In a large corner office lined with bookcases at the Seattle International Film Festival’s Film Center, Carl Spence is busy gearing up for the 40th year of the festival.
The sun shines in two large glass windows as the artistic director of SIFF furiously types, sending last minute emails to finalize the festival’s lineup.
The full lineup was released Thursday, including narrative and documentary films from 59 different countries. Other highlights include film presentations with actress Laura Dern and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.
“I’m really excited for the lineup,” Spence said. “We have big films… we have films from around the world.”
Each year 150,000 attendees from across the Puget Sound enjoy shorts, independent films and large Hollywood productions, making SIFF one of the largest film festivals in the world.
“People say it’s the rain, but I don’t think it’s true,” Spence said about the festival’s growth.
Spence says the success of the festival is due in large part to the audience and their interaction with the films.
“It’s not just about showing a film,” Spence said. “It’s really about having a filmmaker here or a guest here. Bringing people together to discover extraordinary films from all around the world and creating experiences.”
Last year, the festival screened “Decoding Annie Parker”, a partially fictionalized account of the discovery of the BRCA1 cancer gene. The film is based on the real-life story of UW professor Mary-Claire King, who discovered the gene in 1990, and a woman from Toronto who tested positive for the gene. The two women met for the first time at SIFF after the film screening in June.
“There are so many different things you can learn about the world through film,” Spence said.
Bringing together films for a 25-day festival from nearly every continent is no small feat. It takes coordination and experience.
Spence began curating films at the Arts and Entertainment division of the University of Washington’s student government. This eventually lead to nearly 20 years at SIFF, where he began in the marketing and public relations department. Spence later became artistic director and co-director of the non-profit, earning the responsibility to curate films once again.
“We go to other festivals, we go to other countries, we go to film markets,” said Spence of the selection process.
Between scouting out films and an open submission process, Spence and his colleagues spend months looking for the right films to showcase during the festival. Many films come from overseas markets such as Latin America, Hong Kong and India.
“France is a huge producer of films and Scandinavia has a strong film output,” Spence said. “You could probably align [film output] with a lot of the more developed countries around the world.”
Along with an array of international films, SIFF shows films from many Pacific Northwest filmmakers.
Kate Becker, the newly-appointed Director of Seattle’s Office of Film and Music, attributes SIFF to a dramatic increase of film production in Seattle.
The Office of Film and Music works to bring more film and television productions to Seattle and other parts of the state alongside Washington Filmworks, a non-profit organization created by the Washington Legislature in 2006 .
The state offers tax incentives to productions that film in Washington, and Washington Filmworks works with cities like Seattle to secure permitting. Becker says more international productions are seeking permits to film in Seattle. Organizations like the BBC are increasingly expressing interest in filming in Seattle.
“[Industry professionals] have really worked hard to make this industry thrive,” says Becker, who’s seen the number of film permits issued in Seattle increase 110 percent over the last five years.
Along with SIFF’s success, Becker credits the commitment by film professionals to live and work in Seattle to the increased filming in the city.
“[SIFF] elevates our city’s profile by being one of the best film festivals,” Becker says.
With a seemingly ever-expanding world where Netflix can be streamed on about any device, SIFF finds new ways to maintain relevance but Spence says it always comes down to the interaction.
“We’re relevant as long as we create experiences and provide opportunities for people to engage with one another, with filmmakers, with audience members,” Spence said.
Around 260 feature films will be featured during the 40th year of the festival, which starts May 15 and runs through June 8. Content from around the world will be showcased at theaters around the Puget Sound, including SIFF’s Film Center, SIFF Uptown, and even back at the recently closed Egyptian Theater on Capitol Hill.
Hungry for more? Check out a this playlist of trailers for films playing at SIFF 2014: