“After 21 years, we have built up the infrastructure to manage a certain volume of information,” Dan Brawley, Cucalorus’ executive director, says as he gestures with his hands at the offices around him in Jengo’s Playhouse—the official headquarters and one of nine venues as part of this week’s five-day independent film festival, Cucalorus.
I must give credit to Brawley. I remember when the Cucalorus office was the spare room in Heinberg Insurance Agency. I remember when it moved, too, and when the first few years in Jengo’s Playhouse was basically a warehouse with a movie screen and computer. But today Cucalorus is something else.
“We get 1,700 submissions, and we track nearly 100 pieces of information for each submission,” Brawley continues. “So we have a huge mechanism; the machinery is big. For us, we were able to do something here in this first year, on a scale that would be unthinkable for somebody else, using really the same tools.”
Brawley and I are sitting in his office, discussing a new segment to 2015’s festival: “Cucalorus CONNECT.” It’s a conference that celebrates technology and entrepreneurship. The infrastructure that Brawley has cultivated is, of course, more than the physical world of offices, but of systems, practices, hits and misses, and innovation. It is impressive to note the visual clues as to just how far the homegrown international independent film festival has come. This year Cucalorus is partnering with the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to launch the conference. Many are comparing it to the workshops and learning opportunities available at SXSW, but it’s so much more. For Brawley it’s a natural outgrowth of what Cucalorus has been doing for years.
“It fits in really well with the history of Cucalorus—a maker’s festival,” Brawley says—“people getting together who had their hands on the equipment, who beat out some work, and put it on the screen.”
So what does the future of making, innovation and entrepreneurship look like? Where do technology and communication intersect within these three areas? These are among the questions CONNECT will explore during the course of Cucalorus 21. Keynote speakers will include Joan Siefert Rose of The Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) and Galen Buckwalter of eHarmony.com. Workshops will look at a wide range of issues related to entrepreneurship, from real estate and alcohol to diversity and capital funding. And of course the 10×10 project will return.
10×10 pairs 10 filmmakers with 10 entrepreneurs, who, during the course of the festival, produce a short film together. The concept was developed by Norwood Cheek at the Atlantic Film Festival, and originally it linked musicians and filmmakers. He and Brawley brought the project to Cucalorus in 2011 and last year refocused it to work specifically with the business of film rather than musicians.
“Last year we got 20 applications for the 10 spots,” Brawley points out. “This year we got 30. A couple of the groups we put together have continued to work together. It doesn’t matter what you sell—if you sell socks, if you sell insurance, you need video content.”
“People from the business community will recognize they can come to Cucalorus and meet some of the most talented, creative minds, not just regionally but from all over the world.”
—Dan Brawley, Cucalorus director
Brawley concedes that the selection process is pretty subjective. Much like the festival is curated to bring a wide selection of films, the aim with choosing the groups for 10×10 is to bring a range of experiences and lenses through which to view the collaboration process. Not every group is Wilmington-based. For example, this year a group is coming from Asheville to do 3D printing but with sweaters. (“Do you have an arm longer than the other?” Brawley asks.) Once the groups are selected, they are randomly matched with participating filmmakers.
“The night of the kick off party, we put [names] in bowls and match them up, and give them five days to make a video!” Brawley says, flashing his elfin grin.
The project remains of interest to participants because of its quick turnaround and quick approach to critical thinking and branding. “[It provides] some really hard boundaries: Your ideas have to be reasonable, you have to check out what’s on hand and make it happen,” Brawley says.
It’s one thing to celebrate a finished product, but it is another to have groups in active collaboration doing the work while the festival is in full swing. Hence, the “maker-ness” that envelops Cucalorus.
Speaking of which, there is a PlaceMakers Fair launching as part of CONNECT on Saturday, Nov. 14 (Princess St. block between Front and Second). It is basically a street fair for makers, inventors and those interested in the creation of “place” and revisioning it for a community. Brawley points out that street fairs are increasingly becoming part of the film-festival experience and that addition is a natural experiment for Cucalorus to explore.
Resources galore will be available for exploration. For example, Elite Innovations Wilmington’s “Makers Space” provides access to tools for metal and woodworking, as well as a 3D printer. It will provide a great opportunity to chat with their team and learn about how to utilize their offerings and transform ideas into products.
Of course, if we are discussing technology, innovation and film, at some point we have to wander into the world of virtual reality. As part of CONNECT, there will be a Virtual Reality Lounge set up on Second Street at Ironclad Brewery. The lounge will provide 10 headsets that have smartphones attached to them for folks to enter into virtual worlds that will completely alter reality (because, apparently, alcohol doesn’t alter reality enough). Five projects are slated for screening.
Brawley, along with Dominic Cincotti from ExpectVR, Norwood Cheek and Ryan Staake, curated the films, which will immerse viewers directly into another dimension. Showing will be Jessica Kantor’s “The Archer” (a silent, black and white short); Tamsin Glasson and Samantha Storr’s “Clouds Over Sidra” (to be shown at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 21); Tamsin Glasson and Samantha Storr’s “Waves of Grace” (which calls attention to the obstacles faced by Ebola survivors), and “Sightline: The Chair” (live action, sci-fi).
“I am really excited about the Virtual Reality Lounge,” Brawley says. “We will also show a playlist of VR music videos and give away 150 free headsets to the first people who come to the lounge. If you want to talk about the future of entertainment, virtual reality is it.”
Brawley picks up a white headset from the credenza in his office and snaps a smartphone onto the front of it. “The new headsets are sexy,” he describes. “They’re wireless. I can have this in my back pack and play with it anywhere in the world.”
Pegasorus and CONNECT passholders get into the lounge for free; others will need a ticket. There are only 10 tickets per half-hour block during the lounge’s opening hours.
The idea of CONNECT is to do just as its title suggests: Pair up people with other people, and provide them with experiences and knowledge that can help deepen their passions and work within film. “Maybe you’ll get a job,” Brawley muses about the program. “Maybe you’ll meet a filmmaker who you can collaborate with on a video project…”
After a bit of reflection Brawley comes to the point that perhaps the most important part of Cucalorus is the meeting of people—new people, creative people, daring people, brave people. Hopefully that’s the takeaway of the CONNECT experience. For entrepreneurs, Brawley says with no hesitation, “People from the business community will recognize they can come to Cucalorus and meet some of the most talented, creative minds, not just regionally but from all over the world.”
As any entrepreneur will advise: “Plan your work then work your plan, and assume that all of it is a grand experiment in which you are but one variable.” Cucalorus, like many small businesses, has grown organically in adapting to changing conditions and opportunities presented in the most unstable of industries: entertainment. Oddly, they might be perfectly positioned to initiate this next phase of conversation about business development here, too.