Hole Film Festival, uses the Sundance Film Festival in Utah as a model on which to improve her festival. She also attends Sundance to network with other festival organizers.

A little over 2,000 miles separate Park City, Utah, from Falmouth, but what has been happening in the former locale this month will affect the latter later this year when the Woods Hole Film Festival celebrates its 23rd anniversary.

That is because the festival’s director, Judith Laster, is using the Sundance Film Festival, which took place over a 10-day period in Park City, as a guide for how to improve Woods Hole’s smaller, more intimate version that kicks off at the end of July.

Ms. Laster, who founded the Woods Hole Film Festival in 1991, has been flying out West to Utah over the past decade. She did so again this year for a week-long stint in which she attended the Art House Convergence for three days prior to immersing herself in four days of films, 20 in all, some of which may eventually make an appearance at Woods Hole.

The Art House Convergence, now in its seventh year, allows those who run art house cinemas and artistic festivals a chance to network with one another and attend workshops that help them support and showcase independent films.

It is both a learning experience, Ms. Laster said, as well as a way for her to get the word out about the Woods Hole Film Festival. Her attendance at these types of conferences—she annually goes to The Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) festival in New York, every September—has allowed her to give the Woods Hole Film Festival “a ton of credibility,” she said. “It gives us a face and creates an excitement. By meeting people, that is how the word gets out. You have to make these efforts.”


Although the New England contingent is small, she said, she does see several festival organizers, from as nearby as Martha’s Vineyard to as far away as Western Massachusetts, that go to similar lengths to both soak in information that can help them in their own work while helping to publicize the film festivals they run.

Attending these events is both exciting and tiring, Ms. Laster said, noting that when she attended her first Sundance “I didn’t have the lay of the land. For the past decade I’ve gone as part of the industry, so I buy a pass and they have a place for us to watch films that are separate and apart from the public screenings. It means you don’t have to do much traveling around because Park City is a pretty big place. The biggest thing I had to learn is how spread out things are.”

As far as film festivals go, Ms. Laster said, Sundance is somewhat difficult to navigate for the public, making it daunting for those who have never been before. To festival neophytes, she recommends they “go without huge expectations and try to soak up the atmosphere the first year. And then the second year figure out what they want to do.”

The casual fan of movies, she said, has to plan for months in advance and be prepared to invest a significant amount of money for travel, accommodations and movie passes. And often, she said, it is difficult to obtain passes to movies.

The one advantage audiences have over industry professionals like her, she said, is the public screenings usually have people involved in the film in attendance, with talks afterward. “It can be really fun to see and is high energy,” she said. “Everyone is usually happy because that is the first time people are seeing their films.”

While Ms. Laster squeezed a large number of films into a short window this year, she highlighted two that made a splash at Sundance and that she believes will be embraced by movie audiences.

The first, “The Skeleton Twins,” features former “Saturday Night Live” stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as an estranged brother and sister who reunite as adults. “It is very good and very funny,” Ms. Laster said, noting that it represents Mr. Hader’s first role as a serious actor.

Ms. Laster also enjoyed “The Last Days in Vietnam,” a documentary directed by Rory Kennedy that showcases never-seen-before footage of the final months of America’s involvement in Vietnam prior to the fall of Saigon. 

To learn more about the Woods Hole Film Festival visit its website here

Although she would not divulge whether these films would make an appearance in Woods Hole, she said, typically there are a handful of movies that appear at Sundance that will be showcased here in July. “Usually we have a few, but we try not to play what they play because that is not our mission,” she said, pointing out the difference in scope between the two festivals: Sundance receives 12,000 submissions annually while in recent years Woods Hole has received under 1,000.

Along with the advantage of seeing films well before the average fan, Ms. Laster has had the chance to rub shoulders with a number of celebrities during her years at Sundance. This year, she highlighted one such person—Red Sox slugger David Ortiz—who was on the same flight back to Boston as she was on last Tuesday evening.

While that may be noteworthy, Ms. Laster said the festival, for her, is much more than the casual celebrity encounter. “It helps me with everything from how to organize the festival to what kinds of things to do outside of screenings. It has to be scaled to what works in our community, but you really get the sense of what the other possibilities are,” she said.


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