Rolling Out the Red Carpet in the Old West

Writer Joseph J. Airdo

Photography Courtesy of Prescott Film Festival

Despite all of the advances in technology and changes to our world, Prescott still retains the Old West charm that once made it a popular destination for filmmakers.

Prescott first played host to a film production in 1912 when actor, screenwriter and director Romaine Fielding filmed “The Cringer” in the city. The Lubin Film Company opened a studio in Prescott that same year. Over the next six years, more than 100 movies were filmed in the area, including “Roping a Bride,” “Sagebrush Tom” and “The Sheriff of Yavapai County.”

The Prescott Film Festival continues the city’s time-honored history within the film industry while also bringing the community together to appreciate the art of moviemaking.

That art goes far beyond the blockbusters that big studios churn out on a regular basis. Yavapai College Film and Media Arts Director Helen Stephenson believes that educated audiences are becoming bored with those cookie-cutter flicks whose screenplays almost seem to have been copied and pasted from one another.

That is one of the reasons why she founded the Prescott Film Festival, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary June 7 through 16 at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center in Prescott.

Putting Prescott on the Movie Map

Stephenson, who also serves as executive director of the Prescott Film Festival, was born and raised in Arizona before attending college in the American film capital, California. She returned to Arizona in 1995 and made a home for herself and her husband in Prescott. However, she was immediately disconcerted that there was virtually no independent film scene in the city.

“I started thinking about doing a film festival,” says Stephenson, noting she asked Sedona International Film Festival executive director Patrick Schweiss for guidance. “We decided to start with a monthly series because a festival is a huge thing to take on.”

In 2009, Stephenson began hosting film screenings once a month at Frontier Village Cinema 10. Unfortunately, the movie theater eventually closed its doors, forcing Stephenson to look into other venues. She hosted subsequent screenings at Prescott Mile High Middle School, Prescott College and Yavapai College.

“In 2010, we decided to jump in with both feet and do a film festival,” says Stephenson, noting the Prescott Film Festival’s venues over the past 10 years have included Prescott Elks Theater and Prescott Center for the Arts before finally settling in at Yavapai College Performing Arts Center. “The first day we opened the door to sell tickets, people kept coming in and we could hardly believe it. People were longing for independent film.”

Stephenson admits that she and her volunteer crew were unprepared for the demand as they frantically printed and cut tickets in the basement of an old bank building as quickly as they could. However, their efforts were well worth it as Prescott finally made a name for itself within the film community.

Building a Film Culture in Yavapai County

Initially, Stephenson tried to imitate the Phoenix Film Festival and the Sedona International Film Festival for her event, but the Prescott Film Festival now has its own identity—one that reflects the populations of Prescott and Yavapai County. One of the ways it does that is through the presentation of a horse-related film, which is consistently among the event’s most popular screenings.

This year’s festival will showcase “My Paintbrush Bites,” a documentary short about a man battling reclusion who adopts an injured racehorse that he later discovers has a hidden talent for painting—a skill that changes both of their lives.

Stephenson assures that there will be plenty of options at the Prescott Film Festival to appeal to all audiences—including a sing-along afternoon matinee of “The Sound of Music” Saturday, June 8. Actress Kym Karath, who played Gretl Von Trapp in the 1965 family film, will even be in attendance for the screening.

“When I was in junior high, all the choir songs we sang were from ‘The Sound of Music,’ and it continues to resonate with me,” says Stephenson, noting ticket sales for the screening will benefit Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters. “We hope this will be an inter-generational screening with parents and grandparents, who loved the film when it first came out, bringing their children and grandchildren.”

Another screening that Stephenson is especially excited about is “Pipe Dream: The Unlikely Success of Carol Burnett.” Lisa Ferris portrays actress Carol Burnett in the short film, which tells the story of the television pioneer’s early years—particularly how she went from total obscurity to starring on Broadway. Writer/director Chris King calls the film a passion project that took seven years to complete.

“As a lifelong fan of Carol Burnett, I was curious as to how her road to fame came about,” King says. “Once I began to research her backstory, I was inspired to learn that there was not any nepotism or easy road to stardom that got her to where she is today. Born into poverty and losing both parents early in their lives to alcohol-related illnesses, hers is a story of guts and determination to entertain people through song and laughter.”

Other highlights of the Prescott Film Festival include a series of free workshops hosted by Yavapai College Film and Media Arts Program, a pair of gourmet dinners and a wine and spirit tasting. Additionally, after the opening and closing night films, the theater curtains will open and the movie screen will be raised to reveal a stage-set party during which attendees can mix and mingle with one another.

That is not the only time audiences get to chat with one another, though. Impromptu conversations between audience members and filmmakers who are in attendance for Q-and-A’s are a common occurrence after each screening. In fact, Stephenson often finds herself having to shoo people who are excitedly discussing what they just saw out of the theater and into the lobby due to time contraints.

“Film brings people together in a communal experience,” Stephenson says. “What I really wanted to do was build a film culture in Yavapai County. Once I started the film festival, people who were involved in film that lived here came out of the woodwork. I did not know that they lived here. There was no way of us to connect. Now people can connect through the film festival.”

Making the Most of a Miraculous Medium

New to the Prescott Film Festival this year is a special event that aims to combine the love of music with the love of film. Silent Symphony will see the presentation of a silent film with live accompaniment from Denver’s Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

“For more than 25 years, this orchestra has been accompanying silent films across the country from Lincoln Center to the Telluride Film Festival and beyond,” Stephenson notes. “It is known for its authentic photoplay style, which allows the music to speak for the film—just as music did over a century ago when films were not ‘talkies.’”

For the inaugural Silent Symphony, Stephenson selected “The General,” a 1926 comedy in which Buster Keaton plays a train engineer whose beloved locomotive is stolen by Union spies. Keaton’s character single-handedly pursues the locomotive straight through enemy lines in the movie, which Stephenson calls a true classic. She also believes its restoration accentuates the beauty of black-and-white film.

“I think that it is good for students of film and people who want to be storytellers to look at silent films because they are telling a story without words,” Stephenson explains. “Film is a visual medium, so this is just about the best lesson that you could ever have.”

Stephenson hopes that the movies presented during the Prescott Film Festival educate, entertain and inform audiences. She also hopes that they ultimately make a difference in their lives.

“I see film as a miraculous medium,” Stephenson says. “It might be something funny or it might be a mystery or it might be a thriller. All of these different genres of film evoke emotion. These are people’s individual stories. We want people to leave inspired.”

The film festival’s founder and executive director believes that Prescott is the perfect place to do that.

“Prescott is a place to escape,” explains Stephenson, noting visitors can go on hikes, visit museums and explore downtown Prescott between screenings. “Our city is beautiful. It has got the cleanest air in the United States according to the American Lung Association. It is a place to relax. We have a lovely film festival community in Arizona. We are just another little chapter in the book of film in our state.”

Prescott Film Festival

June 7–16 | Yavapai College Performing Arts Center | 1100 E. Sheldon St., Prescott | $13+ | 928-458-7209 |

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