Phoenix film fest

The Phoenix Film Festival Kids’ Day puts families on the red carpet. (Jennifer Mullins)

“Oh, here we go again,” the Phoenix Film Festival’s Jason Carney remembers thinking leading up to last year’s event.

Delayed from its usual spring setting to late summer, he said the annual festival came right as concerns were mounting due to the COVID-19 delta variant.

Thankfully, the event performed well — better, in fact, than the previous year’s event, which had itself been delayed and dissected into a smaller version of itself amid the pandemic’s early waves.

Carney, the festival director, is similarly hopeful for this year’s 22nd annual Phoenix Film Festival, which returns to its usual spring setting at Harkins Scottsdale 101 from Thursday, March 31, to Sunday, April 10. The International Horror & Sci-Fi and Arizona Student film festivals are once again tied in.

This year’s diverse lineup is projected to include more than 200 works spanning local, national and international productions, plus appearances from guest filmmakers. Audiences will be able to see films from all over the world compete for awards.

Films range from feature length to shorter projects, encompassing mediums and genres like live action, animation, narrative stories, documentaries and college productions – or, “kind of a little bit of everything,” as Carney puts it.

The inclusion of the annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival lends credence to genre pictures.

Highlights, according to Carney, include director Dan Mirvish’s Watergate thriller/dark comedy “18 1/2” and the “wildly entertaining” documentary “The Pez Outlaw,” about a smuggling operation of rare Pez dispensers from Europe into the United States in the ’90s.

“You want to come to a festival and you don’t want to see a bunch of dramas or you don’t want to see a bunch of dark documentaries,” Carney said, emphasizing the variety.

“You want to be able to see some light stuff, too. And so it’s important for us to program some romantic comedies, you know what I mean?” he continued. “There’s a place for that, and you want to lighten up; you want to have an enjoyment of your day.

“You’re going to see these powerful, amazing performances of trauma, but like, hey, let’s cleanse our palette and see something that’s going to make us laugh or see a documentary that’s going to raise awareness or just give us a good feeling.”

The recent Unified by Film category, on the other hand, has been rebranded and expanded as Community Spotlight – showcasing the diversity of filmmakers from the African American, Latinx, Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and LGBTQ+ communities.

The idea, Carney said, is to work with and promote nonprofits in those communities to create opportunities and raise awareness of the issues they face, while also giving those communities the opportunity to see films with their same world view.

“It’s nice to see yourself represented on screen in some regard or at least getting that vision and having that commonality with the director of films,” Carney said.

The Arizona Student Film Festival is set for Saturday, April 9. The annual competition screens short films created by grade school and high school students, with one high school winner to receive a $1,000 scholarship.

“It’s always a fun day at the festival that Saturday morning,” Carney said. “It’s just exciting to see not only have the opportunity for these young filmmakers to have their films on the screen, we get to see the family, their parents, their siblings, their grandparents, they’re all there and they’re all supportive. It’s just such a great feeling and we’re just really proud of that program for sure.”

Notable this year, beyond films, is more of an emphasis on the social aspect that had been reduced the past couple festivals.

While last year’s audience was not the size it had been just a few years back, Carney said it “set the tone for us just kind of moving forward and setting us up for hopefully an even bigger comeback this year with the return of our Party Pavilion, which we haven’t been able to do since 2019.”

The opening weekend Party Pavilion, he said, is back with some changes aimed to ensure comfortability and openness. Highlights are the Opening Night cocktail party; Friday’s Industry Night, which Carney calls “the biggest networking event of the year for the state”; and the Saturday night Film Prom.

“It’s kind of fun to intermingle that with so many great films we play,” Carney said.

Free educational filmmaker panels will also be set up in the theater on each weekend. Plus, there’s the free Kids’ Day the first Saturday morning, April 2, another opportunity for connection and education.

“We try to do a whole thing where it’s different parts of the filmmaking so it’s educational and fun, and it’s a wide enough variety so they can kind of go from station to station without waiting forever to do an activity,” he explains.

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