The 15th annual Oxford Film Festival kicks off today with a full lineup of films and panels spanning five days.
The festival runs Wednesday to Sunday with a total of 204 films, including 35 features and 169 shorts and music videos. According to a press release, 29 screenings will be world premieres and six will be U.S. premieres.
The idea for the first festival came about in 2002, when the founders, Neil White and Elaine Abadie, attended the Magnolia Independent Film Festival in Starkville.
White, who is also the creative director and publisher at Nautilus Publishing Company, said the Oxford Film Festival helps make Oxford “one of those too-good-to-be-true literary places” because, in addition to William Faulkner and John Grisham, the area has more recently become known for nurturing great poets, creative nonfiction writers, script writers and filmmakers.
“The film festival not only showcases those talents, but its reputation over the last decade has put Oxford on the map in the world of film,” White said. “I personally don’t think there is another town of this size anywhere that competes with Oxford in terms of art, music, food, sports and entertainment. We welcome innovative spirits … and the film festival is a huge part of that.”
The inaugural festival in 2003 had fewer than 1,000 people in attendance, according to Melanie Addington, the executive director since 2015. Addington has worked with the festival in various capacities since 2006.
The festival has grown substantially over the years, with 6,800 attendees in 2017, and Addington said she expects a similar turnout of around 7,000 this year.
The first two festivals, in 2003 and 2004, were held in June, and the 2005 festival was held in September. After a gap year due to the date change, the festival returned in February 2007 and has been held during that month ever since.
“We tried summer and fall, and in Oxford that doesn’t work,” Addington said. “So we finally tried February to be in spring but far enough away from Double Decker to not conflict.”
The festival initially began screening movies at the Gertrude C. Ford Center on the Ole Miss campus and has shown films in various other locations around the city over the years including The Lyric Oxford and Malco Oxford Studio Cinema on Jackson Avenue.
Films will be screened at four locations this year: the Ford Center, the Malco Commons Cinema, the Oxford Conference Center and the Powerhouse.
In years past, several big names in Hollywood have found their way to Oxford for the festival, including Morgan Freeman, Jason Ritter, Tim Blake Nelson, Giancarlo Esposito, Richard Speight Jr. and James Franco.
Last year, actor and political activist Danny Glover made an appearance before Raoul Peck’s film “I Am Not Your Negro” to discuss the film and the rights of voters and workers in Mississippi, according to a festival press release.
More than 60 female filmmakers directed or co-directed films in this year’s festival, according to the Oxford Film Festival website. Festival officials decided to offer a 50 percent discount for submissions by female filmmakers, which has contributed to the rise of entries.
“When putting together data of first 14 years, we saw that our numbers were low on female directors, so we tried this out to encourage more voices, and it worked,” Addington said.
Several awards are given out each year in categories including documentary feature, music documentary, narrative feature, LGBTQ, a new 2018 Fest Forward award and a couple of Mississippi-specific awards for documentaries and shorts.
Addington said the festival’s impact can be seen from the thousands of people who come to town and show a genuine love for the community and return to Oxford year after year.
“For those who live here, beyond the support and growth of the arts including cinematic storytelling, the festival is a unique and special weekend in Oxford,” Addington said.
Kaleigh Graham, assistant director for the festival, said one of the things she likes most about the Oxford Film Festival is that it promotes fresh creators in the industry.
“I am most excited about introducing new filmmakers to our state and showing the town of Oxford off,” Graham said. “Also, this is the one time of year I get to go crazy with the confetti.”
Tickets and the full schedule for the Oxford Film Festival can be found online at oxfordfilmfest.com.