Interview: Chicago Film Festival Artistic Director Talks Diversity in Film, New Ticketing Systems and What’s To Come for Cinema/Chicago

North America’s longest-running competitive film festival, the 54th Chicago International Film Festival is now underway at the AMC River East 21 (where every festival screening will, once again, be this year). As is the case with every major film festival, the Chicago festival programming team has to strike a careful balance between true international cinematic discovery, works from a fresh and diverse crop of rising new filmmakers, and a handful recognizable titles and talent to bring in audiences who are on the lookout for celebrity or two.

Playing to its strength as a directors’ festival, Chicago International Film Festival remains focused on both new and established directors, and the number of filmmakers coming in from around the world this year is impressive. And as it does every year, the festival picks a genre spotlight to program; this year’s is Comedy, with a 10-film slate (plus a Comedy-themed shorts program) featuring a variety of selections from around the world, emphasizing the range of what is considered funny.

Mimi Plauché
Mimi Plauché of Cinema/Chicago and Chicago International Film Festival

I sat down with Artistic Director Mimi Plauché, who was elevated within Cinema/Chicago, the Festival’s presenting non-profit organization, from Programming Director to her current position last year, while festival founder Michael Kutza was named the organization’s CEO. At of the end of 2018, Kutza will step down from an active leadership role and become Emeritus CEO, leaving the organization to operate with Vivian Teng as Managing Director and Plauché remaining as Artistic Director. No replacement has been named to succeed Kutza, who founded the festival in 1964 at the age of 24.

In our conversation, Plauché (who has worked for Cinema/Chicago since 2006) and I go over the highlights and special events of this year’s festival, which continues through October 21 (which makes this year’s event three days and 23 features shorter than last year). As always, she is a knowledgeable, reliable guide through the 120-plus films from dozens of countries. Take notes, and don’t be afraid to see something you’ve never heard of before from nations you know nothing about—discovery is the point of any film festival.

Follow all of our Chicago International Film Festival coverage here.

With Michael Kutza still very much a part of the programming team for this year’s festival, it really won’t be until next year when we see his duties start to shift to you or other people.

Probably less on me than some others, moving forward. I think I said this last year that it’s been in transition for several years and that’s also been the case this year, where I was heading up all of the programming. But he was still watching films because he loves films. He was contributing, of course, in that way. The stuff that he’s really been focusing on is working with branding; he also works on all the videos we do for the festival. Obviously, Michael has been with the festival from the beginning, so we start to ask “What’s the right way to restructure us when he’s no longer with us?”

So you’re digging deep and looking at changing the foundation.

Right, it’s not just cosmetic. We’re making sure we’re making the right choices going into the future—who should be responsible for what? If we’re hiring, what do those person’s strengths need to be? I think of it as an opportunity. It helps that Vivian [Teng, Managing Director] and I have both been here for as long as we have, and that we have a very passionate board that are enthusiastic about the festival and its future. I think that helps a lot. The other thing is, we have such a solid base team here, which we keep tweaking, whether it’s the programming team or the publicity team. We feel like we have a solid base already, even if we’re moving the Lego bricks around, the key ones are staying the same, just forming something different.

You’ve shortened the festival by three days. What was the thinking there?

This was also more than a one-year conversation. Part of it was thinking about the way that festivals function in terms of film exhibition. One of the things that makes a festival so successful in a world where the types of films that we’re showing don’t have huge theatrical runs, is that it’s event driven. We wanted to make sure that we keep the feel and excitement of the festival as vibrant as possible, bringing it in line length-wise with most festivals—11-12 days is more like the standard. So we were trying to think about keeping the energy and enthusiasm and feel of an event by making it a little more compressed.

Ending on a weekend added a sense of excitement to it. Plus, we decided to add a day at the beginning. We are three days shorter, but what we did the last several years was that the Closing Night was a stand-alone event with two best-of-the-fest screenings, so we’re only losing two full days of screenings. We’ve also been untraditional, because of the length of the festival, we gave out our awards before the end of the festival. The awards will still be that second Friday night, but it brings the end of the festival a little bit closer, and we have reserved some best-of-the-fest slots; we didn’t want to get rid of that completely. A lot of our audience want to see the award winners, so that allows us to do that.

Looking at your list of higher-profile titles, it doesn’t look like you’ve skimped at all on those.

One thing is, it’s an exciting year; there’s a lot to be excited about, hands down. We were very strategic about cutting back on the number of titles. We counted the number of screening slots that we’ve done over the last several years, and looked at what we thought would be the number of slots for this year and reduced the number of films programmed by a percentage accordingly. We do realize that people tend to feel overwhelmed. The way that we consume movies these days, we’re always going see films where you’ve read the review, seen the trailer, seen an interview with someone in the film, you already know the director or cast. The film festival experience is very different. One of the things that we’re always excited about is discovering new talent, new directors, and seeing films from a part of the world that maybe you’ve never seen before. That’s a very different way for audiences to see films, and that’s amplified more and more every year. The audience has to feel adventuresome in some way.

You alluded to it just now, but what do you see as the changing role of film festivals, both for filmmakers and audiences? With so many ways to view new movies, often times a film festival is the only time these works will play on the big screen.

And not just seeing it on a big screen, but seeing it with a large audience. That changes any viewing experience, both in terms of the sound and the image, as well as how the audience influences how you’re experiencing the film as well, particularly for comedies and horror. For the filmmakers, most of them are still making films to be shown on the big screen, in the way that they approach the craft.

How did you land on Beautiful Boy as you Opening Night offering?

What we were mostly looking for was a really strong film to open with. Marshall [last year’s opener] certainly wasn’t light, but La La Land [2016’s opener] was the most playful film we’d opened with in a long time. So in thinking about what would be a strong film, when you see it, you’re going to feel something. The performances are incredible.

Someone mentioned at the press conference that you have a new ticketing system this year. How is it different? How is it better?

We’ve been with Ticketmaster for a very long time, and while there are some advantages in terms of structure and support, but one of the disadvantages was that we couldn’t manage our own customer database, who bought what, and making sure that people who like a certain type of film know if another one like it is playing. So we started thinking about how to bring our marketing into the 21st century and making it more targeted. One of the other difficulties with Ticketmaster is that it’s really set up for events with higher ticket prices. They were always very generous with us in terms of the fees that were added on, but with internet sales, they were high. There are still fees, but they’re much more limited. It’s called Vendini, and I think what it does is that if you’re just buying one movie ticket online, it doesn’t hit you with the same level of fees that we had before. It’s definitely driven more online sales this year.

You’ve added Joyy Norris to your programming team [as Programming Assistant and head programmer for the After Dark section of the festival]. Tell me about how she came on board.

She came in as a programming assistant, and it was a bonus that she loves genre films. She comes from a programming background—she worked for Black Cinema House and other places. She just seemed like a really great fit. In thinking about the shape of the programming team and what would make it fuller and fill in some missing pieces, she’s been a great addition.

I’m very excited about the William Friedkin tribute, mostly because of the screening of The Band Wagon. I’ve often found that a lot of filmmakers would much rather show a film that they love or somehow influenced them than one of their own works.

We’d talked to him about both possibilities. We started out talking about showing one of his films, and the conversation shifted to presenting another film. One of the things we love about this is that it seems so unexpected, but he does talk about it in the documentary [Friedkin Uncut, which is also playing at the Festival]. You never know what people’s artistic influences are or what has inspired them, and when it’s something unexpected, it’s more exciting. We knew he liked musicals, and I feel like it’s both a big title and a little under the radar.

I love that you have costume designer Ruth Carter coming in as well. Have you ever done a tribute to a costumer designer before.

Yes, but it’s been a really long time. We did Edith Head and one other. Again, Ruth was someone we’d been talking to about two years ago, even before Black Panther was announced. We’re really thrilled about that.

You’re also doing your first Virtual Reality program.

It’s been a part of the conversation for years, and we knew that if we did it, we wanted to do it right. I’ve been to festival where I felt like it as an add-on feature because it’s a trendy thing. If you’re going to showcase what it’s possibilities are, you have to do it the right way. We’ll have four stations on the second floor lobby. The times when we’re doing each movie are set, but some are seven minutes and some are 37 minutes. You walk up and sign up, and depending on how long they are, that will determine how many people can sign up for each one.

After talking about it, we started working with the French consulate here in Chicago. The French have really gotten behind VR production, and through conversations, we decided we were going to move forward with it.

One of the new categories of works you have is called Masters, which is a cool idea.

Yeah, we were thinking about the size and shape of the program, and we wanted to find a place for films by master filmmakers whose work we’ve shown and who’ve gotten a lot of critical acclaim or awards but weren’t in competition. Instead of lumping them into a more panorama-type program, it seems like a nice way to call out the auteurs.

You’ve said before that the festival has a bit of a reputation of leaning toward the more serious works, so now your primary Spotlight is Comedy, with only one U.S. title represented, and that’s a documentary about Buster Keaton, directed by Peter Bogdonovich [The Last Buster].

The idea was always for it to be international. We didn’t say we were only going to do one U.S. title, but we cast the net wide when looking for comedy from around the world.

Like when you did Musicals two years ago, you wanted to show the variety of what musicals mean in different countries.

Yeah, and the challenge is always the belief that comedy doesn’t travel or translate, so that was also part of the challenge of programming this.

Are there any in the group that are so unlike American comedies that you’re hoping people discover them and latch on?

There is a wide variety, whether it’s satire or something like Flammable Children, which is laugh out loud funny. Or with something like Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey into the Arms of a Shiksa, they’re continuously breaking the fourth wall, where you get your Yiddish lessons. We end up seeing a lot of comedy but to a certain extent, a lot of them feel they’re produced for a domestic market, and I don’t think any of these have that feel.

Italy is your another Spotlight area, with 10 films there.

The genesis of that—and it was originally going to be something much smaller—was the 40th anniversary of the sister-city relationship between Milan and Chicago. The Italians approached us about doing a special Italy section for the festival, and we started talking about it, and it ended up being this really fantastic year for Italian cinema. so many of these directors are great. I love Alice Rohrwacher’s work, and we have Happy As Lazzaro; Naples in Veils, Frezan Ozpetek is a hugely successful director in Italy, in that he has broad commercial appeal but he makes more than broad commercial films. It ended up feeling that this was a good year to expand upon what we were originally intending to do.

You have more than 35 titles directed by women in your Women in Cinema Spotlight.

We had looked over the last couple of years of how we were trending in terms of featuring women directors, and we’ve been going up over the last three years in terms of percentages, from the mid-20s to the mid-30s. This is definitely the year to highlight it, but it was something we were already doing before. But calling it out brings extra attention to it, and it’s an amazing lineup of films.

Well last year when we spoke, we both agreed that it was too soon for films to have responded to what was going on culturally and politically. Have you started to see any uptick in films that seem more responsive? Last year, I remember there were a few titles that told refugee stories, for example.

And there still is a great deal of that. One thing that I did find interesting, particularly in the Women In Cinema program, we have Working Woman, and the director [Isha Ovedet] has been a feminist filmmaker her whole career, and this is very much in tune with the #MeToo movement but was probably being made before that happened.

If I had to say, more than ever, whether they are directed by men or women, there are a lot of films with really strong female protagonists, which is unusual. Maybe there are more films dealing with the refugee crisis from a more oblique angle and thinking about the place of outsiders in society and the role that they play or the treatment of them. There are a lot of stories about people living on the margins.

Also there are things like the Watergate documentary, it resonates in so many obvious and more unexpected ways with this political moment, and it seems like the right time for it, and audiences are responding to that as well.

Moving ahead, are there specific personal passions of yours that you’d like to try out once Michael has stepped down?

[laughs] A lot of stuff has already been put in place, because Michael has always been open to change and new ideas, whether it was Industry Days or the Comedy Spotlight or shortening the festival, which is the big experiment this year. That was all stuff that we were hoping to accomplish and put in place. One of the roles that I think film festivals should be playing—I love what we do in terms of bringing a wide variety of international cinema to Chicago audiences—but there are two questions: How do we best serve the films and the filmmakers? And as the industry and Chicago continue to grow in exciting ways, how do we best serve the Chicago community with what we’re doing? And how do we bring those two together. That’s one of the reason we started Industry Days, which continues to grow, but I’d love to bring a little bit more of the international side of it. So trying to figure out how to serve a broader filmmaking audience with that is important.

I’ve never been like “Let’s do something radically different one year.” It’s more like “How do we build to get to where we want this to be?” This is what it can be in the first year and still achieve our goals, but we have bigger goals for the following year or the next three years. I’m a process person.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.