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Omaha Magazine

An Academy-Worthy Event: Omaha Film Festival Provides Education and Entertainment for All

Jan 15, 2024 12:02PM ● By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman, Content Studios Omaha
omaha film festival 2024

Design by Joey Winton.

Branded feature by Content Studios Omaha.

 Omahans watching the Oscars on April 25, 2021, may have recognized the film that won “Best Animated Short.” The 12-minute movie—“If Anything Happens, I Love You”—premiered at Omaha Film Festival.

That film was one of thousands that have shown in the Big O over the last 18 years during the event, which started in 2006 and draws filmmakers, and film aficionados, from Omaha to Italy.

Nathaniel Hoff, an LA-based filmmaker and one half of the band The Bergamot, is an advocate of the event, and the city. His film, The State of the Unity, showed at OFF 2023. “It looked like a good film festival, it seemed like a good screening location with good connections,” Hoff said.“We liked that the location was close to downtown, close enough that transportation wasn’t going to be an issue. We wanted a festival in the middle of the country where we could showcase our film.”

The film revolves around how the band, comprised of Hoff and wife Jillian Speece, and their touring vehicle reframe the way people perceive and understand unity. That unified, community spirit is also cultivated by Omaha Film Festival.

“I think when we had the idea to do this, we assumed we’d have films from Nebraska, Iowa, maybe Kansas, maybe South Dakota,” OFF executive director Marc Longbrake said. “When we opened it, we had films from 20 countries—we had hundreds of films submitted—and then we had an opportunity to go through and pick out what we thought were viable screening opportunities.”

The festival, which this year runs Feb. 27 through March 3, is a live event that allows people to watch narratives, documentaries and shorts.

“You’re sitting there with a group of people enjoying what’s being presented together,” Longbrake said. “That broadens the experience.”

Filmmakers engage with the audience in a Q&A.

 The festival also enables one to talk to people involved in the movies about the filmmaking process. About 70% of the filmmakers, such as Hoff and Speece, attend the festival to premier their films, glean an audience reaction and speak.

“We had a packed house, was a true delight and honor,” Hoff said. “An audience member said his heart had changed and he was looking to give back. And there’s no better way to do that than through music.”

The conversations didn’t stop there.

“I met Mike McCallie at the after-party that followed our screening,” Hoff said. “He later called and said ‘what if I bring you back?’ So we came back and did a special show at Reverb Lounge to perform the soundtrack of the film.”

Connections are also started via the festival’s screenplay competition. The competition has been a part of OFF since the first year, and now, scenes are acted from parts of the winning screenplays.

“Last year we had a standing-room-only situation for our writer’s theater,” Longbrake said. “Ten  a.m. on Saturday morning, you wouldn’t think a bunch of people would want to come out and listen to a bunch screenplays being performed, but it was an amazing experience.”

OFF staff introduce the movies.

 The members of The Bergamot fondly speak of another annual aspect of OFF.

“OFF Academy was one of my favorite things,” Speece said. “This was the only (festival we’ve attended) where they brought in students, we loved it … They filled a room. We did breakout groups, so we got to teach at our table. It was so cool to engage with the students in this way.”

OFF Academy has become a unique tradition at OFF that has impressed teenagers and industry professionals alike.

“Many many years ago, we had a teacher down in Kansas who would bring 50 students in a charter bus to OFF, and they would participate in the festival,” Longbrake said. “For the most part they were coming to get out of school and be educated and entertained…She did that for many years, and she’d try to fill the daytime (during the week the festival is in the evening), so they were going to museums and other theaters and getting behind the scenes looks. We got to talking about why doesn’t the festival provide some kind of educational outreach to this group?”

The answer to that question became one of the most popular, and exclusive aspects, of the event. It is open only to students, their instructors, and the out-of-town filmmakers who teach the craft to the students.

“We didn’t realize those filmmakers are coming back and saying ‘that was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had,’” Longbrake said. “‘All of a sudden, I’m Martin Scorcese or Brad Pitt, people are looking at me like I’m a big deal.’ That really validates what they’re doing. That validation is a big reason why filmmakers are here.”

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