The Seed&Spark Blog

How to Start a Film Festival

April 9, 2013

• Shelley Worrell

I started caribBEING + The Flatbush Film Festival in 2010 after 10+ years of desiring more representation for NYC’s Caribbean & Caribbean-American population in the media. An old friend, who was running the Caribbean Literary & Cultural Center at the Flatbush Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, called me and asked if we could produce a film series.  She reminded me of my idea to start a Caribbean Film Festival in 1999 when we were undergraduate Anthropology & Caribbean Studies Students at CUNY.  I agreed, not knowing a thing about festivals and the next thing I knew, we were programming a monthly series. 

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Looking back, here’s how I think we did it:

1. Target your audience outreach.
I didn’t know how hard it would be to build an audience for films, especially in a public library; I just thought, “Why wouldn’t people want to come to a FREE screening in their community?!”. By the second month of struggling to get just ten people to show up, I came up with the idea of hosting a special program for seniors. My recently retired father, who was looking for activities, had so much to share. I also recalled the text On Location and its discourse on the influence of cinema on West Indian culture.  The senior program became our most successful and I realized it was not by chance but because we were more strategic about it, doing targeted outreach to local senior centers.  There we were, in a room full of dancing, happy 60+ year olds who offered us money and asked when the next screening would be.  I thought, “This is so not what I imagined our festival to be”, and I packed it up and went back to my day job as a media executive.

2. Reach out to community influencers and partner up.
Then another friend, Caribbean filmmaker Janluk Stanislas (aka SLAS), came to visit that summer and gave me an early look at his film on a Caribbean relief effort during the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, ON LANMEN KA LAVE LOT (United We Stand). I thought to myself, “We HAVE to screen this film here in Brooklyn for the Caribbean and Haitian community.”  I knew so many members of the community who were impacted, including myself, as I lost one of my mentors, Simone Trudo, who worked for the United Nations.  During one of my morning walks in Ditmas Park, I pitched the idea to local Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs and she put me in touch with the director of Whitman Hall at Brooklyn College who agreed to partner with us.  So there we were again trying to build a program, an audience & community.  

3. Take a risk! (Or two, or four...)
This time I said, “Let’s be bold”, and we called ourselves the “Flatbush Film Festival” even though we had no infrastructure, funding and very limited capacity.  The support we received from the community was overwhelming.  Caribbean student groups donated part of their budget to design and print our programs; several local artists donated paintings; musicians offered to perform at the event and a local restaurant hand-delivered hors d’oeuvres for our reception.  300 people came! I was exhausted, mentally and physically, but so happy that we were so successful!  I realized we had to do it again next year.  

4. Program with growth in mind.
Since we were ambitious and resourceful, I thought, “how could we iterate the festival; how could we serve the audience & build community?”  In 2011 for caribBEING’s, 2nd Annual Flatbush Film Festival we integrated art and expanded our program to four nights instead of one, each night spotlighting a different country in the region.  We picked Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad & Guadeloupe/Martinique (French West Indies).  We were also looking for more accessible venues (Whitman seats 2500) and started reaching out to venue partners like Maysles & MoCADA who became instrumental to our success.


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Packed house at Maysles

Overnight, my house became a bed & breakfast - I was housing filmmakers, artists and a Caribbean fashion designer. Most of our screenings were packed - some even went into overflow. We also sold some paintings & NY1’s Cheryl Wills invited me and a Caribbean filmmaker for an on-air interview that played during the opening of our festival.  

5. Know when it’s time to take the next big step.

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In April 2012 we were asked to premiere Santana, the most commercially successful film out of Trinidad & Tobago.  Four out of seven screenings were sold out in advance and people lined up outside the theaters. We had so much fun!  That’s when we knew the Flatbush Film Festival was here to stay and we incorporated.  

After three years of experimentation, we attracted a solid audience who want and appreciate Caribbean film + art + culture.  Last year, we also had the honor of co-curating an international Caribbean Film Series in Poland with CineEuropa, curated an exhibition, “Portraits of Carnival” at  MoCADA, produced a Caribbean Panorama in conjunction with Caribbean Crossroads at the Queens Museum of Art, and hosted our first pop-up screening in the heart of Flatbush as well as the West Indian Takeover of Tribeca Cinema.  It was also the year, the NYTimes dubbed NYC as “one of the largest Caribbean cities.”  

Which brings us to 2013.  We’re still iterating: building our audience, supporting Caribbean filmmakers & artists, and trying to land a few sponsors, all while maintaining our authenticity and cultural relevance.  The in kind support and super duper discounts on venues and whatnot have been really helpful in getting us on our feet but now we need to make things more official.  We’re crowdfunding to bring our community into our process, hosting live fundraising events with community influencers and we hope this will be our best year yet.



Shelley Worrell

Shelley Vidia Worrell is the Founder & Chief Curator of caribBEING + Flatbush Film Festival. In her role, she is responsible for the creative execution and planning of the overall programs, as well as outreach and maintaining relationships with artist



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