RiverRun’s Rodgers takes his bows

All good things must come to an end, and with the announcement last week that Andrew Rodgers, the executive director of the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, would be stepping down to accept the executive director position at the Denver Film Society, almost 11 years of a very good thing will end.

Winston-Salem’s loss is certainly Denver’s gain.

The festival, of course, will continue – this year’s event opens April 7 – but without Rodgers, under whose tenure it grew considerably, tripling its annual revenues, expanding from four days to 11, becoming an Academy Award-qualifying festival in 2014, establishing a year-round organization offering community programming beyond the festival. The festival itself has become one of the area’s cultural mainstays.

“This has been my greatest career accomplishment so far,” Rodgers states. “It’s incredibly nice that people have been so nice and generous thanking me, but I feel like a fraud, almost. With the amazing staff that I’ve had over the years, the volunteers and the board, and the sponsors and supporters, I could not have done any of this.”

In an official statement, Tonya Deem, the chair of the RiverRun board of directors, said: “Andrew has served as an incredibly strong leader and advocate for RiverRun for more than a decade. He helped put River- Run on the map and grew it into one of the country’s leading regional film festivals. While we’re sad to see him leave Winston-Salem, the board of directors wants to thank and honor Andrew for his tremendous service and wish him continued success in his exciting new role with the Denver Film Society.”

The board has designated RiverRun program manager Mary Dossinger and operations manager Mickey Flynn to serve as interim leaders of the festival while a search is conducted for a permanent successor. Dale Pollock, former dean and current faculty member at UNCSA and an emeritus member of the RiverRun board, who oversaw the festival coming to Winston- Salem from Brevard in 2003, has been named executive consultant to the board.

“There are still a lot of decisions to be made, but we have a great staff,” says Pollock. “Our mission is to exceed the quality of last year’s festival, which we always try to do each year. We’re excited.”

“There are still some details to work out,” says Rodgers, who isn’t scheduled to depart until March. “We’ve set the party venues, we’ve worked with the sponsors. It’s all a matter now of tidying up logistics. I’ve got to make sure that they’ve got everything they need from me, any information I’ve got that they’d need.”

Rodgers had attended the Denver Film Festival in 2008 as a juror, then again last year as a visiting filmmaker with his documentary short Crooked Candy.

He’ll oversee the Denver Film Society and the Sie Film Center, Denver’s only year-round cinematheque. That, combined with his and wife Iana’s young family – daughter Mia will be three next month and her little sister Anya just turned six months old – will likely forestall his own filmmaking career, if for the time being.

He completed his second documentary short Dark Station. “Well, I thought I was finished with it,” he laughs, “but I’ve showed it to a few people and they think I need to do a little more work on it.”

Since he recused himself from showing Crooked Candy at RiverRun to avoid any hint of conflict of interest, will he now submit his films to RiverRun?

“Absolutely,” he smiles. “That’s what this is all about! I want to get into RiverRun!” Over the years, Rodgers and I have shared a lot of laughs and a lot of straight shop talk, too. He’s always been open to my ideas or opinions, he’s grateful for the extensive coverage I’ve written (first with the Winston- Salem Journal and now YES! Weekly), and we’ve enjoyed an ongoing banter about our beloved baseball teams. He’s a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I’m a Philadelphia Phillies fan. His team has won more World Series’ than any other National League team, mine spent 97 years before winning its first (in 1980), then another 28 before winning its second in 2008. The Cardinals got into the playoffs last season, the Phillies had the worst record in baseball.

I was honored to have been an invited guest at his wedding to Iana (their wedding song was “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie) and I was even an official conduit when it came time for his Bulgarian-born bride to apply for citizenship – about which I knew nothing until our interview.

When they were submitting the official applications for Iana’s green card, they were required to bring some form of documentation. According to Rodgers, most people bring letters or photographs. Instead, they brought a sequential series of YES! Weekly articles written by me in which Iana was identified first as his girlfriend, then his fiancee, and finally his wife.

The clerk processing the application looked at them and said: “In all the years I’ve been doing this, no one has ever brought newspaper clippings as official documentation. This is a first.”

And, indeed, those articles were valid!

Outside of RiverRun, Rodgers and I occasionally attended baseball games (first the Warthogs, now the Dash) – even if, despite Rodgers’ best efforts, Iana didn’t quite become a fan. There were also the Saturday or Sunday brunches at the long-defunct Cactus Jack’s on University Parkway, in which a latter-day version of the Algonquin Round Table would congregate for omelette-fueled laughter and talk, its “membership” including myself, Rodgers, Pollock, film fan and filmmaker Mike Beane, filmmaker and former UNCSA faculty member Richard Clabaugh, and the late actor and announcer George Lee.

I believe it was there were I suggested – in an entirely spurious fashion – the possibility of presenting adult film star Ron Jeremy with the Master of Cinema award.

“We’ll look into that,” Rodgers replied.

“I’ll talk to the board about it. Now, of course you can help us with film clips for the presentation?” Over the years Rodgers did make use of my vast DVD collection to assemble the presentations for such honorees as Ned Beatty, Pam Grier, Bill Pullman, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Shannon and others, and I was happy to provide whatever I could. (“I hope people know what a good friend you’ve been to the festival over the years,” he says.)

Rodgers is proud and delighted that these talents were honored by RiverRun, even if audiences didn’t always attend their awards presentations. When Grier (actually born in Winston-Salem) was honored in 2008, the presentation at the Stevens Center was widely promoted and publicized – yet attendance was disappointing.

“Everybody wants to know who’s coming,” Rodgers shrugs, “but then they don’t come out to see them. The people who do attend always say how much they enjoyed it.”

Take, for example, Michael Shannon in 2011. Those who attended the Emerging Master presentation at the UNCSA campus were delighted to see the actor, much acclaimed for his intense roles, clearly enjoying himself. He signed autographs, posed for pictures, and was totally accessible. “Michael Shannon was great,” Rodgers says. “One of our best guests. He was so funny and so nice – and he’s such an incredibly talented actor.”

Rodgers also lobbied actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s representatives every year, hoping to entice him to visit RiverRun, but alas it never came to pass.

Other endeavors were more successful. One of Rodgers’ biggest “gets”

was nailing down the Joseph Gordon- Levitt/Zooey Deschanel romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer for the opening-night film of 2009. “I’d seen it at Sundance and it was so beautiful and so lovely, I was determined to bring it. It had to play here. It had to be the opening-night film.”

He then embarked on a full-tilt campaign to lobby distributor Fox Searchlight. “I sent flowers, I sent love notes, I sent poems, I sent a box of 500 chocolates – one for each day of summer. Finally, I got the publicist on the phone and he said ‘Boy, you must really want this movie. OK, you’ve got it … now please stop sending us flowers and candy!’” With director Marc Webb – who later helmed the Amazing Spider-Man films – on hand, (500) Days of Summer was an instant sell-out and sensation.

There have also been unforeseen complications, some of which he can laugh at in retrospect, others which he prefers to forget. One year, a power outage in Winston-Salem affected five or six downtown blocks – but those included a couple of screening venues, which necessitated canceling those screenings. One year, a volcanic eruption in Iceland effectively ceased all airline traffic out of Europe – including a planeload of filmmakers bound for RiverRun.

Says Rodgers: “I don’t remember what year that was … I don’t want to remember.” (Actually, it was 2010 and it was the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption.)

There’s also the running joke that every festival will inevitably coincide with inclement weather, yet oddly enough this has proven an unexpected boon. Sometimes, the rain keeps people at home, but more often than not they’ve been fully prepared to brave the elements to attend a screening. “Some of our biggest sell-outs have been during the worst weather,” Rodgers says.

Looking back, “it’s been fun,” he says.

“It’s hard work, but there’s a rhythm to it, a cycle to it. There are times where you can take a breath. You just have to find out when those times are.”

He believes the festival’s in good hands, again citing the board and the staff for their enthusiasm and professionalism. “Mary Dossinger – who’s been here almost as long as I have – and Chris Holmes and Mickey Flynn and Dale Pollock. This festival has grown because people responded to it so well, and it’s because of these people, who do such a wonderful job.”

Summarized Pollock: “Andrew brought, I think, a new level of professionalism to RiverRun. He had a great vision to expand the festival, which he accomplished. I think he leaves RiverRun much stronger than when he arrived.” !

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The 18th annual RiverRun International Film Festival is scheduled for April 7-17 in Winston-Salem. For more information, call 336.724.1502 or check out the official website: