Now in its third year, the Chattanooga Film Festival at the helm of Chris Dortch is getting bigger and gaining attention outside of the South.
by Charles Moss
Chris Dortch greets me outside of a former neighborhood grocery store in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. He’s pretty much been living in this building for weeks now, with construction crews coming and going at seemingly all hours of the day. With a six-pack of beer in my hand, I’m invited in and he gives me his five-minute tour of what will soon be Cine-Rama, an arthouse movie theater that will show an abundant variety of films while also serving as an arts education center for the city’s ever-expanding arts scene — complete with a community art gallery.
While Dortch is prepping for its grand opening, which will be in just a few weeks, he’s also planning the Chattanooga Film Festival (CFF), which takes place March 31-April 3.
Good thing he’s an insomniac.
Dortch has loved movies for as long as he can remember. Many of the firsts in his life revolve around them. The first time he was truly afraid of something was when he saw the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.” The first time he realized he had a loose tooth, he was watching “Labyrinth.” And when he first watched “Return of the Jedi,” he thought that there could be nothing greater in the world Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia. He also remembers his family’s first VCR and the first time they went to the video store to watch a movie, how awed he was by the selection. When it was time to get a job, he worked wherever movies were sold, wherever he could be surrounded by them. For Dortch, working outside of film has never been an option.
“When I was a kid, we were briefly in a little town called Gray, Tennessee, not far from Johnson City,” Dortch remembers. “It’s such a tiny town that at the time, the library was in, literally, a double-wide trailer. My dad took me in and I brought him a book (and this is way before I could read) and said ‘This is what I want to do.’ The book was about special effects and for years and years, the first job I wanted, rather than being an astronaut or a fireman, I wanted to be the guy that does the monster makeup.”
Dortch never got into makeup or special effects, but he never gave up on movies. In fact, he made it his mission to share his passion with as many people as he could, which he attributes to the awkward little video store/tanning salon/smoke shop he worked at in Cleveland, Tennessee, called Videos2Go. There, he had an “Employee Top Picks” shelf where he displayed his favorite video recommendations.
“I had people start to come in and take the stuff that I put on my bullshit shelf seriously, and I started to take great pride in it and I loved being the guy people would come in and ask, ‘Hey what’s good?’ or ‘Hey, I like horror movies,’ and ask what I’ve seen. I just love that, and that sort of carried its way with me to film school. And at film school, we would have weekly movie nights at my house. I would, you know, try to dig out some buried treasure and get all the nerds to come hang out with me.”
As these gatherings got bigger, Dortch found himself working at the Documentary Channel as a programmer, helping to hand pick which films got aired. And he worked on cultivating relationships with the filmmakers of those films, which would prove to come in handy as he started the CFF.
When he moved back to Chattanooga after working for the Documentary Channel, he and a friend started Mise en Scenesters, a not-for-profit film club devoted to film education through podcasts and blogs, while showcasing movies not available in Chattanooga and surrounding areas. Mise en Scnenesters began amassing a large following after a couple of years. “The loyalty of that audience is really like an extension of the video store days,” says Dortch. “It’s like people started to trust what it was, even if they didn’t necessarily know what it was. People put trust in us, and the programming and the audience started becoming loyal and it really got bigger and bigger and that led right down the turnpike to the film festival world.”
When Dortch began talking about planning a large-scale movie festival in Chattanooga, he was told it would take 10 years to plan something of that scale. “I don’t like to be told things like that,” says Dortch. “So, I was like, ‘alright then, let’s do it in a year and prove them all wrong.’ Thousands of people came and it was just this total explosion of love and all the movie fans in the city came out and people around the region and it just made me want to do it forever.”
This year’s CFF — which more than doubled in attendance between its first and second year — will be the biggest yet, with crowds expected to reach up to 12,000 people. The festival is expanding to four screens with more than 80 special guests making appearances, up from 30 last year. Dortch expects that next year, the festival will have to be expanded to five days to accommodate such massive growth.
As I sit with Dortch in his makeshift bedroom upstairs at Cine-Rama, he takes a sip of beer and reflects on the past few years of the CFF.
“It’s just been, you know, such a fun thing to carve this out of the clay every year and it’s terrifying also because, like, after it ends every year, we rip it up and start again because we start from scratch,” he says. “We’ve got to try to be at least equal what we did the year before, but that’s not good enough … ”
Dortch tells me he’s secured the Hank Williams biopic, I Saw the Light, for the opening night of the festival. He’s also managed to book the world premiere of the horror film Bad Blood by filmmaker Tim Reis. Among the other films playing at the festival are fan film Raiders!, musician portrait Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows and The Adderall Diaries starring James Franco. Musician, writer and producer Rick Clark will be coming back to talk about music and movies, and internationally acclaimed drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs will be talking once again about movies and the South during the festival’s many panels and workshops that weekend.
“A lot of the festivals choose their programming because they need those new, exclusive titles, and to me, more than any of that, I just have a responsibility to make the coolest movie mixtape each year.”
Last year Elijah Wood was a guest speaker at CFF, there to introduce A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which he executive produced. That says a lot about the validity of Dortch’s vision and the reputation it’s garnering from actors, directors and others in the movie and festival business across the country. “It has a reputation where we’re at other festivals and people see the name of the festival and our badges and know what we are,” says Dortch. “And that’s totally bizarre and really very fun.”
Dortch wasn’t born in Chattanooga, having moved there in 1986 with his family. And though he moved away for a while, now that he’s back, he considers it his home. As we wrap up the evening, it’s obvious that his passion for this town rivals his passion for film. The CFF is a culmination of those two loves. “I feel like this town deserves it. It feels like a moral imperative. It felt like a thing that just had to happen and that was bigger than me … ”
He got tired of seeing people go to bigger cities to see movies that weren’t available in Chattanooga. Instead, Dortch is bringing those movies to his home city. Just like Kevin Costner’s baseball fields, Dortch is building his own “Field of Dreams.” And people are most certainly coming.
Charles Moss is a lifelong Chattanooga resident and has written for The Atlantic, Slate, The Week, The Oxford American and other publications.