If you’ve never been to any of the 20 previous Maryland Film Festivals, don’t worry — you’re in good company. Sandra L. Gibson, who took over as director when founder Jed Dietz stepped down in November, has never been to one either.
But, the Ohio native, former president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals and founding board member and COO of Americans for the Arts, is happily making up for lost time. So far, she likes very much what she’s seeing.
“Its breadth and history was surprising to me,” Gibson said over lunch recently at Joe Squared, just over from both the Niarchos Foundation Parkway, where the 21st MdFF begins unspooling May 8, and the festival’s 25th Street offices. “It seemed like this nice little festival I had read about, I had read the website. But arriving and digging into this, I’ve been very impressed.”
Which doesn’t mean the Bethesda resident doesn’t see some work ahead. She’d like to see the festival on firmer financial footing, more ingrained into the artistic fabric of Baltimore and its neighborhoods (perhaps by taking it directly into the communities) and even more nurturing to the filmmakers who have been flocking to the city’s annual cinematic celebration since 1999.
“This is such an enormous opportunity to experience Baltimore in a fresh, exciting way,” she says, encouraging those who, like her, will be experiencing their first festival this year. “It’s over 100 films, by filmmakers from all over who would not otherwise be [visiting] Baltimore. Every genre, every type — there’s something for everybody.”
The following is a condensed version of Gibson’s interview, beginning with why she decided to come to Baltimore in the first place:
What made you decide to accept this position? How did they entice you to come to Baltimore and take over?
Two things: Baltimore and film. Seriously. It was, like, ‘Baltimore? I’ve been there. Did Reginald F. Lewis, done some jazz things. I like Baltimore, that sounds good.
‘And film? Oh my God, love film. Back in film? That sounds interesting. Those were the two things.
When you got here, any big surprises?
You know, I didn’t know the city very well, but I knew enough. But I was still really surprised by what I call the density and breadth of the artistic community. It’s really vibrant, and it’s above-ground. That was a bit of a surprise, the depth and breadth and density of it.
Challenges you see ahead?
We’re really re-dedicating ourselves and challenging ourselves to provide new kinds of access to parts of this community that don’t even know about the Parkway, are not maybe going to movies on a regular basis...
For example, we’re not doing much with immersive media. We don’t even have our toe in the water. I hope we start to cover that ground — new formats, the experimental side.
I think we’re challenged to look at what we do for younger audiences. What do we do for youth and families? How do we open the window into film for younger generations? What does that look like? I think we have to figure that out.
To do all that and remain profitable sounds like a big challenge.
Absolutely. We’ve got a financing model. Don’t get me wrong, we’re going to be screening movies. That’s core. But who’s coming to those movies? How do we get more people in the doors and have more people really exposed to these experiences, these powerful, transformative experiences?
Some of that will require...looking at our financial model, which we’ve re-jiggered. We’ve got an aggressive fundraising program, but we have just as aggressive an earned-income program. We’re really trying to refine and re-introduce membership, and getting people to enroll in what we are doing, so that we can work with them and bring them along, that they’ll help us to tap into other people.
What tangible steps are you taking to increase visibility?
A couple of things, I’m meeting with a lot of organizations, Center for Urban Families, Strong City. We already do some work with BUILD and Thread — meeting them on their own terms and finding out where’s there some common ground for us, a place where we can collaborate.
It will not all be about getting people into the Parkway. We have to go where people are, and where they gather and feel comfortable, and make the relationship happen. Then, yes, of course, we want them to come to the Parkway.
In some cases, maybe we need to have a mobile screening unit and then take the film to a park. Or maybe it’s projections at the Windup Space or the Ynot Lot. I just think we have to think differently. We’ve got a fixed asset, but the community relationships can happen in a lot of different ways. You do have to meet the community where it is.