The Sheridan WYO Film Festival: A Conversation with Justin Stroup
The inaugural year of the Sheridan WYO Film Festival looks as if it will put the emphasis on “festival.” The mission is, “To foster independent film through film screenings, panels, workshops, networking events, and educational projects.”
The idea started in Justin Stroup’s head. “I’d gone to a couple of film festivals in different parts of the country,” Stroup said. “I thought, Sheridan could do this. It’s beautiful, a great arts community, people in Sheridan love a good story. Why aren’t we doing this? It sat in the back of my mind for a while.”
Stroup’s idea faced some challenges. There are already lots of summer events in Sheridan, and the rodeo takes up most of people’s attention span. On the other hand, in the “shoulder season” of fall, weather can be a hindrance to drawing in an audience.
Stroup took a DIY approach. He looked at other festivals, and he used Google.
“With the internet and modern technology, the classroom is a lot bigger,” he said.
The result is a thoughtful schedule of events that goes beyond a collection of interesting films. Stroup said he used a “beg, borrow, or steal” approach and reverse engineered the film festival just for Sheridan.
After Stroup had done his homework, the idea began to take on a life of its own. A team grew around the effort, including sponsors. Tandem Productions took the festival under its umbrella, providing non-profit status.
“We can tell sponsors, ‘Not only is it a cool community event, but it’s a nonprofit with an educational mission,’” Stroup said.
Stroup admitted that the festival had gotten bigger than he was initially imagined and took a lot of hard work from a team of volunteers. Recently he told one of his collaborators, “I don’t know when it happened, but it doesn’t feel like we’re pushing that rock up the hill anymore. It feels like we’re racing to catch up. It’s a freight train.”
Stroup and his team received 650 film submissions from 57 countries. He said the films came to him from a variety of channels. “Anything from someone approaching me at restaurants, to friends, to people I’ve never met from the other side of the world.”
Just watching all of them became a logistical puzzle. Stroup personally screened hundreds of films. He said he felt a responsibility to be informed while choosing what to include.
Stroup said he had no idea how many small, independent films were being produced. “There are so many good movies nobody knows about,”he said.
In the end, they chose 38 films for inclusion in the first Sheridan WYO Film Festival. As far as criteria by which those choices were made, “Story was probably the top thing used,” Stroup said. “If the story is good, you can forgive small issues with the editing or sound.”
That being said, Stroup explained that he also evaluated the overall quality and production value of the submissions. He didn’t have a preconceived formula for the type of film that would belong in a Sheridan festival. “If it’s a solid film, I think it can be shown anywhere,” he said.
That initial winnowing narrowed the field quite a bit. Next, they looked at genre. If they had similar films, they compared those for quality.
“When I got down to about 175,” Stroup recalled. “I asked other people’s opinion.” After watching so many, it was hard to remain objective. He would ask someone with fresh eyes, “Is it good? Or was it just me at the time?”
Stroup is especially excited to offer some innovative free programming on Saturday, Oct. 6. For example, the “VR Rodeo” features four virtual reality films. All day Saturday, people can go to the WYO Theater and put on a headset and check out a fully immersive film experience. “Humans are more empathetic in an immersive environment where more of the senses are engaged than a passive viewer,” Stroup said.
“How do you tell a story when the audience can’t turn their head?” Stroup mused. “How do you make that person a part of the story?” Stroup really wanted to bring works that explore these questions home to Sheridan.
Other free Saturday events include a live cartoon character design and animation demonstration, along with a women in film panel.
The Sheridan WYO Film Festival runs from Oct. 5 – 7 at the WYO Theater and the Whitney Center for the Arts. Every film will be followed by a question and answer session with at least one of the filmmakers.
“People get excited about film festivals,” Stroup said. “Who doesn’t like movies?”