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Maryland Film Festival founder to retire after 20 years

Jed Dietz, founding director of the Maryland Film Festival, has announced he will retire Nov. 1.
Jed Dietz, founding director of the Maryland Film Festival, has announced he will retire Nov. 1. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Jed Dietz, founding director of the Maryland Film Festival, will retire Nov. 1.

“Personally, I felt it was time,” said Dietz, who organized the first film festival in 1999 at the Charles Theatre, oversaw its move in 2014 to the Maryland Institute College of Art campus and other nearby venues, and leaves after two years in the Niarchos Foundation Parkway in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. “And it just seemed like, institutionally, it was absolutely the best moment.”

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Dietz, 70, who has been at the helm for 20 film festivals and led the renovation of the 103-year-old Parkway Theatre as the festival’s year-round home, will remain a consultant and board member.

“The Maryland Film Festival was Jed’s brainchild, and he has grown it over the years into one of the preeminent festivals in the country and a very significant cultural event here in Baltimore,” festival board chair Tad Glenn said in a statement. “As the film community continues to grow in Baltimore, the Parkway will be an important hub for filmmakers and audiences.”

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As much as local cinephiles enjoy going to the annual Maryland Film Festival, some of the filmmakers are equally as happy to bring their work here.

In an email, filmmaker John Waters, a member of the Maryland Film Festival board and a staple at every festival since it started, said “The Parkway is miraculously up and running, and Jed Dietz is leaving after years of obsessive planning and leadership (and boy, will I miss him), but now is the time for our artiest theater to really soar, even explode with new ideas.”

Dietz started the Maryland Film Festival as at least a spiritual successor to the Baltimore Film Forum, a showcase for independent and foreign films that had disbanded in 1996. The first film festival was held in a newly expanded Charles Theatre; its four-day run included the world premiere (at The Senator) of a documentary from Baltimore’s own Barry Levinson and a screening of the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton cult classic “Boom!” hosted by John Waters. It also included appearances by sexploitation director Doris Wishman and dozens of other features, shorts and foreign films, most making their Baltimore debut.

Over the years, festival audiences have been able to see early works by such filmmakers as Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”) and Lena Dunham (HBO’s “Girls”). All three of those filmmakers, along with scores of others, were on hand to discuss their work.

“I’m proud that we’re bringing into the community a whole new part of the film world,” Dietz said. “Audiences are seeing the forward edge, the frontier of filmmaking.”

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Attendance at the festival has grown steadily, as has its duration. This year’s gathering, which ran May 2-6 and was centered at the Parkway, had a record attendance of over 12,000.

The Maryland Film Festival celebrated its twentieth festival this year, with more than more than 100 screenings, including 21 world premieres and four North American premieres.

Since its reopening in 2017 (following $18.2 million in renovations), the Parkway has featured a steady stream of independent and foreign films, many of which would never have played Baltimore in the past. Although attendance at the festival’s year-round home started slowly, Dietz said, the numbers have been building steadily.

In addition to founding the festival, Dietz also began the Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship in 1997, awarding grants to first-time filmmakers whose projects begin at the Robert Redford-founded Sundance Institute. Projects partially financed through those grants have included Rodrigo Garcia’s “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her” and Marielle Heller’s “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Another project, “Lift,” starred a young Kerry Washington.

Once Dietz departs, Sandra L. Gibson, a former president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals and chief operating officer of Americans for the Arts, will serve as the festival’s interim director. A national search for a new executive director is planned for the fall.

Dietz said he sees two main challenges for the festival as it enters its third decade: One is to keep growing the festival itself both in terms of its audience and the number of films it shows. Second is to work on the marketing and development of the Parkway, both by adding staff and increasing its visibility to the general public.

Jed Dietz, founding director of the Maryland Film Festival, has long been impressed with one of Baltimore's most storied former theaters, the Parkway at 5 W. North Ave., in the city's Station North arts and entertainment district. He is leading an $18.2 million effort to restore and expand the vacant, deteriorating theater, which turns 100 this week, as a three-screen, 600-seat multiplex to be called the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center.

“We’ve never really had a marketing department, and we’ve never really had a development department,” Dietz said.

The trick, he said, will be to expand without changing the basic character of the festival.

“Nobody thinks we can’t grow and keep our special sauce,” he said.

Dietz is still working on his post-retirement plans, but he plans on traveling with his wife, Julia McMillan, who retired in 2016 as a professor and associate dean for graduate medical education for the Johns Hopkins Health Systems.

He plans to continue working with the film community in the Baltimore area through the festival and the fellowship, which he will continue to coordinate. Dietz also said he hopes to advocate for increased tax breaks and other incentives for those looking to film in the state.

“Whatever I can do that’s appropriate, I will do it,” he promised.

Wednesday’s grand re-opening of the 102-year-old Parkway Theatre has quite the legacy to live up to.

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