Interview with Festival Director Christina Wilkinson (ITSA Film Festival)

The 7th Annual ITSA Film Festival takes place in Sonora, California in the heart of Gold Country the second Friday, Saturday and Sunday of November 2016. Run entirely by volunteers, ITSA Film Festival is dedicated to creating a wider audience and a greater awareness for all filmmakers, especially up-and-coming and students.

I recently chatted with the Festival Founder Christina Wilkinson:

Matthew Toffolo: What is yourFilm Festival ​succeeding at doing for filmmakers?

Christina Wilkinson: We strive to connect filmmakers of all ages at all levels of experience with each other. By screening films from filmmakers as young as 10 years old, we are able to be unique in that we know where our next generation of filmmakers come from; so we go out of our way to feature them at a very young age.

Matthew: What would you expect to experience if you attend the festival this year (2016)?

Christina: We feature one or two (sometimes three) workshops that are included to attend all for free at our festival. One of our favorite genres of films is music videos, so we are also bringing in live music performances for the entire weekend. The average amount of short films we screen is around 60 total over the course of the three days. After each film, we set aside time for Q&A with individual filmmakers and casts. One of our biggest highlights is our main guest speakers panel where we have up to 5 invited industry guests from Los Angeles and San Francisco. We are also planning another private filmmaker reception where they can network with each other.

Matthew: What are the qualifications for the selected films?

Christina: Under 30 minutes in any genre. We normally do not have a strict timeframe a film should have been made, but within the last 5 years is great.

Matthew: Do you think that some films really don’t get a fair shake from film festivals? And if so, why?

Christina: Yes. Sometimes we receive an abundance of films that contain the same subject matter. When this happens, we go back through and select the best of that specific topic. So sometimes a film may be very good, but if too many films about “Alzheimers” get submitted, we have to determine which ones go through and which ones do not. Successful programming is all about screening 60+ films for an audience and the audience feels as though they have not seen the same type of story over and over again. That is the key.

Also, we do program for timing. For instance, if we have already selected numerous films and our extended deadline is coming up, at this time we only set a small amount of time aside to fill. So this is where programming gets complicated. It’s like building a puzzle from scratch. We take the best of what has not been selected and give it the first amount of time. After we have gotten down to maybe seven minutes remaining, even possibly up to two minutes, we are left to determine what film can take that final spot. This could mean a fun film that is only three minutes may be selected to screen over a good 30 minute film because the longer film did not compete well with the other “good” films, and since it is too long to fit the spot, it won’t be selected.

Another reason some films may not get a “fair shake” is due to location. While we have screened many diverse films, there are those that are too strong-handed or political in many directions, and that is not what we are after. Messages can be sent subtlety, yet successfully. A few years ago we had a film submitted about homosexuality. It was star-filled and beautifully made (in the first 20 minutes). But in the last part of it, pre screeners and program directors felt as though it took a negative turn by bashing a segment of our local population. Therefore we made the decision not to accept it. This film probably lost out on winning many awards in other festivals by not being accepted for this very reason.

Our festival’s goal is to get audiences in the seats and get exposure for our filmmakers. If the majority of our audience is upset by too many of our selections, they might not attend again, and this hurts our filmmakers. Therefore we try very hard to be diverse in our official selections.

Matthew: What motivates you and your team to do this festival?

Christina: Our entire ITSA Film Festival family is made up of film fans. We are all volunteers and put any money from the festival back into the festival to make it better. As a founder, ideas on how to spend any proceeds is discussed by the team during regular meetings. So they get input too; and this doesn’t happen in a lot of film festivals. When someone attends the ITSA Film Festival, they know that the faces of Team ITSA have largely remained the same year-after-year. We are about keeping our guests, attending filmmakers and audiences happy. When we hear what a great time everyone has had and the amazing contacts they have made, that is what motivates us and drives us all to continue what we are doing each year.

Matthew: How has the festival changed since its inception?

Christina: This one is difficult to answer because the ITSA Film Festival changes every year. We are constantly trying new things, new presentations, new locations, and whatever else we can to make it fun.

Our first three years we were screening the Emerging Cinematography Award (ECA) films as something different, but these films took up a huge chunk of programming time. So we decided to showcase more submissions and cut the ECA films. We had a formal gala for several years at a substantial cost to ourselves – we actually lost money because of it. Now we have a less formal filmmakers reception for two included in each film official acceptance. This allows better one-on-one time for our guests and filmmakers at no additional cost to them.

We had multiple locations, but felt it became too spread out to handle. So we try to have our entire festival in just one location.

We’ve had live music in the past and are bringing this back.

One of our biggest changes is support from our community. And since our biggest goal is to have audiences as large as possible, our festival is free to the public. We are more about the filmmakers and less about the money – although the money is great to continue doing what we have done. Last year was the first time we did not spend our own personal money out-of-pocket, but every penny we have spent has been worth it.

We also have more sponsors than we did when we started. These relationships are important in our growth.

Matthew: Where do you see the festival by 2020?

Christina: One of our goals is to build up to the attendance numbers that the old Wild West Film Fest had before shutting down in 2000 here in Tuolumne County. We also foresee filmmakers coming back to California’s Gold Country to start making films here again. We feel that our festival is about so much more than screening films and folks will see this by 2020.

Matthew: What film have you seen the most times in your life?

Christina: There are a few; Gladiator, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Groundhog Day

Matthew: In one sentence, what makes a great film?

Christina: One that connects with an audience, because a connection pulls someone into a film and they forget they’re even watching.

Matthew: How is the film scene in your city?

Christina: As far as film festivals, ITSA is the only one based here. We hold two festivals a year; ITSA and our environmental festival called Back to Nature Film Festival. There is also a magnet high school that has an annual film festival for its film students, as well as another (traveling) environmental film festival.

Where movies and commercials are concerned, lots of indie films come through the area and one of the films starred Raj Patel. Numerous commercials are filmed in our county. Overall, there have been over 300 films and television series filmed here which include Back to the Future 3, Hidalgo, High Noon, Little House on the Prairie, among others.



Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.


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