The 46th Cleveland International Film Festival set to shine in Playhouse Square
CLEVELAND, Ohio – When the Playhouse Square theaters opened 101 years ago, they were used for movies and vaudeville shows. Next week, movies will be in the spotlight once again when the Cleveland International Film Festival finally moves into its new home in the city’s premier entertainment district.
“When I was a kid, that’s where I saw ‘Mary Poppins,’ ‘My Fair Lady,’ and ‘The Sound of Music,'” CIFF executive director Marcie Goodman said. “To have people in these majestic halls watching movies again, it’s exciting.”
CIFF46, scheduled for March 30-April 9, is not only the first festival at Playhouse Square, it marks a return to in-person screenings after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the event to move online these last two years.
“A festival is not a festival without an audience and that’s especially true for filmmakers,” said CIFF Artistic Director Mallory Martin. “We get a ton of filmmakers and that’s really what sets festivals apart from just having a cinematic experience every other day, having that face-to-face time with the filmmakers and learning more about the films you’re watching.”
Goodman echoed that sentiment, adding that she can’t wait to see the filmmakers’ reactions when the curtain goes up and they see their work screened in these historic theaters.
“They really have no idea how glorious it is,” she said.
The new site will also be an adjustment for festival-goers. Playhouse Square is the antithesis of Tower City Cinemas, the 1990s multiplex the festival has called home from 1991 to 2019. Instead of 10 screens apart, the event’s more than 300 films will be spread in six connected but separate locations. : the Westfield Studio Theatre, Allen Theatre, Upper Allen, Mimi Ohio Theatre, KeyBank State Theater and Connor Palace.
And while you may have seen a Broadway show or concert at one or more of these theaters, the location of the others may not be so familiar to you. Give yourself more time to navigate the sprawling resort.
“Everything changes except the fact that we’re showing movies,” Goodman said.
Indeed, moving from a 10-screen venue to a six-screen venue has allowed organizers to “resize” the festival and make it more manageable for the average moviegoer. The event grew to 213 features and 237 shorts in its final year in Tower City. For CIFF46, those numbers fell to 146 feature films and 182 short films, although the number of countries represented fell from 71 to 73.
“It was a big challenge for us, trying to work a really big program, which is still probably one of the biggest programs for regional film festivals in the United States, in our new venue,” Martin said.
For the lead programmer and her team, the selection process began last June. By the time the lineup was finalized in February, Martin had spent around 770 hours watching 513 feature films – plenty to be sure, but still 200 less than last year. For that, she can thank the addition of three new feature programmers who brought their own unique perspectives to the mix: Neha Aziz, who came to CIFF from South by Southwest and the Austin Asian American Film Festival; Ivonne Cotorruelo, Cuban curator who programmed the film festivals of Trinidad and Tobago and Miami; and Brett Reiter, a Columbus-based film producer with a pulse in the LGBTQ+ film scene.
“These were deliberate hires,” Martin said. “We needed to add more voices and perspectives to the group.”
The result is an even more diverse program that always meets what festival-goers expect and appreciate. The event is equally divided between narrative films and documentaries. Most of the competitions are back, including the awards for Best Central and Eastern European Film, Best Portrait Documentary and Excellence in Directing by a Woman.
The sidebars have been tweaked a bit to help moviegoers navigate the offerings a little easier. So, in addition to familiar groupings like Family Movies and Horror & Bizarre Movies that make up the “After Hours” series, you’ll find collections categorized by community. There are sidebars that appeal to audiences who identify as Asian, Black, Jewish, Native, Latino and Hispanic, LGBTQ and more.
“We’re really trying to give as many different groups of people in Cleveland the opportunity to get out of their homes if they can and come and experience a festival in person,” Martin said.
Asked to name some of her favorite films from CIFF46, the festival’s lead programmer said it was like being asked to choose her favorite child. But the opening, centerpiece, and closing movies are a good place to start. The festival kicks off March 30 at Connor Palace with “Peace By Chocolate,” a narrative film directed by Jonathan Keijser. It is based on a true story about a Syrian refugee who moved to Canada after the bombing of his family’s chocolate factory.
“It’s the perfect movie for opening night because it makes you feel good,” Goodman said.
“Navalny” has been chosen for the centerpiece screening, scheduled for April 5 at Connor Palace. Director Daniel Roher’s documentary follows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny after he was poisoned by Russian security forces in August 2020.
“It’s not only a great subject to talk about and learn more about right now, but also the movie itself is made as a thriller,” Martin said.
Both Martin and Goodman are thrilled for audiences to see “Linoleum,” which closes the festival on April 9 at Connor Palace.
Directed by Columbus native Colin West, the comedy stars Jim Gaffigan (“American Dreamer”) as a kids’ science show host in the midst of a midlife crisis who builds a rocket to fulfill his dream of become an astronaut.
“It’s very, very unusual,” Goodman said. “I can’t wait to ask the director when he’s here.”
Martin added, “It’s one of those films that will leave people talking beyond the end of the festival.”
Some of their other picks include “The Pez Outlaw,” a documentary about a rebellious collector of rare Pez dispensers; “L’Automate”, which looks back on the history of the vending machine restaurants popularized in the 1930s; and “I Get Knocked Down,” a hybrid documentary that catches up with members of Chumbawamba, the anti-establishment rock band that blessed music fans with the catchy single “Tubthumping” in 1997.
“It’s probably one of my favorite movies this year,” Martin said.
Indeed, there is something for everyone. But if you can’t make a particular screening at all or at Playhouse Square, the festival is moving online when the in-person screenings end. From April 10-17, CIFF46 Streams will air nearly two-thirds of Playhouse Square’s programming. But unlike previous virtual festivals, there are no scheduled screenings. Viewers can stream the movies available on demand at their own pace.
“Some people are just going to prefer to continue experiencing the festival online,” Goodman said.
Yet as a festival, CIFF has always believed that films should be seen on the big screen with audiences and filmmakers in person. That’s why this inaugural festival at Playhouse Square promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“This is our forever home,” Goodman said. “We always knew we would get there sooner or later. It’s a little later but we can’t wait.
Cleveland International Film Festival tickets for in-person screenings ($14 members/non-members $16) and 10-pack vouchers ($120/$140) are on sale now at clevelandfilm.org. Tickets can also be purchased at the festival box office in the lobby of the KeyBank State Theater, 1519 Euclid Ave, Cleveland, beginning March 28. Tickets for the virtual festival, CIFF46 Streams, are also available for $8/$10.