Peoria Film Fest

Peoria Mayor Cathy Carlat and Vice Mayor Bridget Binsbacher prepare to enter the first Peoria Film Fest. (Photo courtesy city of Peoria.) 

The Peoria Film Fest could happen without volunteers.

Maybe.

“It would be really, really difficult,” Jason Carney said, with a groan.

Carney is the executive director of the Phoenix Film Festival, which expanded to Peoria last year. Carney is one of three paid staff. “The rest are volunteers,” he said.

He relies on some 260 volunteers to work both festivals. Around 30 volunteers will be working the Peoria Film Fest, which cranks up the West Valley this week.

While there are many small, independent, “artsy” movies on the schedule, opening night is pure Hollywood: A sneak peek — and “director’s cut,” to boot — screening of “The Current War.” 

This big-budget flick is the story of the battle between Thomas Edison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). It doesn’t open until Oct. 25, for the rest of the country.

“The Current War,” screening in Peoria at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 10, is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who directed indie hit “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” The Hollywood Reporter panned “The Current War” as “an uninvolving bore,” one of several unflattering early reviews. 

The Cumberbatch-Shannon battle plays at the Peoria Film Fest’s main base, Harkins Arrowhead Fountains Theatre 17 16046 N Arrowhead Fountains Center Drive.

An opening night reception prior to the screening starts at 6 p.m. walking distance to the theater at Modern Round, 8320 W Mariners Way.

The starry opening night film is a bit misleading, as the Peoria Film Fest focuses on small, daring unknowns.

And, with an intriguing mix of 20 big- to small-budget films, a showcase of student filmmakers and family programming, the second Peoria Film Festival is a major expansion over the first.

“This year we went wider with our scope of programming,” said Carney. “It’s a great opportunity to bring good, independent films to that part of the Valley.

“I  live in El Mirage, so for me trying to see good indie films means hiking over to Scottsdale or downtown Phoenix.”

The appropriately named Carney put together last year’s film carnival on the fly, as the city of Peoria was ready, willing and able to launch.

“They came to us to see if we were interested in doing something,” Carney said with a chuckle. “A month later we were up and running and ready to go.”

Small as it was, last year’s festival served as an appetizer for the city, which wanted more, more, more.

Peoria Mayor Cathy Carlat said “we were thrilled with the response we received from film enthusiasts across the Valley. 

“As soon as the event was over, we immediately began discussions for growing and hosting the event for this year.” 

The mayor said, as cultural as this event is, it’s also a potential business for Peoria.

“There is absolutely a potential for an economic impact, but for Peoria, it’s beyond ticket sales and restaurant sales,” Carlat said. “Council and I have been working hard to help create an environment that encourages an entrepreneurial ecosystem throughout our city, but especially the P83 area. There is so much potential for the district and when we have the privilege of bringing more folks and creative minds to see our amazing city, it’s always exciting to think about how that may lead to even more opportunities.” 

Back on the cultural side, Carlat said she is looking forward to the festival’s new “Family Fun Day” at Huntington University, and discovering new filmmakers.

“I’d like to say the Film Festival is about the films, but it’s really about the people,” Carlat said. “It’s about the people who contributed to making the films, the people who inspired the films, and the people who are sharing in the experience of visual storytelling. It’s moving and exciting to see the emotions that film can pull out of each of us.”

The people angle brings us back to volunteers, the “extras” of the festival.

“They do such an amazing job,” Carney said of the volunteers. “I can’t see how we would pull it off without them.

“They’ll be responsible for our ticketing set up. We’ll have a team of volunteers managing 

seating and operations, getting people get in the right lines ushering, managing the crowd.”

Of the 30 volunteers, about 20 are returning from last year.

Four of the volunteers also helped select the films for this year’s festival. 

Kim Rodhouse is such a film geek, she drove up from Chandler last year,and will return this year as a volunteer director.

“It was an amazing experience to be part of the first Peoria Film Festival,” she said. “We got to be the volunteers to help make this a great experience and exciting festival for film lovers.

“As a film lover myself, I am coming back because I love to be a part of something that is such a great event and to be able to be a part of this and help put it on is thrilling for me.” 

Talk about a grinder: Rodhouse was too busy helping behind the scenes to watch any of the offerings last year. “But I heard there were amazing films last year,” she said.

That’s what being a film festival volunteer is all about: Making sure others have a good time and the opportunity for new experiences, new stories, new faces.