The brainchild of four friends (Pat Berry, Nick Campo, Maury Dailey, and Mary Lee South), the Marco Island Film Festival was set into motion in 1998. Being situated on Marco Island, Florida (near Naples), one of the initial ideas behind the film festival was to help local businesses during their off-season. Soon it became much more than the idea to help the local economy. In the true spirit of independent filmmaking, the festival grew into a celebration of the art and process behind the filmmaking. Filmmakers were honored for the hard work they put into perfecting their craft. Categories celebrated during the festival included Audience awards (such as Favorite Shorts – Comedy and Drama, and Best Feature – Family and Comedy), the John Esvang Humanitarian Award, the Dale Meriborne Herlotz Award Excellence in Music, as well as Best Screenwriter and Director.
Initially planned and executed during the last week of October, it was shortly moved to the first weekend of November where it remained throughout its run. During its inception, an emphasis was placed on making “a substantial commitment to helping students get exposure to the various aspects of filmmaking.” (1) As the film festival expanded, so did the opportunities for young budding filmmakers. Before long, they began offering courses to help nurture students’ filmmaking dreams.
Their Young Filmmaker’s Program gave students nationwide, as well as locally, an opportunity to learn the art of filmmaking as well as a chance to compete in the festival itself. The program, which began at the start of the festival, was extended into the following Spring through the World Cinema Naples Film Festival. Courses included in the program ranged from Directing, Editing, and Production to Music and Sound Effects. Through their International (Intern) Program, students from countries such as France, Germany, Italy, and Belgium participated in making the film festival run. During the 2003-2004 school year, over 300 local students were enrolled in the program. The following year, the number rose to 500 local students. Winners of the Student Film Competition category of the festival included entries from students enrolled in the program though attending schools such as Bucknell University (Pennsylvania), Bloomsburg University (Pennsylvania), University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Southern California throughout the country. The results of the program were overwhelmingly encouraging, boasting an increase of school attendance as well as being an overall positive influence in student behavior.
Unlike any of the other film festivals, the Marco Island Film Festival gained the reputation of being one of the most welcoming to its entrants, honorees, and visitors. Through their grassroots efforts, residents helped the festival run as smoothly as possible by becoming volunteers. Locals were known for picking up attendees from the airport as well as offering their private residences. Beyond basic accommodations to and from the festival, they also provided transportation to a number of other events and locations as needed. Other volunteer work included everything from answering phones, helping arrange travel accommodations for attendees (especially celebrities), working with sponsors, and keeping their databases up-to-date, amongst other things.
The festival received praises throughout the years from both filmmakers and celebrity attendees. The Wall Street Journal rated it as being amongst the top ten “destination festivals.” Of course, there was no shortage of celebrities in attendance. The festival attracted actors like Dean Stockwell, who starred in the festival’s Best Feature Comedy winner in 2001. The Lifetime Achievement Award, which was given to actors whose body of work influenced cinema, included classic Hollywood actress Jane Russell (2001) and beloved comedic actor Leslie Nielsen (2004).
Despite its acclaimed reputation, the festival remained grounded, giving audiences a chance to determine the winners of the competition. To this day, it has retained the uniqueness that made it one of the most prolific film festivals in the country.