A Fiendish Conversation with NFFTY's Jesse Harris
The founder and director of the nation's largest youth film festival conducts his exit interview.
The National Film Festival for Talented Youth may showcase movies by directors who weren’t born until the 1990s (*cringe*), but it’s not some kiddie affair. There’s no “you must be this short to enjoy these films” sign at the entrance. These are high-quality films—shorts and features, comedies and thrillers—made by directors who just happen to be 22 and under. Since Seattle native Jesse Harris co-founded the festival in 2007, it has grown from a night of screenings to a four-day event that packs Cinerama. After this year’s festival (and more than 1,000 movies) 27-year-old Harris will step away from his day-to-day role as NFFTY’s director, but with a well-laid path for wild young imaginations.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation we conducted an exit interview with Harris, where we talked about the impact of NFFTY, rising talent, and his own future as a filmmaker.
What’s the origin story of NFFTY?
I’m a filmmaker myself, and I had made a feature film when I was 17. Instead of going to college, I used college money and raised extra money to make a feature film. I was lucky enough to have it picked up by a small distributor … but I realized how very lucky I was and how very hard it was to be a young filmmaker trying to do something like this. I actually started getting a lot of emails from young filmmakers who heard my story, asking me for help. And there was nothing I thought I could do for them—I was still just a struggling filmmaker. But I thought, Why not just start a festival where we could screen these films? So many of the bigger festivals didn’t really have a youth category, so it was very hard competition for young filmmakers just starting out to get their work seen. Even now, there’s still very, very, very few programs like that within the bigger festivals.
It was really just like: This is a good idea. This should happen, so why not do it? It’d be a fun little side project, you know? [Laughs] But it grew very quickly. In the first year it kind of exploded, and we realized, wow, there’re actually thousands of young filmmakers out there—more than we ever imagined—and this is filling a need. From that point on, I realized that if I’m going to do this and commit to it, I need to do it 100 percent. So I kind of stopped my own filmmaking career for a little bit and just really focused on the festival. It was a nonprofit, so I set out to figure out how to raise money for it. Mostly where we went was with corporate sponsors, and since it’s a youthful audience we had some luck with that.
Over the last seven years it’s gotten huge: We had over 10,000 people in attendance at last year’s festival. There are several hundred films every year being screened, and the filmmakers themselves come from all over the country and all over the world. I think there’s 30 different states and 20 different countries being represented this year. Many of them are actually coming to the festival, which is really awesome.
How has Seattle shaped the festival?
In good and bad ways. I think the good is that it has a real sense of community. Obviously, Seattle is a great moviegoing audience town. It’s become more of a destination [for filmmakers]. A couple of them have actually come back to make films in Seattle because they fell in love with the city. There’s been kind of this extra heart and soul to the festival; it is the city itself and where it takes place.
At the same time, it’s also hard to get celebrities and Hollywood folks to come up to Seattle. So that’s been challenging to kind of convince them, “No, it’s legit. It’s in Seattle, but you can still come.” It’s worked both ways, but I think this is the best place for it.
Now that you’re stepping aside, what does the future hold for you?
In the last couple years I’ve started directing commercials. I just got signed by a commercial production company called the Academy. I’ve done some pretty big commercials for Microsoft and a few others. I’m trying to focus on that right now, ‘cause it’s a way to still kind of make films but they don’t take up your whole life. You don’t have to spend a year fundraising. And beyond that, I don’t know. I’m obviously still going to be involved in NFFTY and making sure it’s still going strong, but I’m not going to be around day-to-day managing it.
As an expert in the topic, who are some of the up-and-coming young filmmakers we should keep an eye on?
There’s this one director this year, Chase Crittenden. His film Lost and Found plays at Centerpiece (April 27 at 8). This is his first festival. He’s 16 years old—he looks like he’s 12—from Bellevue. And his film is very impressive. It looks like it was made by someone in their 20s. But he goes to L.A. every couple weeks and takes meetings. He’s talking to big celebrities right now to be in his feature film he’s trying to get going. He’s definitely well on his way, and he’s someone who I don’t think anyone in Seattle knows about. He’s someone really special that I just found out about.
In the last two years, there have been two NFFTY directors who have gone on and made feature films. One of them was a multimillion-dollar film with James Ransone by a guy named Anthony O’Brien (The Timber), who’s also from Washington. The other one was from director Brett Allen Smith (Never). So those are three pretty awesome filmmakers.
What are your favorite moments from NFFTY over the years?
There’s been a couple—the first year we had our opening night at Cinerama. Before that, we were at SIFF Uptown. The festival was getting big, but it was still in small venues. But in 2009, when we had our opening night gala at Cinerama, we completely filled the entire place. It was basically 800 people there, coming to see youth films, which is totally amazing. We’ve filled it and packed screens ever since then. That was kind of a real turning point, when we realized audiences wanted to see these films.
More from the perspective of the power of the festival: We received an email last year from a mom of one of the filmmakers who basically said before NFFTY, her son was really not doing well and kind of on a downward spiral. He was cutting himself and totally depressed.... Then his film was accepted into NFFTY. He came to the festival and met other young directors who were like him and realized there’s more to life than just high school and there are other people out there like you. She basically wrote us a letter saying the festival kind of saved him. That was an incredibly powerful moment for us, to realize the importance of this festival to these filmmakers.
Apr 25–28, SIFF Cinema Uptown & Seattle Cinerama (opening night), festival passes $22–$150, individual tickets $11