The Cucalorus Festival will happen for a 23rd time in Wilmington this November, and Dan Brawley hasn’t missed many of them. The Wilmington native remembers volunteering for the third festival in 1996, and soon thereafter he became the executive director of the event. Brawley says he had an interest in film, but he grew enamored with the festival concept during a trip overseas.
“I fell in love with film festivals in Scotland when I was in my early 20s,” he says. “I worked at Edinburgh Film Festival and discovered you could go to see a movie at 9am, which I found amazing. I didn’t fall asleep. You could have a cup of coffee while you watched a movie. Then afterwards you have something to talk about.”
A group of filmmakers known as “Twinkle Doom” launched Cucalorus in 1994, dubbing it “An Evening of Celluloid Art: A Film Festival for Open Minds”. That first year featured 16 short films, all from North Carolina film-makers. Brawley says it didn’t take long for the international entries to begin arriving.
“We were already showing international films when I sort of emerged as the head of Cucolorus,” he says. It’s just been accelerated growth from there. We’ve really embraced our identity as an international festival. We have strong ties to Scotland and Canada. That’s a really important part of the fabric of Cucalorus.”
Brawley says he considers it important for Cucalorus to experiment with new ventures. He brought Cucalorus Connect to life in 2015, and 2017 brings more changes. It is now the “Cucalorus Festival”, but film is still a major part of the five-day event. Brawley says stage performances will take a more prominent role, and he speaks on the reasons why starting at 3:30 of the podcast.
“This is an experiment in many ways, and we continue to tweak the recipe,” Brawley says. “This year will probably be the biggest shift we’ve had in the history of the festival. For 22 years you’ve loved the Cucalorus Film Festival, and we’re relaunching it as the Cucalorus Festival with three branches, Cucalorus Film, with all the documentaries you love and the short films, filmmakers’ lounge and the parties. But also, Cucalorus Stage, which kind of brings together some of our existing programs, the dance that we do at Cucalorus, the music videos, the performances, the comedy which we added last year, and so stage is anything on the stage. The catalyst for this change really is the Cucalorus Connect, our entrepreneurship conference.”
Cucalorus Connect, which Brawley talks about in-depth at 7:30 of the podcast, is expanding to an even larger role in 2017. Tom Looney is the president of the conference, and Brawley says the framework will surround Wilmington’s future in the digital economy.
“It’s meant to bring together young business leaders, emerging companies, startups, with the leaders from our community, and other communities who have really helped shape the digital transformation,” Brawley says.
But film is what started Cucalorus, and film will continue to draw visitors and creators to Wilmington for the five days in November. Cucalorus routinely screens more than 250 films in a multitude of venues across the city. This year will be no different. The number of entries from around the world topped 2,100 according to Brawley. He doesn’t screen them all himself. There is a process to whittling down the entries to a final showing list. Brawley talks about it at 19:30 of the podcast.
“We have about 50 programmers who watch films and score them,” he says. “Every film is seen at least twice. A smaller group of people then look at the high scoring films. Its very subjective. We’re really trying to create a schedule of films that invites the entire community.”
It’s easy for a first-time festival goer to get lost in the enormous number of films being screened during a Cucalorus event. That’s why Brawley and the staff put together “programs” as a type of reference guide for guests. He talks about it at 33:30 of the podcast.
“Two hundred events is awfully difficult to navigate, so we have several programs in the film section,” he says. “Magnolia are films that have won awards, and might have actors and actresses that you’ll recognize, a little more mainstream like the films that play on the mainstage at Thalian (Hall) and the biggest venues. If you’re a first-time film festival person, that’s a great place to start.”
Brawley says he watches about 500 films a year. That’s combining the work he does for Cucalorus, his spare time, or visiting other film festivals around the world. This year Brawley was elected as president of the Film Festival Alliance, an advocacy group that works to foster collaboration among film festivals and film makers around the world. The duties take him to events across the United States and in other countries. He always seems to meet up with someone that has a Cucalorus story.
“The community of Cucalorus alumni across the planet is fascinating,” Brawley says with a wide smile. “I can’t go to a city anywhere in the world where I don’t have a friend, because we’ve screened a film by a filmmaker in all those places, and they remember fondly their time in Wilmington."
What's Dan Brawley's favorite movie? Find out at 46:15 of the podcast.
Brawley also joined and later served on the board of Alternate ROOTS, a group that supports creative artists and filmmakers working for social justice, which he calls a “pivotal moment” in his life and his professional career. Brawley talks about the group’s influence on him and Cucalorus at 35:00 of the podcast.
“It was kind of like grad school for me,” Brawley says. “Grad school in community organizing, and it really pushed me to take a deeper look at racial politics, gender, and a bunch of things that as a white male I don’t have to think about if I don’t want to.”
Dan Brawley’s enthusiasm for Cucalorus is contagious. He strives to reinvent it, refusing to let it become predictable. With Cucalorus Connect now in its third year, Brawley sees the festival growing along with its’ downtown Wilmington home.
“I think of myself primarily as an artist and I think of Cucalorus as an extension of my artistic practice,” Brawley says. “My media just so happens to be other artists, audience members and community leaders. I love it, absolutely love it. But I’m just as excited about Cucalorus 23 as I am for Cucalorus 24. I think that with the number of hotel rooms in downtown Wilmington, and the new venues downtown, Cucalorus could double or triple in size in the next five to ten years.”
You can listen to the entire interview with Dan Brawley on the free “1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast:
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