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Mallory Martin explains the nuts and bolts of how the Cleveland Film Festival comes together

The Cleveland International Film Festival barrels into its 37th year from April 3 - 14. Yes, that's 12 days, one more than the festival had been running, and it's a product of the immense popularity and growth one of Cleveland's best events has enjoyed in recent years. Record films, record attendance, record everything. It's a polished production, but just how the hell is it all put together? We called up associate programmer Mallory Martin to find out.

So who are you exactly and how long have you been with the festival?

I'm the associate programmer. It's just Bill Guentzler and I that make up the programming team. I've been doing this job for two years, and have been with CIFF for four.

So, we see the finished product, a parade of films and talks and, despite the crowds, organization and glitz and glamor. I'm just fathoming a guess here, but there's probably a wee bit of planning that goes into this production.

Ha, Just a little bit.

So, maybe a ton is a better way of putting it.

Basically, that's why they created my position. They never had programming help — Bill was a one-man show, which is unheard of in the festival world. Having only two programmers is even weird for how large we are. But they needed help and I started helping Bill as much as I could. This year, I started traveling to festivals with him. This year I went to five festivals between August and January and Bill went to seven or more. When we're at the same festival, it's nice that we can compare notes and split up programs. The other half of the selection process is submissions. We open the call in July. This year we had 2,000 submissions, which is what we had last year. So, once Bill and my travel schedules die down, we start watching submissions, which from November through January, it's about all you do.

When you're at a festival, you're working. What percentage of films are you watching? Just marathon sessions? Piles of popcorn and Mountain Dew?

If I'm at a festival, for example in London, theirs is two weeks and I watched 50 films there. When you're there, it's all you're doing, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., back-to-back, leaving you scrambling sometime.

How many moves have you watched, then, from festivals to submissions to get ready for this year's fest?

I've watched 400 films, and I think Bill's watched 600.

That's, um, a lot. So, "hunkered down" is probably a good way to describe submission watching?

Bill and I take movie days -- we don't come to the office, we just sit on our couches and watch movies from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. The most I've watched in a day, I think, is 9. But we don't always fully watch each submission all the way through. We try to give it 30 or 60 minutes, but you can tell by then whether it'll work or not.

Glamorous work. You ever pop in a DVD and say to yourself, "Oh great, another eastern European drama about a slow town with slow people and..."

Ha. You find that. The hard ones, though, are the ones that are OK. The great ones you know in 15 minutes, and you'll know most of the time in 15 minutes whether you don't want something. It's the ones you're not sure about that are hard. Maybe the acting is great but the script sucks, and you have to watch it all the way through just to see. Sometimes it's not what you expected, and sometimes they pull of something original. Sometimes not. We admit, not all the best movies we see end up in the film festival because we build around programs — local, new directors, etc. We try to bring a variety to Cleveland.

Where's our not-so-little festival rank up with the big boys?

I'm just learning that myself. I will say it's funny, because you go to other festivals, and I miss ours. I get homesick for ours because it's different.

How so?

We're playing 178 features, which is a lot, and that compares to other big festivals. Size-wise, we're growing — 80,000 people is a lot. And we have a lot of sponsorships compared to other festivals and have become kind of a role model for them. But ultimately, Cleveland is low-key. It's about the films, not about what parties you're going to and who's coming to what. That tends to get exhausting at other festivals. I'm just here to watch good movies, ya know? When filmmakers come here, they ask, "Well, what do I have to do?" And the answer is: whatever you want. You can do whatever, and you don't find that much right now.

You watch any movies for fun? Or is that a matter of if you do it for work, you don't want to do it for recreation?

It's funny. People always ask me about Oscar films, but I don't get to watch the Oscar films until after the festival's done. It's rare that I get to watch a movie. I'll try every now and then, but there's no typical movie date night. Someone will ask me to go and I'll just be like, "No, I'm good."

178 features, you said. How many were at the first one?

Ha. I don't know. [Asks someone at the office.] She just laughed, too. Maybe 7 or 8, I think, and they were spread out over a few weekends.

It's become one of the most popular events in Cleveland, but if there's one complaint, it's that while you guys do a fantastic job, it can feel crowded. Is it time to move out of Tower City?

I think it's something a lot of festivals deal with. We feel lucky. We're growing, and it's how you handle that growth. We're now in all the theaters at Tower City during the run, and Bill has developed a great way to manage the crowds — staggering the schedule instead of rounds, because when it was rounds, people would swarm out all at the same time. That's helped. We keep growing. We have to manage that growth, and I think the audiences are adapting, too.

It's 12 days now, expanded one additional day this year. Let's do 20!

Ha. We have to sleep.

You getting any sleep now?

During the festival, it's 24/7. We try to get home and sleep a little bit. It's long and you're exhausted by the end of it. So, no 20 days. But it's definitely worth it all when it's done, a great sense of accomplishment.

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