Local film fest’s star quickly rose

The Varsity Theatre, at left, is usually home to many Ashland Independent Film Festival events, when it's safe to hold them in person. Ashland.news photo by Bert Etling
January 26, 2022

A brief history of the Ashland Independent Film Festival

By Dennis Powers

Beginning in October 2001 at Ashland’s Varsity Theatre, the Ashland Independent Film Festival (AIFF) has steadily grown to become one of the standout independent, non-studio film exhibits throughout the country. A small team of locals during the late 1990s believed that an independent film festival in the small town would complement Southern Oregon’s established cultural and artistic endeavors. With strong support from volunteers and others, the husband and wife team of Steven and D.W. Wood led the way to the nonprofit AIFF’s start.

The venture needed the strong support of John Schweiger, the owner of the Varsity Theatre and founder/owner of Coming Attractions, Inc., that owns and operates numerous theatres on the West Coast. Credited as the AIFF’s Founding Advisor and Benefactor, Schweiger from the very start made the Varsity Theatre and office space available for the festival. The historic theatre with its Art Deco façade and lobby was perfectly suited for this.

The first AIFF sold 3,000 tickets and over four days exhibited 73 films with 22 world premiers, chosen from 157 entries. Despite the critical acclaim, however, the festival did not take place the next year, indicating the need for financial support. The AIFF returned in March 2003, adding advance ticket sales (3,500 tickets sold) with a five-day period; 67 films were presented, 43 being first-time theatrical showings or world premieres. Quality films were shown as two selections of the 2005 AIFF made the final list to qualify for the Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards.

Although drawing throughout the U.S. and overseas, the AIFF is a prime place for Oregonians to present films from and about this state. The audiences (pre-pandemic) are predominately from a 50-miles radius of Ashland, but it also drew well-known film personalities, such as Bruce Campbell, Les Blank, Ed Hardy, Helen Hunt, Albert Maysles, Elvis Mitchell, and Will Vinton, among others. The filmmakers interact with the audience at the AIFF’s opening night party, after each screening, and at the awards.

Ten juried and audience awards are presented with film clips of the top five in each category, including Best Documentary Feature, Editing, Narrative Short, and Documentary Short, among others. Ten other awards are given in the “Special Awards” and “Special Recognition” categories. Among the audience voted awards is the Gerald Hirschfeld A.S.C. Award for Cinematography that honors the Ashland resident whose films included “Fail-Safe” and “Young Frankenstein.”

Grants from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, National Endowment for the Arts, Carpenter Foundation, Collins Foundation, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Arts Commission, individual contributions, and memberships have stabilized its finances. Ticket sales are another important source of revenues.  

Each year (pre-pandemic) nearly 18,000 tickets were distributed with 7– 8,000 attendees and some 90 documentaries, features, and short films being exhibited. More than half of the some 150 screenings were shown to capacity audiences and 80 percent of the seats were typically filled at the-then five-day, April event. 

With the pandemic, the AIFF changed its format to a hybrid “double feature,” featuring virtual showings with very limited in-person events (dependent also on COVID-19 regulations). In 2021, for example, it started with setting a general public opening on Friday, April 16, with nearly 100 new independent films, including 35 features and 12 short programs, to be viewed virtually. The length of the virtual festival was lengthened to two weeks with five days set later for public viewing (i.e., outdoor showings); it utilized themes such as the Alameda Fire and Cuba.

June events were held June 24-28, with three night events at ScienceWorks in Ashland, two night events at Walkabout Brewing Co. in Medford, and some small, intimate TalkBacks at the AIFF Film Center on East Main Street in Ashland.

Coming Attraction Theatres and AIFF also produce annually the “Varsity World Film Week (VWF)” in early October that showcases foreign films. In 2021, the VWF showcased 14 films produced in 15 countries (from Ethiopia and Israel to France, Belgium, and Norway) with half of the films directed by women. All of the films, excepting one shown outdoors, were presented virtually.

From volunteers in 2001, the AIFF has now artistic and executive directors, a paid staff, and committed volunteers. MovieMaker magazine has several times named it as one of the “Top 25 Coolest Festivals in the World” and included as one of the “50 Film Festivals worth the Entry Fee—2021”. AIFF is a showcase for this area and before was just a dream by a few.

Sources: See generally, “Ashland Independent Film Festival” at Film Festival; Edwin Battistella, “Oregon Encyclopedia: Ashland Independent Film Festival,” at More on AIFF; Mail Tribune (staff), “Virtual Ashland Indie Film Fest 2021, local livestreams,” April 15, 2021 at Virtual Line-Up.

Retired Southern Oregon University business law professor Dennis Powers, a historian and author of 25 books, has lived in Ashland for some 30 years. Email him at dennis@dennispowersbooks.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.


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