Interview with Film Festival Director R. Presley Stephens (Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival)

The Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival was founded in 2014 by award-winning Bay Area filmmakers, actors, critics, artists and cinephiles to catch the independent films that fall through the cracks and end up… underground.  TBUFF celebrates good quality low budget films from Tampa and around the world and provides a professionally presented showcase for them.  The festival is usually held in early December, which is known as “late summer” in central Florida, and features more than a hundred films of all genres and lengths.

Interview with R. Presley Stephens:

Matthew Toffolo: What is your Film Festival succeeding at doing for filmmakers?

R. Presley Stephens:: We think film festivals should be about the filmmakers, which really isn’t the case with many other festivals. The original purpose of regional film festivals like ours was to showcase a lot of Sundance-type independent films that many people who lived far from Utah, Los Angeles and New York would have no opportunity to easily see since most such films weren’t going to get wide theatrical distribution.

But this was decades ago, before the proliferation of cable TV in general, before Sundance Channel specifically, before the internet and high quality streaming. What’s the point in every regional festival showing the “best of” Sundance, Cannes and Toronto when those movies are going to be on Sundance TV and Netflix six months later? Meanwhile filmmakers themselves don’t need festivals for distribution quite as much as they used to because there are so many other avenues to get those deals now and if all else fails, put it on YouTube and let the people decide. So the key festival selling points for most filmmakers now are networking, accolades and the relatively rare opportunity to see their work on a TRULY big screen in front of an enthusiastic live audience, all of which TBUFF provides.

And we try to go the extra steps of making that experience as exciting and fulfilling as possible with very thoughtful Q&A sessions for every film, marketing opportunities and meet & greet events. We also strive to excel with professional presentations (several TBUFF founders have worked at movie theaters and know a thing or two about projection), thorough preparation and frequent communication, which we’ve been told by our filmmakers is impressive enough to help set us apart from many other festivals.

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

RPS: TBUFF 2016 will once again be at a real cinema, offering the cast and crew and their friends and family and other festival attendees the opportunity to see the films on the big screen with digital sound. It’s usually a 4 day event (Dec. 1-4 this year), and we have movies all day and night long followed by after-parties with free appetizers at classy area restaurants most nights. We had a film panel on microbudget production and distribution last year and plan to have more this year. We have yet to have a Hollywood celebrity show up but certainly lots of local celebrities. We’ve been told that the crowning jewel of our event is our Oscars-like awards ceremony (“The Buffys!”) featuring clips of each nominated film (giving the always sold-out audience an opportunity to see why the films they probably didn’t get to watch are nominated), teary acceptance speeches, professional photo ops, engraved trophies and other ceremony trappings. For many of the nominated filmmakers, it’s basically another opportunity for a large audience to experience their films.

Undoubtedly one of the biggest selling points for northern filmmakers planning to attend is that TBUFF is held in subtropical Florida during the middle of winter, with highs usually in the 70s and the famous Pinellas County beaches less than 30 minutes away. Our attendance by selected filmmakers from outside the Sunshine State has been phenomenal – our main theme revolves around “native films” standing their ground against “invasive films” (hence the alligator-python tussle in our logo), so we usually have a fairly even split between Florida and non-Florida films, and so far more non-Florida filmmakers have shown up to represent their movies than Florida filmmakers! Last year that included not only several New York, Los Angeles and Canadian filmmakers, but also filmmakers from Ireland, England and Poland! Usually more than 60% of our films have representation at TBUFF, which seems crazy to us considering how young the festival is and its “underground” roots. This was even true the first year, before we had built up any real reputation at all, and we’re not all that sure why, but we’re certainly proud of our status.

MT: What are the qualifications for the selected films?

RPS: If you mean, the technical qualifications, we don’t really have a lot. Thus far we don’t even have a time limit on how long after completion a film can be submitted, but as we get bigger, that could change. As far as what we look for with selections… it’s honestly a mostly Potter Stewart scenario: we know it when we see it. But variety is very important to us – we have at least one short block of almost every genre, and we like conventional movies as much as weird stuff that our “underground” name would suggest. We showcase dramas, comedies, action, adventure, crime, musicals, horror, sci-fi, thrillers, fantasies, mysteries, romances, animation, children’s, religious, lgbt, foreign, documentaries, experimental – basically anything, and it doesn’t have to bizarre or on the fringe, though we definitely delight in those. Thanks to some good relationships with the theaters we’ve worked with, we’ve been able to program a lot of movies – 125 last year, which is on par with a lot of bigger “international” festivals. That included more than 20 features.

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

RPS: It obviously depends on the festival, but certainly features without known talent have much more uphill battles on the overall circuit than features with stars or most any short, although “long shorts” (like 30-45 minutes) are difficult to program and often glossed over by festivals regardless of quality. TBUFF certainly isn’t going to turn its nose up at a celebrity-filled feature if it fits our program (we showcased a horror film in 2014 that had a bunch of well-known actors in it, including one who grew up in our area), but probably because of the word “underground” in our name, we rarely get such submissions, and we would indeed like to give as many slots as possible to good quality starless features that unknown “starving artist” filmmakers practically sacrificed their livelihoods to make. As far as long shorts, some of the best shorts that have been submitted to us were on the long side, so we found room for them. Again, we’ve been able to program a lot more movies than the typical underground film festival thanks to our good relationship with the movie theaters that we’ve worked with, as our festival has been much more of an asset than a burden to them.

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

RPS: Most of the TBUFF founders (including co-executive director Jason Beck, co-executive director Kelly Nunez, marketing director Chris Maria Reyes, assistant programming director Jay Franks, social media director Jaden Mikes, photography directors Nicholas Barrera and Lisa Shorts, audio-visual directors Chris Cook and Geoff Langhans, as well as myself) worked on several Liberty Lane Productions films, including the recently released feature “Poltergeist of Borley Forest.” Before its distribution, that movie had a film festival tour that took it from New York to Miami to Louisville to California, which was such a wonderful experience for us that we wanted to share it with other filmmakers, particularly in our home market of Tampa. This area already had a couple of prominent festivals but they were more centered around celebrity-driven independent productions than true “underground” projects in the vein of such indie classics as “Clerks,” “El Mariachi” and “Blair Witch Project,” which were all made on shoestring budgets by then-unknowns without any notable cast members. Their level of success is the exception-to-the-rule but these passion projects embody the spirit of filmmaking that TBUFF seeks. But we did want to give these filmmakers a more “international” festival-type experience than most other “underground” festivals do, so we incorporated what we felt like were the best aspects of all the festivals we’ve attended into our festival – the best aspects that would fit into our “underground” budget, of course.

MT: How has the festival changed since its inception?

RPS: TBUFF is only 3 years old, so not much! We were at a beach theater our first year, but it closed before the second year and we had to move inland into the main city, so that was a bit of a culture shock and led to different kinds of parties and a new technology learning curve. Otherwise our third year is largely looking the same as the first year, except bigger and better, with the same philosophy and a similar number of films. One very positive change is the substantial increase in submissions, with filmmakers seeking us out based on their previous positive experiences and word of mouth from other filmmakers, rather than us having to do a lot of scouting and convincing, as was the case in year 1. We’ve also expanded our staff beyond just the original founders, so hopefully this year will be a little less chaotic for the board members than in the past. But probably not!

MT: Where do you see the festival by 2020?

RPS: Being in a city with two other established, world-renown all-genre festivals, we certainly don’t see ourselves as being the preeminent festival at that or any point, especially considering our “underground” nature, but we do hope by then that we have connected with both the local and international film community in such a significant manner that we’ll be the “Big Three” instead of there just being the “Big Two.” We already get some media exposure, but hopefully in 4 years newspapers and TV stations will seek us out instead of the other way around and far more people in the area will know about us.

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

RPS: Like most people of my era, probably “The Wizard of Oz” because it was on TV at least once a year for most of my childhood. “Pulp Fiction” seems likely the movie I saw most in theaters, because for 6 months it was at a theater I worked at, and I watched it religiously during my breaks and before and after my shifts, leading to it greatly influencing my own screenwriting style. As I’ve worked at several theaters over a two decade period, there are many movies I’ve seen the best parts of dozens of times each.

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

RPS: A great film is one that truly becomes an escape from the real world – not just the first time you watch it, but all the many times you are compelled to watch it.

MT: How is the film scene in your city?

RPS: As is the case with most Florida markets, Hollywood isn’t exactly overrunning Tampa with major productions due to the lack of state tax incentives, but a fair number of true independent features are produced in the area every year, usually by filmmakers putting their own money into the projects and getting as much of their community involved as they can, and we definitely have a very supportive, interconnected film community. More of these are horror than any other genre, sometimes leading to Tampa being called the “Splatter Capital” of the state, but there are also conventional dramas and comedies as well as art films being produced. There are an abundance of young filmmakers in the area who are attending or have recently graduated from area schools with respected film programs such as the University of Tampa’s, University of South Florida’s and the Art Institute of Tampa, along with Central Florida and Full Sail in nearby Orlando and Ringling College in Sarasota, and these artists are cranking out a steady diet of high quality short films. Tampa-St. Pete has about 10 total film festivals of varying stature and many other film-related events, quite a few of which have strong attendance, so the film scene is very lively here indeed, and TBUFF is very excited and proud to be part of it and hopes to continue to be for years to come.


Programming director and co-founder R. Presley Stephens has written and produced several underground films himself, including the starless Tampa supernatural horror flick “The Poltergeist of Borley Forest,” which somehow found its way into Redbox’s Top 20 rentals rankings in October 2015.  He was also a TV station film critic for 7 years and did weekend cinema projection work for half of his life, so he is about as deeply immersed in film culture as a person can get

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 Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go for more information and to submit your work to the festival.


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