By Ray Pride
We met up at the Music Box Lounge on a sunny afternoon after a day of slush with the amiable if weary quartet behind CIMMfest, the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, the behemoth festival, now in its eighth year, that sprawls across Chicago with “99+ Films! 99+ Bands!,” as their promos banner. [The downloadable fifty-six-page program is here.]
Executive director Dave Moore, forty-eight, has been with CIMMfest for four years, and was not only a fan from the start, but was also the fest’s first passholder. Co-founder and artistic director Josh Chicoine, forty-two, and director at large Carmine Cervi, forty-eight, have been with the fest from the get-go. Creative and marketing director Gary Kuzminski, forty-eight, has been under the big tent for five years. (In addition to CIMMfest, Cervi has the production company BulletProof Film and Kuzminski teaches interactive advertising at Columbia.) We talked about their blend of programming, as well as the logistics of the epic endeavor at thirty venues across four days.
Opening night is five days away. Does time get away from you?
Josh: So many details.
Dave: For instance, we’re having the conference. [CIMMcon covers two days with more than fifty panels, presentations and workshops.] All that information has to go on the website. Fifty slots, about? People don’t send you their bios until a couple days out.
Josh: After much hounding.
Dave: Most people send you their whole resume. A book! Some people send three pages…
Josh: So then you have to stop what you’re doing, cut that down, put it back in an email, send it to the right person. So just that, just doing that, you have to do that for 400 listings. It’s so detail-oriented, to try to get it right the best you can, that’s the impossible task.
Dave: The other thing is CIMMcity, the pop-up venue that we do every year. We never know when we’re going to get it, it’s not that easy. You can’t get it more than a month or so out. This year, we got it… last Friday.
But filmmakers have sent you their video, that’s all in line?
Carmine: Well, we’re projecting at [counts aloud] four-five-six-seven venues. I don’t need to know all the technical details, but I need to know who to talk to and questions to ask. The Logan, Facets, they’re good, Chicago Filmmakers, they’re all set.
Dave: The Logan, we provide the projectionists.
Carmine: [laughs] It’s the only cinema that wouldn’t turn their projectors over to some… kids.
Are you at the four hours of sleep stage? You all seem amazingly relaxed, which I assume is only exhaustion.
Josh: Oh yeah.
Carmine: If we’re lucky.
Dave: Yesterday, I was pretty good, I got to bed at one, and I did a lot of good things yesterday. Most everything I did worked out. I don’t remember what it was that I did! Not a real problem I didn’t solve, but I don’t remember anything beyond that. And then I woke up at 5:30 this morning with this rush of adrenaline.
Gary: Dreams. Night panics! We met at 7:30 this morning to hit the el stations off of Clark and Lake and then the Washington stop and it’s like ice balls are falling on us, turns to rain, turns to snow, turns into rain, programs are turning into wet toilet paper and I’m trying to find dry copies, “Fresh copy for you! Fresh copy for you!”
Dave: Yesterday, we had a kickoff at Old Town with [indie rockers] Deer Tick, so we had four people there handing out programs, it’s one of our venues, six events, a good time and place to let everybody know what’s going on. It’s really hard, over all the years we’ve been doing this, there are still a lot of people who don’t know that [CIMMfest] exists. It’s Chicago, there’s so many events always going on. Even though we’re going to have 200 events, there’s the Latino Film Festival going on [at the same time], for instance.
Gary: Yeah. Such tight bandwidth, the way that we’d like to think about it, in our eighth year, no matter how much happens each year, there are still so many folks who have no idea what the heck a “CIMM” is. We like to look at that as blue sky, but it doesn’t get any easier. Every year is a struggle.
Dave: I think the main thing we try to tell ’em, really this is it, one hundred films, one hundred bands, industry conference, we’re citywide.
How do you capitalize on the spokes of Chicago’s live music scene to reach a wider audience? The first glimpse of the catalog is always daunting, page after page, event after event. Thirty venues.
Gary: The other day at [the monthly Midwest Independent Film Festival event] some guy said, “CIMMfest, I love CIMMfest! But it’s a logistical shitshow!” We should actually use that as a slogan. What works for us, number one, is that we understand the neighborhoods we’re going into. We do a lot of legwork, we have partners we work with, partners that clearly understand their constituency, and we tailor our program to speak to just that. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, y’know, and each has its own personality, its own pride, certainly. Hyde Park is vastly different from Rogers Park, is vastly different from Logan Square, is vastly different than Stony Island.
Dave: We know we’re up against a lot when we go with the wide range, but that’s the part that seems to make us unique. What we also know is that people in Hyde Park are not going to come to Wicker Park, and people in Pilsen aren’t coming to Wicker Park very much. So if we’re just in Logan Square, it’s hard to have that broad reach, the very core of what we started with, a festival about all kinds of music. Once you start at that point, the city is divided in many ways in terms of what people are interested in, we’re not going to get the same audience in Hyde Park we’d get up in Wicker Park.
Talk about collaborating with those local venues.
Josh: We’re growing, we’re building something. We’re by no means established. That requires us to play with what we have. We have relationships with these venues and these constituencies. Because we’re still primarily a Chicago festival. We’re not drawing a significant number of people from outside of Chicago. I think this is longer-term strategy that we’ve at least talked about, and every year, we’re confronted by it. Coming out of town, coming to Chicago, the idea of trying to go to all these places is super daunting, and so the establishment of the Milwaukee corridor, when the Logan Theatre opened, when we were in Wicker Park, it was an a-ha moment. Looking at something like South by Southwest, which is multimedia and multifaceted, that’s the kind of thing we’re trying to create. We’re not there yet, we still need to sell tickets in Chicago, like Dave says, we go to the people [in the neighborhoods] instead of just saying, oh come to us.
How many festivals does Chicago have that are truly tourist destinations, though? Blues Fest, Jazz Fest?
Carmine: What’s good for Chicago is that the artists and the filmmakers do want to come to CIMMfest. That national and international artists know about us and want to be involved. What we lack in drawing an audience from other parts of the country, the filmmakers and musicians come to Chicago.
Josh: We have at least forty filmmakers coming in.
Carmine: As far as neighborhoods go, we don’t go into a venue and try to take it over, everything is selected for their audience.
Dave: At the Old Town, we have Austin City Limits and Taj Mahal. These venues already have an audience that’s interested in what we do. By partnering, we’re helping them by getting press and audience there they wouldn’t otherwise, and it works to our benefit as well.
Carmine: Chicago Filmmakers has “No Land’s Song,” about women in the Islamic world who aren’t allowed to perform. Oxfam is one of our partners, and they’re going to show a short they made about an Iranian girl who’s a rapper and they’re going to have a discussion afterwards about women in the Islamic world and difficulties. At Facets, we have a French-Canadian comedy, and I handed it to Charles [Coleman, the programmer], and he said, “this film looks great,” and I said, “yeah, I think it’s exactly the kind of movie you’d want to show!”
Gary: When things are tailored, where it’s not just the solitary experience where you have people coming to sit in a box and see this thing and go home, if we can tailor something that speaks the language of the room, of even more so, or better yet, with our outreach, finding the exact communities that this film can affect, and get the audience that will take action rather than just be an audience, be exhilarated or outraged, if we can pack the room with people, then that is the next step. One of the reasons we’re excited about having Oxfam involved this year is that in some respects, they’re masters of impact. That element has always existed within our programming, but it’s leveraging what we’ve done before.
Dave: With The Promontory, we’re working with them and bringing in David Banner, which is something they would have been on the cusp of programming, but with our partnership, they’re willing to do it. One of the reasons Promontory wants to work with us is they have a hard time connecting with an audience up here. Lots of people don’t even know it exists, if you live on the North Side. We’re able to bring in some programming—if we did David Banner at Chop Shop, we wouldn’t have the reach to market it. They have experience with that audience, and we can make something happen that works for both of us.
Josh: The Burlington is a rock club that we’re not going to put singer-songwriters in. We’re cognizant of the scene, we work closely with the venue management, and have been working with them for years and put in very specific events. That’s the mantra, no matter what. We’ve tried to reinvent the wheel a couple of times, and we fall flat on our face. We’re not super-strong talent buyers, we’re not a venue that operates 300 days out of the year booking shows, has all these agency contacts or leverage. By working with Promontory for instance, we can get better fees and marketing reach. Then you look at our programming, and you go, wow, they are geographically spread out… You can see how the brand has evolved from film, but film has allowed us to program live music that wasn’t necessarily like when Carmen and Ilko [Davidov] and I started it, when it was like, we know our friends, but we don’t know the classical world. It was then, alright, who’s doing cool stuff that’s classical music, including films, we can create a narrative, an authentic narrative. The films allowed us to have that diversity, our breadth of programming that we can now fill in on the live music side. However messy this whole big thing is, I feel like the narrative is still one of, music is music, people are people, and everybody wins.
Gary: Whatever voice is being represented is being represented authentically. There are so many voices under this tent, it could be this cacophony of confusion—
Dave: We program things we couldn’t expect. Connections from earlier years led to, this year, we’re doing a live-scored video game. That wouldn’t have happened without the years of experience. We talk to people who know their scene, or at least people we think know about it!
Gary: Or just doing stupid shit that could be awesome!
Dave: [laughs] We’re very careful about that. This is a huge endeavor, this is a huge festival, and you ask, is it all worth it? We’ll be discussing that with our wives later! We’ll let you know after the festival.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.