150 films, 50 bands showcased at Richmond International Film Festival

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RICHMOND, Va. – Richmond doesn’t need to be the next Austin – or Portland – though both cities have inspiring qualities. Look around, and the River City is already giving [insert tourist city here] a run for its money.

Locals like Heather Waters certainly aren’t resting on their laurels. Just one year after moving to Richmond, from Georgia – a state with a burgeoning film industry – the director/producer launched the Richmond International Film Festival (RIFF).

“We need this kind of film festival in Richmond,” Waters said. “It helps be a catalyst for development of artists here, while at the same time putting Richmond in the spotlight…drawing artists to the city.”

Waters, who tends to think at least 10 steps out, has seen how the multibillion-dollar film industry impacted so many lives in Georgia. "It's an amazing engine for economic development," Waters said, and "for developing other creatives."

Now in its sixth year, RIFF is expanding, adding a music showcase in addition to the 150 films that will screen at theaters around the city from Feb. 27 to March 5. [Click here for the Richmond International Film and Music Festival Guide]

RIFF uses a submission-based model like its Texas counterpart South by Southwest (SxSW) or the famous Cannes and Sundance festivals, where the audience views (or listens to) selections vetted by a jury of industry experts. Filmmakers and musicians note that they were an "official selection" and winners take home various awards.

The equal footing is meant to eliminate politics and big money and intended to launch careers. Artists attend for the networking, development, and acknowledgment -- not for cash.

“With the end goal being that we want to be an engine for discovering the next big wave of talent across the US, on the film and music side,” Waters explained.

Events like RIFF and SxSW have perhaps even more relevance amid the reshaped music and film industries, where opportunities are frequently redistributed now, coming more often from the bottom-up and not as reliant on corporate channels.

“You can put audiences closer together with musicians and filmmakers,” Waters said.

Television and streaming are creating competitive content and movie theater audiences continue to dwindle.

“It’s a very complicated dynamic going on,” Waters explained. “Part of this new emphasis on television is an exciting one; it helped level the playing field in some ways for independent film to have a stronger presence versus a studio system.”

A-list actors now want eccentric, smaller budget films because it forces them to exercise their craft, she said.


This year, RIFF received almost 1,000 film submissions from 37 countries, compared to the first year when 15 short films, from a total of five countries, were screened.

“Each year we get stronger and stronger films,” Waters said. “You start to get a reputation on the national circuit.”

Tickets sales have climbed as well, with 8,000 in attendance in 2016. Waters hopes to break 10,000 this year.

Films will be screened at the Bow Tie Movieland as well as the adjacent Criterion Cinema, and also at the Byrd Theatre.

Local filmmaker Jesse Vaughan, who has won over 20 Emmys, kicks off the festival with a screening of “The Last Punch,” based on events leading up to Muhammad Ali's final and most infamous fight. The full schedule of films can be found here.

At the 2015 festival, Jesse Vaughan (left) accepts an award. Heather Waters, who founded the event, is pictured on the right.

At the 2015 festival, Jesse Vaughan (left) accepts an award. Heather Waters, who founded the event, is pictured on the right.

The Trap Music Orchestra, founded in 2014 by Richmond native and Berklee College of Music grad Ryan Easter, will make its local debut opening night of the festival.

The 25-member band holds fast to the classic jazz orchestra culture as they perform arrangements of artists such as Gucci Mane, T.I., Shy Glizzy, and more.

Wytold, an electric cello player who has performed at the Kennedy and Lincoln Centers, opens.

There are 50 performers at the festival, with a wide range of national options including hip hop, alternative rock blues, jazz or local favorites like Noah O, Black Liquid, Susan Greenbaum, Samantha Reed, and Richmond’s Voice Finalist Evan McKeel.

Performances will be held at Scott’s Addition area venues; Sound of Music, Broadberry, and the Hofheimer Building (the Hof) and also at nearby Strange Matter and The Camel.

With seven days of events  – a screening, a band, a panel, a mixer – taking place in multiple venues, you need a game plan.

For those who want all access, Waters recommends the Full Flex Platinum pass for $400 (access to all music/film/events) or the Festival Flex VIP Pass (film or music) for $225. Advance tickets are recommended, and there are also five-ticket music and film combination packages available. Click here for options.

The best piece of advice Waters offered was to grab your friends and to be willing to try something new.

“Try going to a short film. Try sitting through subtitles,” she said. “At least one new thing every year.”

The festival wraps up March 5 with the Red Carpet Ceremony Awards, which start at 7 p.m. and stretch well into the night and include musical performances. That event is open to the public and ticketed.

Now, go get your tickets and help keep Richmond weird.

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