For 11 days every spring, Winston-Salem becomes a hub of cinema, for the region and the world. Thousands converge here, schedules in hand, to watch a diverse array of more than 150 films from around the world and to interact with the producers who made them. 

Thank the RiverRun International Film Festival, now in its 20th year. Founded in Brevard, N.C., and named for the French Broad River, the festival moved to Winston-Salem 17 years ago under the leadership of Dale Pollock, founding dean of the film school at the North Carolina School for the Arts.

At right: RiverRun Executive Director Rob Davis with actress Jane Alexander, the 2017 Master of Cinema Honoree. Below right: A scene from the 2017 RiverRun Gala. Photos courtesy of RiverRun.

The Festival has grown through the years, supported now by a year-round staff of five full-time and two part-time employees that swells to more than 30 during the 11-day run. More than 300 volunteers assist. The budget exceeds $800,000, with 80% of that raised through grants, sponsorships and donations. RiverRun is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit.

Producers vie to have their films shown here, explained executive director Rob Davis. This year they’ve submitted more than 2,000 films, a new record, for consideration. They pay an entry fee of $20 to $75, which helps support the festival budget. Then a combination of staff and volunteers watch all of them, grade them on spreadsheets and pick the ones to be shown. It is, Davis said, “a very intensive process.”

RiverRun is one of only 30 to 40 festivals around the world that are “Academy Award qualifying” in select categories, Davis continued. That means winners here in two categories, documentary short and animated short, are automatically qualified for Academy Award consideration.

Davis, an outgoing 55-year-old who grew up in Tennessee, is a longtime professor of film studies at Florida Atlantic University. RiverRun recruited him a year and a half ago when his predecessor moved on after 10 years in the job. Seated in his small office, appropriately decorated with movie posters, Davis speaks enthusiastically about his new mission.

Davis knew RiverRun through its reputation, he said. It’s a prestigious, Oscar-qualifying event and filmmakers “have nothing but positive comments” about it.

They’re attracted by “the festival team, by the hospitality of Winston-Salem people, which is unparalleled, and by the very engaged audience. People ask good questions. We have a well-educated audience and a film-loving town.”

With interesting work and attractive benefits, the RiverRun staff is very stable. Martha Logeman, staff accountant, credits Savers Admin for keeping the payroll and Section 125 plan running smoothly. After she joined RiverRun in 2009, she said, “the first thing we did was sign up for Savers Admin payroll service.

“Our big resource is our people,” she continued. “We want to make sure all that’s handled quickly, efficiently and accurately. Savers Admin is easy to work with. They’re professional and reachable, and they know what they’re doing.

“Also, they’re focused on the community. They give back and they volunteer, as donors and as participants. So we know the dollars we spend with them are multiplied throughout the community.”

In the coming year, Davis aims to enhance RiverRun’s year-round offerings and to expand its presence throughout the Piedmont Triad. 

The year-round events fall into three categories, he explained. “Films with Class” is an educational program, in which three documentaries are chosen every year for their special appeal to students. During the festival, school groups see those free and discuss them with the filmmakers. More than 1,300 students participated last year. 

RiverRun then secures permission for additional classroom screenings, typically for a three-year period, “so that at any time, we have a small library to show in the classroom,” Davis continued. Jane McKim, an educator on the RiverRun staff, develops lesson plans and goes to area schools to show the films and lead discussions. Since 2009, this program has reached more than 26,000 students in 40 local schools.

Another program is the Indie Lens Pop-Up Series, in partnership with Public Broadcasting. Five or six films a year, all documentaries, are shown shortly before they’re broadcast in the PBS Independent Lens Series. RiverRun shows them free of charge and follows them with panel discussions, featuring local people knowledgeable about the subject matter.

The third program, RiverRun Retro, is Davis’ innovation. It features special guests who have influenced the development of the film industry, along with feature films or clips of their work. Guests could be actors, producers or film historians.

Stepping back, Davis reflects that the history of cinema began with Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, a device for individual viewing through a peephole. It gave way to projection, as exhibitors sought to expand the audience. Today, with tablets and smart phones, we’re moving back toward individual viewing. Davis said a part of his mission is to restore the excitement of watching among others.

Thousands of local people know that experience, thanks in part to RiverRun. If you’re not yet among them, you’ll want to reserve the dates of April 19-29.

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