A job without a defined pathway, Forest City Film Festival programming director Matthew Downs relies on research and relationships to deliver the largest program ever
Photo: Matthew Downs of the Forest City Film Festival
IN CHANDLER LEVACK’S 2022 film I Like Movies, the protagonist – a young high school student named Lawrence Kweller – is shuffling his way through high school in Southern Ontario, spending his money at the rental store, catching Punch Drunk Love at the local Cineplex and generally counting off the days until he can go off to film school.
And that’s about where the movie ends; what happens to Lawrence is left up to the viewer’s imagination. But if you squint at it just right, it’s not hard to imagine that he might end up doing something a little bit like what Matthew Downs is doing at London’s Forest City Film Festival.
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“I fell in love with big festivals like TIFF [the Toronto International Film Festival],” says Downs, one of the programmers of the festival, and a filmmaker himself. “I’d go on trips once a year and try to see as much as I could. Growing up I think I always wanted something like this in the city — something that would allow me to seek out those interesting international titles, the things that were a little bit unique, a little bit different.”
The FCFF was founded in 2016 by Downs’ mother, Dorothy Downs (who still serves as the festival’s executive director), with a mandate to highlight films that have some kind of Southwestern Ontario connection via their creators. It has grown steadily since then — and survived the stress test of Covid. The first festival featured 25 films; this year, they expect to have over 100 ready to go by its October 14 opening night.
The festival has grown in its ambitions and reputation in the last couple years, too. As it has grown, it has started to screen bigger films and punch well above its weight as a smaller market independent film fest.
Downs has had a huge part to play in that and is the main programmer behind the Best of the World Fests series — a lineup of 13 films that were hits at some of the bigger festivals around the world (Sundance, Cannes, Venice, etc.). “They’re films that are making a splash in a big way, winning awards,” Downs explains. “These films aren’t connected to our region, but they’re films that I think will resonate with our audience, resonate with people from our region and will really connect with our viewers.”
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It’s a perfect job for a film nerd, and it puts him in the position of being one of the front-line marketers for the festival itself. “The big thing I’m focusing on this year is finding those movies that will really get butts in seats,” he says. “What I’m looking for are not only films I love and that I’m excited to share with others, but films that I know other people will be excited to see and will be excited to share with their friends, with their families, with their communities. More than any other year, the goal is to program something fun, interesting and engaging.”
So, how does one go about finding and securing films that are lighting up audiences? As film festivals start kicking into gear (around January, at Sundance), Downs starts his research. “I read about all of those, I collect data about all of them,” he says. “And in June, I start to send emails out — I reach out to every single person I can find and I try to get copies of the movies to view. And from there, the curation begins.”
Over the summer, Downs starts working and negotiating with distributors, going over things like screening terms and trying to reconcile distributors’ release schedules with the timing of the Forest City Film Festival.
“It’s a constantly changing, constantly moving economy,” he says. “It’s not as simple as just saying, ‘We want this movie, let’s get it.’ I’ll spend days and days and days just trying to figure out who owns the movie, who is the right person to email. It’s tricky. It’s all about managing and making connections with the distributors.”
As a small indie film festival, Downs says FCFF is relatively insulated from any major disruptions from Hollywood’s ongoing writers’ and actors’ strikes. Movies are having their release dates moved all the time now, which is one complication, but for the most part — since the focus of the festival is on independent films and not red carpets — the FCFF is business as usual.
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Downs’ work on the programming front continues almost to the start of the festival, he says — and no, he won’t (despite several attempts) let anything slip about what will be on this year’s program.
“These are going to be so special,” he says. “There’s still a lot of work to do; we’re going to be announcing our film list on September 15, and even at that point, there will still be a few films that we’re tracking down and locking in. But by October, we’re going to have one of the best film lineups in Ontario.” Kieran Delamont