Last December, when the Parkway Theatre announced that they would be temporarily going dark and postponing the 2023 Maryland Film Festival (MdFF), a collective groan could be heard from cinephiles throughout Maryland.
Among them was Sam Sessa.
The director of events and community engagement for WTMD and WYPR is not just a film buff (and occasional filmmaker), he’s a guy who wants all good things for Baltimore.
“It felt like such a punch to the gut because Baltimore had gone without Artscape, Light City, and the Baltimore Book Festival for three years straight [thanks to COVID,]” Sessa says. “And then to hear the news that Baltimore was going to go without the film festival. It was such a sad revelation.”
His mind began racing: “Is there any way that WYPR could put on some kind of film festival to serve as a placeholder for the Maryland Film Festival?” he wondered. “Because WYPR is a public radio station, and part of our mission is serving our community. It just felt like this is something that Baltimore needed and would appreciate.”
He knew just the guy to consult with. Veteran programmer Eric Hatch, the former program director for the Maryland Film Festival, still lived in Baltimore. He wears numerous hats these days, including co-running the Beyond Video store in Remington, informally helping to manage musician Dan Deacon, and serving as a freelance programmer for festivals including Dallas’ Oak Cliff Film Festival and the True/False documentary fest in Missouri. Sessa basically asked him: Considering the condensed timeline, is pulling off a film festival even possible?
Hatch said it was—with a few caveats. For one, the festival needed to have one central location. That would make logistics much easier. It just so happens that, before the Parkway was renovated and reopened, most of the MdFF films were screened at the five-screen Charles Theatre in Station North.
Sessa remembers those days fondly. “I loved how everything was so contained in a set campus,” he says. “You could go to the Charles and see a movie. You could go across the street to the parking lot and hear some music or have a beer. You might be able to go to the Metro Gallery for something.”
He liked the idea of duplicating that vibe. So this summer, Baltimore will be getting a new film festival that will temporarily fill the void left by the MdFF. WYPR’s New/Next Festival will take over The Charles Theatre August 18-20, with feature film screenings, shorts, local showings, and interactive programming for audiences to get to know the filmmakers.
While around 20 films are expected to be screened (about 10 fewer than the MdFF,) there will be no call for entries, Hatch says, meaning the festival won’t be accepting outside submissions. “For the Maryland Film Festival, the call for entries would be opened roughly 10 months before the event,” Hatch explains. “So obviously it’s a very different window [of time]. A call for entries is where you can make some real discoveries, but it’s also such a workload.”
When planning the fest, Hatch felt confident that, since he was still in the film curating game, he had enough connections and film knowledge to program the festival on his own.
To tie up loose ends, Hatch and Sessa needed a couple more things: the approval from WYPR and, well, money.
“I had some frank conversation with our leadership team at WYPR,” Sessa says. “They loved the idea. They were all about it. But it’s a significant expense and film festivals traditionally don’t make a lot of money. Fortunately, we were able to get enough support from the Baker Foundation, Baltimore Community Foundation, Abell Foundation, and then the State of Maryland to justify going forward with it.”
The Charles Theatre also eagerly signed on. And, after brainstorming a bit, they came up with New/Next as the festival’s name.
“It can mean anything positive that anyone wants it to mean.” Hatch says. “We’ll be highlighting primarily new works in a city that I think is blowing up as a center for film production and film appreciation. That’s the resonance it has for me. Also, it’s a show of respect for Maryland Fest that we’re not saying, ‘Oh this is the Baltimore Film Festival or this is Station North Film Festival.’ We wanted a clean name that sounded like something different.”
Also, quips Sessa, “It sounds good on the radio.”
They recruited local illustrator Alex Fine to design the snazzy logo, and they were on their way.
For both Hatch and Sessa it was important to get the blessing from the Maryland Film Festival higher ups.
“I had a conversation with the chairperson and vice chair of the board at the MdFF, as well as the executive director Sandra Gibson,” says Sessa. “I’m happy to share that they were supportive of the idea of promoting film in Baltimore and they’re very much looking forward to [the MdFF returning in] 2024. But they’re also very happy that we’re doing this in the meantime.”
Hatch says the New/Next Festival will place a real emphasis on screening films made locally and by local talent. Sessa adds that, thanks to grants, they’ll be able to offer discounted passes and tickets to people who live in the neighborhood. “We want to make sure that there are as few barriers to entry for this as possible,” he says. “And thankfully, we’re in a position where we can do so. We’re hoping to get as many fresh faces in the Charles as possible.”
Hatch can’t help but to wax a bit poetic about the experience of attending a film festival: “The conversations you have afterwards. The people you run into. The walk you take after a film where you’re headed to your favorite meal but also having a second meal digesting what you just saw…I’m really psyched to be able to deliver that.”