Springfield's Route 66 Film Festival rolls on

When the Route 66 International Mother Road Festival began back in 2002, some local folks surmised that perhaps a film festival connected to the street festival celebrating the famous highway would be a good idea. Now some 20 years later, the Route 66 Film Festival continues on after forging a path completely separate from the car show event as an internationally acclaimed, highly respected and well-attended film festival.

Originally the festival started through a grant to the Reel to Real Film Club from Lincoln Land Community College and was held at the now demolished Esquire Theater. After the first year, the funding ended and the film fest moved through a succession of locations, including the Hilton Hotel, Hoogland Center for the Arts, Legacy Theatre, Capital City Bar & Grill theater and Route 66 Hotel and Conference Center, until going entirely online last year during the pandemic of 2020. Past shows at those local locations have screened films produced in dozens of countries, including Belgium, France, South Africa, Japan, Brazil, Spain, Great Britain, Uruguay, Mexico, Canada and the United States. Some shorts went on to be Oscar-nominated and other entries received Netflix distribution deals as well as recognition and awards at various festivals. From worldwide choices, the Route 66 Film Festival was acknowledged in 2008 by Moviemaker magazine as "one of the 25 festivals worth the entry fee" and the 2009 International Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas listed the Springfield-based event as a featured festival.

Credit goes to Linda McElroy, plus a volunteer crew, as the first director for getting it all going in the first place. Since 2012, a six-member board with officers and the ever present and always necessary cadre of volunteers, have taken on the big job of curating film submissions from across the globe and presenting the films in a cohesive fashion for locals to watch, as well as viewers online from all over the world through the internet.

"This isn't about cars or the road itself anymore, but about 'the journey'," explained Thea Chelsy, a board member since 2012 in charge of communications and media, as well as making sure the films go online and producing the festival's program book. "This year we have 44 films from 12 countries represented, including some from Iran. One thing we'd like to stress and encourage is for everyone watching to vote for their favorite films."

Indeed the voting, once done in person at the theater showings, is an integral part of the Route 66 Film Festival. Now available through an online process, viewers make choices that are then tabulated by festival workers and those awards can be valuable to filmmakers looking for audience reactions and ways to promote their films to a worldwide public. Judges associated with the festival also bestow awards as they choose from the diverse selections in various categories. As independent artists, usually on extremely tight budgets, these directors, producers, actors and others involved in making contemporary international films rely on word-of-mouth promotion and showings at smaller festivals to reach a larger audience. According to board member Lana Wildman, even being selected to be in this event is beneficial to a filmmaker.

"If you go to the websites for these films, they will have acknowledged acceptance into the Route 66 Film Festival and that can help them to get noticed by other festivals or distributors," she said. "Our judges then vote as a group to select what we think are the best entries and those awards can further help a filmmaker in promotion. We keep those categories flexible to fit what best suits the films we show. Then there's the audience favorite voted by viewers along with those other selections."

Of the current five members on the board, Chelsy and Siobhan Johnson, the festival director since 2014, are counting 2021 as their final year. Wildman, Crissie Trigger and Christine Samoore will continue as directors at large, with Laura Richter and Ben Harl set to soon be the newest board members. Anyone interested in helping out in any way should email the group at route66filmfestival@gmail.com and you too can be a part of this local organization coordinating a global event.