In 2007, Columbia's Nickelodeon Theatre hired Andy Smith to run a new film festival in South Carolina's capital city. It was January. The event was scheduled for May.
"I basically had nothing. They had dates and a name," he says. There weren't even any film submissions at that time, so Smith, fresh off working with the Robert Barber lieutenant governor campaign, had to figure out exactly what he wanted the event to be. But six years after this frantic beginning, the Indie Grits film festival has grown into an 11-day event highlighting not only regional independent film, but also music, arts and crafts, local food, and even puppetry, all centered around the Nick, the city's 33-year-old nonprofit art house cinema.
"The thing I knew was that every town the size of Columbia has a film festival," Smith says. "I want to do something different. I don't want it to be just the same as all the other ones. But at the same time, we're not going to be Sundance. It's just not going to happen, and we were realistic about it."
Smith decided to make it a geographically defined event, exclusively focused on filmmaking in the Southeast. It would also be an opportunity to show off Columbia and its underused spaces, and to foster film culture in the South, putting a new face on what young Southern filmmakers are perceived to be — you're more likely to find something experimental than a redneck comedy at Indie Grits. "For me, it was really reaching back to my teenage years as a punk kid and what that scene was like and trying to find that in the film world," Smith explains. "I had no idea if it existed. I had no idea what the Southern filmmaking scene was at all."
That first year, Smith was afraid that no one would submit anything, or that if they did, the entries would be terrible. But the festival ended up getting some really incredible work. Then he was scared no one would show up, but people came, and even though he thought that no one would like the programming, the audience loved it.
The festival has swelled steadily each year since then, especially once the City of Columbia, whose hospitality tax is a big backer for Indie Grits, started pushing Smith and the Nick to grow the festival.
"This year I lost my mind and decided to double the length of the festival," Smith says. He wanted to be able to program over two weekends, so now the event stretches over 11 days, with film screenings every night and other cultural events scattered throughout the city. He's using the Indie Grits brand as an umbrella to bring in different people who are doing interesting things that fit within the fest's mission. This year, they've partnered with other major Columbia events and organizations, like the DIY-centric Crafty Feast, web conference ConvergeSE, Slow Food Columbia, and the Spork in Hand Puppet Slam. The festival also hosts major live music acts — last year it was Columbia chillwave resident Toro Y Moi, this year it's '90s-era indie band Olivia Tremor Control. Nonetheless, "I've been really protective over the film side of it. I don't want to lose that focus, because that's what makes it unique," Smith says. "We're still focused on Southern DIY culture, but it's in all of these different areas, with film still being the centerpiece."
Indie Grits is an inclusive event, attracting young USC students and established arts patrons to its blocks of documentaries, animation, and more. Programmed for an alternative kind of crowd, you'll see the early-cinema inspired black-and-white Kudzu Vine; former S.C. Indie Grant winner Steve Daniels' T is for Termite, about a crust punk exterminator; and selections from Janus Films, the more than 50-year-old distribution company responsible for releasing restored editions of Rashomon and World on a Wire spread out among the festival's blocks.
Indie Grits is also filmmaker-friendly, expanding the services it provides to its selected artists. Smith points out that because the funding for the state's arts and film commissions keeps getting cut, there aren't many resources for independent filmmakers in South Carolina, with whatever little money available going to more well-known productions like Army Wives. "What we want to do is be there for people who don't fit into that," he says. "Our hope is to do everything from networking to workshops to being a regranting organization to help fund films." The festival even held a focus group with filmmakers to find out what they could do to make their lives easier. "They're essential to the festival, and a lot of festivals don't treat their filmmakers well."
And while Smith hopes Indie Grits will continue to grow, he doesn't plan for it to ever lose sight of its mission. "We can't be a festival that's run by the Chamber and starts to lose its soul a little bit," he says. "I think we're reaching a point where it's beyond Columbia, especially on the film side. The nice thing is what it has done as far as community building for Southern filmmakers."
Local creative house Lunch and Recess, made up of Ryan Cockrell, Ethan Jackson, and Dorian Warneck, estimates that they spend 95 percent of their time on commissioned work. If they want to do fun personal projects, like their four-minute documentary King of Instruments, they have to make the time for it.
The black-and-white short looks at local Sunday Ent. composer and occasional organ player Alex Collier. "I think I just found out randomly that he plays music at the church, which I thought was weird for a young guy like Alex to be playing what I consider an old lady instrument," Cockrell says. One day, Collier took Cockrell to the church, where he uses the organ to work on personal and professional projects. Eventually, Cockrell went back a couple of times, and he brought his camera along with him. The resulting work will be featured in this year's Indie Grits.
While nowhere near as experimental as some of Indie Grits' other offerings, the Lunch and Recess guys do think their film still fits appropriately within the festival's mission. "The style is kind of traditional interviews and B roll, but it's about an interesting topic," Cockrell explains. "I think that it makes sense that it's in there just because it's about Alex, and he kind of fits that mold of what Indie Grits is about. He's doing some new and innovative things."
The Lunch and Recess crew all moved to Charleston over a year ago from Columbia, and they've had work shown in previous years of Indie Grits. "It's always flattering," Jackson says of their acceptance into this year's festival. "We have a lot of respect for the other people who are in it. I think it's a nice, mutual growing environment where people get to put out stuff, and being selected is an honor." As former Capital City residents, the men know firsthand that the festival has been an important catalyst in fostering Columbia's creative community, and they believe it's one of the best events that happens in that city. "It seems like it's come a long way," Cockrell says. "From what I remember, it's been going for a long time. It's grown and grown each year and gotten to a point where one day you're kind of like 'What? People actually care about it? That's kind of cool.'"
When the City Paper spoke to Andy smith in December — the Nickelodeon staff was participating in a work retreat on Folly Beach — he wasn't too familiar with Charleston's own film festivals: the Charleston Film Festival, held in March, and the Charleston International Film Festival, which took place last week. Though at least one Charleston-made film is usually selected for Smith's festival, and he's hosted events with the Greater Park Circle Film Society, he wishes he was getting more Charleston-based entries. "I feel like we've not had a great connection with Charleston in the past," Smith says. "I think that there's this wall on I-26 somewhere and it prevents a lot of people from sharing some of the creative work that is going on." But moves are being made to remedy this disconnect. While in the city late last year, Smith met with Terrace Theater owner and CFF organizer Paul Brown, and the two collaborated on a Best of Indie Grits block for CFF, which featured King of Instruments.
Still, some may wonder if Charleston's festivals could manage the kind of influence that Indie Grits maintains in the regional DIY community. Though they haven't been to CFF or CIFF, Ryan Cockrell and Ethan Jackson can point out some of the possible reasons for Indie Grits success. One benefit is having an independent movie theater like the Nick as a downtown anchor, and USC's film program (which Cockrell was a part of as a student) uses the Nick as a practical lab throughout the school year, something Charleston's schools can't boast.
"I think there's some schizophrenia as far as what is what, why there are two festivals," Jackson adds about Charleston's events. He also points out that even if the local festivals highlight independent film, they're still showing a lot of big-name movies. "Whereas I think Indie Grits ... their big angle is it's a Southern filter on the film. There's got to have to be something to do with the South in it, which is interesting."
Dorian Warneck has a personal bias for wanting to attend Indie Grits, which he plans to do this weekend. "Part of the reason that I'm interested in Indie Grits is because I've got friends in Columbia that go to USC and are media arts majors that have stuff in it," he says. "It raises my interest level because it's stuff that's made by people I know in the community I live in. That seems like the biggest draw for me."
But Warneck does think that Charleston has the talent to support a local film festival. "I would dare to say maybe even more so than Columbia," he adds. "I can only speak for myself, but if ... I looked at a lineup and there was (Adam) Boozer stuff in it or stuff that Jade Sullivan's doing or whatever, I would be interested in going because I know them and they do cool shit and they're local."
Regardless, Smith thinks Indie Grits provides an important example that there is a thriving film culture in the South — and that there are creative minds here making interesting work. "You don't have to compromise artistic vision. Even in South Carolina, you can have audiences who are willing to take risks and see interesting stuff, as long as it's presented in the right environment," he says.
Presented by the Nickelodeon Theatre, Indie Grits takes place in various venues throughout Columbia April 19-29. Visit indiegrits.com for a complete program.