John Schweiger, the owner of Coming Attractions Theatres, and Anne Ashbey Pierotti, the executive director of the Ashland Independent Film Festival, are partnering on the Varsity World Film Week for the first time this year. “Anne has not heard this before,” Schweiger says of AIFF, “but I'm still trying to get the board to go to a seven- or eight-day festival.” - Jamie Lusch

Without Varsity, AIFF is just a nice idea

John Schweiger loses money every time he turns his Varsity Theatre over to the Ashland Independent Film Festival for fundraising screenings. The no-nonsense businessman also donates staff time and money to the nonprofit film group. And although he rarely watches movies because he's too busy working, he wants to give more.

Earlier this month, Schweiger was sitting in one of the Varsity's plush red seats and playfully chiding AIFF's executive director, Anne Ashbey Pierotti, who was next to him. He wants her to add two or three more days to the annual five-day festival, which is held in April.

He also thinks screenings should extend beyond his downtown theater, which he lends at low cost, and into the Ashland Street Cinema, another one of his Coming Attractions Theatres.

"Anne has not heard this before," says Schweiger, giving Ashbey Pierotti a sideways glance, "but I'm still trying to get the (AIFF) board to go to a seven- or eight-day festival. The festival is an educational, entertaining and all-around do-good program."

Ashbey Pierotti replies that she would like the festival's offerings to expand, but it would require additional funding.

Less than 25 percent of the group's income is from selling 18,000 festival tickets, as well as memberships and sponsorships. Grants, donations and fundraisers throughout the year are essential to putting on next year's festival.

"Theaters are at 84 percent capacity over the five days, audience feedback is tremendous, and people are coming from farther away," she says. "We are always looking for opportunities to increase the amount of seats available, but we can't commit to additional days at this point."

Fundraising for the 11-year-old festival includes newly established monthly screenings of movies at the Varsity. Last month's screening of the Hurricane Katrina-inspired "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was the first time the festival and Varsity staffs were able to present an interactive question-and-answer session over the Internet with a distant filmmaker via Skype.

It's an inexpensive way, says Schweiger, to connect the audience with filmmakers. "We save the expense of bringing them here," says the cost-conscious entrepreneur, who serves on the AIFF Advisory Council.

During the April festival, most of the 80 or so independent documentaries, feature films and shorts shown are introduced in person by someone who produced, directed or wrote it. Previous speakers have included filmmakers Julie Taymor, Helen Hunt, Albert Maysles and Bruce Campbell.

Earlier this month, a showing of "Chasing Ice," about National Geographic photographer James Balog's project to document climate change, marked the 45th time Coming Attractions has put on a benefit event for the festival.

It's a yearlong partnership that started in 2001 when Schweiger wanted a festival in addition to his existing foreign film festival, which he started in the late 1980s. For the new festival, he worked with volunteers with the Southern Oregon Film Society, which later became the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

Over the years, AIFF has grown enough to help Schweiger now with his foreign film festival.

For the first time, AIFF is partnering with the movie theater company to present Varsity World Film Week, formerly known as Foreign Film Week, Sept. 28 through Oct. 4.

"It's another example of our expanding partnership," says Ashbey Pierotti.

For Varsity World Film Week, Ashbey Pierotti and AIFF's director of programming, Joanne Feinberg, have been collaborating with Lee Fuchsmann, Coming Attractions' director of film, to plan screenings of 11 documentaries and shorts from around the world.

New this year to the foreign film festival will be something borrowed from AIFF: Two filmmakers will be in Ashland to speak after showings of their movies. Directors Marina Goldovskaya and Mark Kendall also will attend the debut of Reel to Rogue, an AIFF fundraiser at Lithia Springs Resort on Sept. 29.

Could AIFF survive without Coming Attractions? Ashbey Pierotti shakes her head side to side.

Ashbey Pierotti says Coming Attractions' staff members help her group present the unique experience of film as an art form and storytelling medium.

"It's so important to have a venue like the Varsity, with small and larger theaters, to bring all kinds of different stories to the screen in that live experience," she says. "It's important to a community like ours to have this."

As much as Ashbey Pierotti and Schweiger agree that this kind of festival benefits independent films, Ashland residents and local businesses, they jokingly quibble over terms. Should it be called a film or a movie?

After spending $6.5 million to convert his theaters from film to digital projection and sound, Schweiger insists that the word "film" is obsolete. "Next year, three companies won't even release a movie on celluloid film," says Schweiger, who founded Coming Attractions Theatres in 1985. "The industry is changing. We can't call them 'films.'"

Rejoins Ashbey Pierotti: "I still will call them 'films.' "

Schweiger says he doesn't watch too many movies — he defers to Fuchsmann to plan the programming — but he remembers how wonderful it felt when he saw a movie about auto racing with his dad when he was a child.

"When you're in a movie theater, you have interaction with other people. You hear them laugh and cry, and you smell the popcorn," he says. "Movies will never become extinct because people come to enter a place they see on the screen. It's a special feeling."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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