The Nashville Film Festival was born in 1969 of a utopian idea: to create a forum for small, independent films shown in a community setting. The festival was founded on a farm in East Tennessee by Mary Jane Coleman, who named it the “Sinking Creek” Independent Film Festival after a stream on her farm. After the first few fertile years in East Tennessee, Coleman worked with Dean of Students James Sandlin to bring the summertime festival to the campus of Vanderbilt University. The festival, which in 1998 changed its name to the Nashville Independent Film Festival, has boasted hundreds of prominent alumnae over its thirty-eight-year history. John Lasseter (Toy Story) and Ken Burns (Baseball, The Civil War, Lewis and Clark, Jazz) showed some of their earliest work at Sinking Creek. Joan Gratz (Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase), Frank Mouris (Frank Film), Jessica Yu (Sour Death Balls), Les Blank (Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe), Tom Neff (Sunflower in a Hot House), and Will Vinton (California Raisins) all earned Academy Awards or nominations for shorts and animations that first aired at Sinking Creek. As independent film has gone mainstream, the festival continues to grow.
Masterful works of documentary filmmaking–all later aired on PBS–such as Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb (the story of underground cartoonist R. Crumb), Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (a personal retelling of the Civil War), and Jeffrey Blitz’s Academy Award-nominated Spellbound (following teenaged contestants in the 1999 National Spelling Bee), while not festival entries, were premiered in Nashville under the auspices of the festival. Recent feature premieres have included Craig Brewer’s Hustle and Flow, set in Memphis, which won an Academy Award in 2006.
The 2006 festival attracted over 16,000 ticket holders, presenting 244 films chosen from a field of 1,700 entrants from forty countries. Now sponsored by the nationwide Regal Cinema chain, the festival’s Dreammaker Award nets the top-ranked film an Academy Award-eligible week-long screening at a Los Angeles-area theater. The Screen Actors Guild Independent Filmmakers group promotes the Nashville Film Festival as the biggest and most international festival in the mid-South. A special emphasis on music in “Music City” has given the festival a strong edge in recent years–attracting films featuring a wide range of music-related content as well as focusing on the creative use of original scores.
The Nashville Film Festival, for many years one of only a few National Endowment for the Arts grant recipients in Tennessee, also receives major support from the Tennessee Arts Commission, which was its founding sponsor in 1969. It has been recognized as one of Nashville’s unique cultural assets by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission’s grant-making program for outstanding year-round community service projects, such as the Young Filmmakers initiative for at-risk youth. Nashville’s Frist Foundation donated the initial technology that allowed the festival to enter the online universe (www.nashvillefilmfestival.org). In 1999, the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University initiated the prestigious Freedom in Film award, given annually to an individual whose work in film has best exemplified the spirit of the First Amendment. Independent film director Charles Burnett; actor/activists Harry Belafonte and Susan Sarandon; and actor, director, and Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford are past recipients.