June 7, 2004

Freaks & geeks


By Eric Rangus

Jessica Denton is not a Film Snob. She prefers the term Movie Freak.

“There is a difference,” says Denton, program development coordinator for the visual arts department. She came to Emory about a year ago.

Denton’s current part-time job (with full-time responsibilities) as managing director of the upcoming 2004 Atlanta Film Festival, to be held June 11–20, screams Snob, but she will have none of it. Her favorite movie, one she calls “dorky,” is When Harry Met Sally. It takes her a couple seconds, in fact, to come up with her favorite independent films. She finally names Rushmore and Election; the latter is on her list because she identifies too closely with the go-getting (and more than a little infuriating) main character, played by Reese Witherspoon.

But the most important disqualification for Denton as a Snob is how she first got the festival’s managing director job in 2003. As a graduate student in film and video with more than a few credits working on crews for Atlanta-based independent films (as well as production assistant work on high-profile events like the "American Idol" tryouts in 2003), Denton was well qualified, and a professor at Georgia State lined her up with an interview.

One of the skills needed of the managing director was knowledge of the database program FileMaker Pro. Denton knows the program well. She organizes the more-than-300 movies in her collection with it.

“I went onto imdb.com [The Internet Movie Database] and got poster pictures to illustrate each entry,” Denton says. “I rate them by Goobers because it’s my favorite movie candy. I really have no use for it, but I like to organize.”

Organization is Denton’s primary responsibility with the fest, now in its 28th year. The position is part time, but it comes with full-time work. Denton is essentially Festival Director Paul Marchant’s chief of staff. Among the responsibilities, she handles the comings and goings of the movie prints, supervises the volunteer coordinator, and is the venue manager for The Rialto, the festival’s primary screen.

Serious work on the festival, one of the largest in the Southeast, starts in January. The call for submissions ends in February. More than 1,000 films must be must be winnowed down to the 150 that will be screened. Marchant takes care of the feature-length pieces, but a committee is set up to help out with the many shorts hoping to light up the darkness of a theater. Denton is part of that committee.

“There are some horrible, horrible things out there,” she says. “Some look like they were shot with no lights and home cameras.” In addition to production values, the committee looks at acting as well.

“The story can be great, but the actors have to carry it,” Denton continues. “And there are some terrible actors in some of these films. They can be entertaining, but not intentionally. We always respect when people put forth the effort, but sometimes, it doesn’t take long before we say, ‘Next.’

“But when a short really works,” she continues, “it’s the greatest feeling to discover a fresh, well-made film. Then I get excited encouraging people to see something new.”
Over the last few months, Denton has spent most evenings and weekends working on the festival. When it begins, she’ll be there full time—using her Emory vacation to pay for it.

Denton certainly loves her festival labors, but there was a time when she thought they would go away. Following last year’s festival, Denton’s position, which had been full time, was dissolved. Managing directors weren’t needed in the off season. Brian Newman, executive director at the festival sponsor IMAGE Film and Video Center (and former studio manager in visual arts) told her about the open position at Emory.

Denton applied, was hired and has moved quickly to take roots in the community. Not
only does she lend a hand to visual arts students working on projects, but she has even joined the University Chorus.

“This is actually my first full time job, because in film you just don’t have them,” Denton says. “It’s really scary to think about leaving Emory. And if I can stay involved with the festival, I think just being involved in the film industry in some way keeps me happy enough.”

When the 2004 festival rolled around, Denton asked if she could do it on a part-time basis—evenings and weekends. “I begged and pleaded and said I could do both,” Denton recalls. “That job was mine, and I didn’t want anyone else to have it.”

Staying on with the festival is Denton’s latest step in an industry that is notoriously difficult to traverse. However, she is taking a slightly different course than other who are interested in film. Rather than direct, she prefers working behind the scenes, and that attitude serves her well.

“I have no desire to be a director,” she says, eschewing the goal of most film students, at least in her program at Georgia State. “I’m just a movie freak. I’ll watch pretty much anything and everything. I know how to make them, too, but I just don’t have the creative juices to do it on my own. I’ve always been the organizational/managerial person, and I just tried to find something where I could combine those things.”

The film classes Denton taught while a graduate student at Georgia State were notable for their lack of pretension. She asked students to write down their three favorite movies and three favorite television shows. “Don’t lie to me and don’t try to impress me,” she recalls telling the class. “And if your favorite movie is Porky’s, I don’t care, put it down. I would still get kids who put Strike by Eisenstein. I know that’s not their favorite movie.”

Denton has been in the Georgia State film program since 1998. Her classwork has been finished for a while, and once she finishes her practicum—a screenplay—Denton will earn her master’s degree. Her goal is to wrap up this December. “When you aren’t going to be a director, what are you going to do?” she asks. “I had taken a screenwriting class, so I decided to write a screenplay.”

The gist of it tells the story of a young, independent Southern woman from a large, extended family who is beginning to learn that her generation no longer respects some of the family-based traditions that have been passed. Denton admits that it is slightly autobiographical.

Denton grew up in Newnan, where she still lives. Most of her family is in Louisiana. On her desk sits a Louisiana State University thermos, alma mater of most of Denton’s family. She earned her undergraduate degree at Winthrop University in South Carolina.

“When I go to reunions, I don’t know many of the cousins my age,” Denton says. “I know everyone older than I am, though. All of my mom’s cousins stay in touch, but my generation—not so much. That got me to thinking that we are losing some traditions.”

Her practicum being a movie screenplay, Denton’s heroine also has some romantic entanglements. “This girl likes to go to flea markets and yard sales,” she says. “The other thing with her family is that they are looking for her to get married, and as much as she likes to refurbish things, she doesn’t want to have to work on a guy. She’s wanting to find someone who doesn’t need to be fixed up and, of course, she’ll realize that’s not possible.”

Denton doesn’t mention whether this part of the script is based on reality.
Like any film buff, Denton enjoys talking about her passion, and like she did when she was a teacher, she brings a refreshing lack of arrogance. Her eyes light up when talking about the joys of TiVo and Netflix, which allows her to rent DVDs online.

“I love it,” Denton says. “This way I can watch movies I’m too embarrassed to tell people I haven’t seen or watch ones no one needs to know about. I’m going though a documentary phase right now.”

She calls up her Netflix page on her computer and checks out her upcoming choices.

“How many people want to see Coyote Ugly and The Pianist?” she says, pointing at two random listings. “I said I’d watch anything.”