If You Screen It, They Will Come

Mary Riser attracts Hollywood elite and a film-loving crowd to downtown Fairhope each November.

Portrait of Mary Riser, founder of the Fairhope Film Festival
Portrait by Chad Riley

November, 11 years ago, Mary Riser was sitting in her small garage office, worried that no one was coming. The Fairhope resident and former college literature professor was putting on south Alabama’s first-ever film festival, and a volunteer asked her what they would do if the crowds forced the city to shut down the streets. Riser remembers thinking they’d be lucky if they had 10 people. 

“That first year was the hardest thing we’ve all done in our lives, but it was so fun. It could never be that fun again.” The crowds came, although not in unmanageable quantities. “It was amazing. I don’t know how that happened. From my tiny garage room, somehow, we did it. I don’t know how. It was some exciting,” she sums up in a way only a Southerner could.

The festival grew out of an annual film series that Riser had spearheaded for 14 years prior. As a lover of literature and storytelling, she is also a lover of film and was disappointed by the films shown in the Bay area. “I thought the community deserved a better quality of movies than what we were getting,” she remembers, and so she did something few people have the gumption to do. Instead of complaining about a blank space in our local culture, she filled it. She filled it with 24 films a year, 12 English films in the fall and 12 international films in the spring. She showed high-quality movies in small venues to sold-out crowds, and eventually, that series grew into the festival that many know and love today.

The festival has always shown 40 feature-length films in four days. “We cram it in and make it exciting,” she says. The organization screens 20 short films on top of the features and offers panels with filmmakers, a red-carpet event and more. But the pandemic and the rising popularity of streaming have changed the industry, and the Fairhope Film Festival is not immune. Riser says going forward the festival will screen fewer movies with more value-added attractions — more opportunities to network with filmmakers, enjoy panel discussions and have fun before and after the theater. 

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And how, you might ask, does tiny Fairhope, Alabama lure these producers and filmmakers to the seaside hamlet? It’s Riser’s persistence that seals the deal. She travels to film festivals around the country, meeting distributors and telling them about the generosity of the audience and community in south Alabama. “I tell everyone, we are a cultural oasis in the middle of the South. They start looking us up and they see!”

One year actor Paul Sorvino of “Goodfellas” came to promote a film, and actor and director David Rodriguez of “Psyche” was here, too. An audience member raised his hand during their panel and asked, “Mr. Rodriguez, what brought y’all to Fairhope?” He said, “Well, Mary did.” She beams remembering that her hard work paid off that year and many others. “That was a highlight for me,” she admits.

Clockwise from left USA Baldwin County Performing Arts Center overflows with attendees. Image courtesy Stephen Savage. Mary Riser scouts films at the Independent Film Festival Boston in 2014. Actress Renee Props (“Get Shorty”), Fairhope’s Mike Lyons and actor Paul Sorvino (“Goodfellas”) in 2013. Image courtesy Stephen Savage.

For those uninitiated in the world of film festivals, Fairhope’s differs from the big guys like Cannes and Toronto, not just in size and scale, but in purpose. The films at those larger festivals, with all the celebrities schmoozing, are usually looking for distributors. It’s about acquisitions. The films have been made, and now they need to be sold and sent to the big screen. Most of the films coming to festivals like Fairhope’s, however, already have distributors and are simply coming to entertain audiences, and hopefully rack up a few awards.

The awards are bona fide, too. The festival committee receives an advanced copy of each film from the distributor. Each committee member watches and votes. “They’ve been doing it a long time,” Riser says, now in her 25th year of curating films, “and we are a pretty tight little unit.” More than a dozen awards are handed out each year, including a few audience awards, and the little logo is proudly displayed on the film poster and branding forevermore.

Riser says for a film to be considered for the festival, it needs to meet three criteria: It must start with a truly compelling story, it should not have been widely viewed yet, and it should have won or been nominated at other prestigious festivals across the country. Those elements combine to make a movie experience that keeps attendees lined up day after day, screening after screening.

Despite the excitement of celebrity and the cache of awards, at the end of the day, for Riser, the festival is about sharing quality films with locals. An event like this one only makes a third of what it costs to put it on in ticket sales. The nonprofit must make up the rest from donors and sponsors. “And I am so thankful that our people have been very generous. Our audience is so forgiving and kind and generous, and they’ve kept it going. They’ve loved it.” 

There will be even more to love this year. Together with her steering committee, board of directors, one paid staffer and a trove of volunteers, she has planned an exciting slate of films and activities to make the 11th annual festival better than ever. Tickets go on sale a few weeks before the lineup is even announced, a testament to the fact that attendees trust the festival to bring films that inspire audiences, make them think, add beauty to their lives and, most of all, entertain.

Fairhope Film Festival

Thursday, November 9- Sunday, November 12
Various Locations
In this event, film lovers will be able to view short and feature films, both foreign and domestic. Show times vary and tickets must be purchased online.
Visit fairhopefilmfestival.org for more infomation.

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