From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series

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Miramax Guests: Mandy Ward & Johanna Bennett

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We have very special guests today. The co-founders of the NYC based film festival, First Time Fest are here to talk about how they launched this amazing new film festival and their many influences along the way. Quick background – First Time Fest (FTF) is a five-day event that opens tomorrow, April 3 and runs through April 7. The fest showcases new and exciting first films from filmmakers around the globe. This is their second year and the film industry support is as strong as their first. Guests include Jennie Livingston and her first film Paris is Burning, Tom McCarthy and his first film The Station Agent, Michael Moore, Rosie Perez, Julie Taymor, Kelly Reichardt, Peter Bogdanovich and many more. Last year, guests included Darren Aronofsky, Sofia Coppola, Michael Shannon and Martin Scorsese. The FTF Co-founders are Mandy Ward and Johanna Bennett.

L-R Mandy Ward, Johanna Bennett

Welcome to our Miramax blog, Mandy and Johanna! We’re excited to have you join us to talk about your festival. Tell us a little about FTF and why it’s important for you to focus on first time filmmakers.

MW: First time filmmakers making their first feature are not always first timers. These are artist that have been successful in many different areas of their life and have a story to tell. They are not in it to make everyone happy but they are in it to tell a story from a very strong point of view. With the big TABOO of the so called ‘first time filmmaker’ we felt the need to build a platform to not only celebrate them but put them with already prominent filmmakers sharing their struggle. There is a first time for everything.

JB: FTF was born out of our own frustrations with show business. Mandy and I were literally sitting around complaining when we said, “you know what someone should do …….” We were also complaining about seeing the same movie all the time made by the same people. The same types of editing, the same types of film scoring {my personal pet peeve}, and the same creative teams used over and over again. Now, cut to 4 ½ years later we end up flabbergasted by the outpouring of support from the filmmaking community on top of which we end up with a closing night beyond our wildest imagination. Hosted by Ellen Burstyn, Anthony Rapp presenting our secondary awards, Ellen presenting our Cinema Libre Grand Prize, and then by some miracle Martin Scorsese agreed to present our John Huston Award and Darren Aronofsky accepted it.

Why its important to focus on first time filmmakers is simple….
As Marty said on our closing night “Technology today demands that you pick it up and make a film if you have a passion for it.” More and more new filmmakers who used to be add execs or a former actor that had to take a real job or just the guy on the street who is the friend of yours that always says things like, “I have this idea for a movie” are coming out of the closet – LOL. The problem with that is there are fewer and fewer financiers, studio execs, EP’s, and film funds willing to take a risk on someone with no track record. Mandy & I have seen incredible projects get turned down that have an entire seasoned team attached and then because there is a first time writer the project doesn’t go anywhere. If we don’t support first time filmmakers we will stop having innovators in the film industry. The bar will simply remain low.

Miramax has really championed innovative filmmaking and first films from great directors including, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. What’s your favorite Miramax film/director?

JB: Honestly, that’s a question I can’t really answer. There are simply to many extraordinary first films that came out of Miramax. Each one of the directors you mentioned above…if I try to choose which of their films I liked better or affected me and my view of the world deeper than the other…. I can’t. What can I really say about this with out sounding like a kiss ass? I’m a fan maybe? Nope that still sounds kiss ass.

MW: I am a huge Tarantino and Rodriquez fan. El Mariachi, Desperado and Reservoir Dogs take you out of your reality and place you in another. No matter how absurd the humanity, realism is always underneath it all.

Name some of your other favorite first time filmmakers and their films.

MW: Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art, and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. I think all of these films had a raw inside look at the depth of humanity. It’s what we do when no one is looking.

JB: Funny it’s often their second film that gets me. For example, Julie Taymor with Frida or Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Then I run home and watch their first films! One of my very favorite first films is Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos. I saw this movie then the next day I burst into my acting class and demanded that everyone see it! All I kept saying was THIS GUY IS A GENIUS!!!!!

How does your festival differ from other great festivals discovering new talent?

JB: For one thing, we are a contest in disguise as a festival. The rest of FTF from First Exposure to our panel series called ‘How They Did It’ is a very specific kind of educational tool … we are trying to tell the public: If you want to do it, this is how to do it. If you think you have obstacles you can’t overcome, guess what, so did Sofia Coppola and you can come and hear her tell you about it.

MW: We are intimate. Super intimate. We set up the festival as a place where you see the same people whether it be financiers, producers or filmmakers over the 5 days. At the end you go away with relationships that will further your road for your next film. We think long term for each filmmaker.

Can you tell us a little about the process to find and select filmmakers?

MW: David Schwartz [Chief Film Curator, Museum of the Moving Image] is the evil genius behind this. We do have normal submissions on Withoutabox which we get a large number of submissions from around the world. We even get submissions from Antarctica! Then we really curate some from other festivals and word of mouth which we feel would be an asset to the festival. David has a very strong gage of fresh innovative material.

JB: Mandy & I also get to IFP each year to speed date new directors.

MMX: Who judges the films?

JB: Well that’s another thing that makes us different, we have four judges and the audience is the fifth judge. We borrowed from reality TV a bit as we wanted to give the film going public, a chance to have a say in what the world gets to see.

How can first-time filmmakers and their work stand out in an over-saturated market?

MW: Really to stand out is to have a strong point of view. The films that resonate are ones that suck you in and keep you in the world they have created. They don’t waiver and they continually drive you through until the end.

JB: They should have a strong point of view that is all that filmmakers and no one else’s. Our John Huston Award is named for a guy who’s first film was the Maltase Falcon. That was a point of view all right and one that continued to inform his entire body of work. Essentially that is what we are looking for as we program – good filmmaking and a strong point of view.

Tell us about the winning film and filmmaker from last year.

JB: Sal from Argentina and Chile was a 1.6MM production self financed by a very successful video and commercial director named Diego.


You had very impressive artists like Martin Scorsese support your first year, can you tell us how they came on board and what contributions they made?

JB: In our first year we ere hearing a lot of “That’s great!” but not getting real support. I called up my dad [Artist Tony Bennett] and said “I think I need you to call Marty and tell him what I’m doing and ask if he would consider helping.” I will never forget dad’s answer to me: “Every 4 or 5 years I call him up and ask him a favor …….this is really the thing that he could say no to me for.” I said ” I know dad, I am fully expecting him to say no.” So a few days went by and then I got a call from my dad saying, “Johanna! He was very interested in what your doing, I think he’s going to do something!” So Marty was our first ‘yes’ but because he was shooting Wolf [of Wall Street] and then jumped in to editing. We didn’t know what we had him for or if we were getting him in person really until the last minute.

Can you give us a preview of this year’s schedule of events?

MW: We have impressive First Exposure directors like Michael Moore, James Tobak, Julie Taymor and Peter Bogdanovich. We also have an amazing panel called ‘From Rock to Score’ which Slash and Duncan Sheik will be speaking on. The amount of support we get is amazing. We truly feel grateful.

What’s your long-term goal with FTF?

MW: Long term we want to support our filmmakers into their next films and be apart of their success. We want to put a fund together to help the filmmakers we already trust and believe in continue their journey. We also will start doing pop up festivals in places like Miami focusing on Latin and South American films. The great thing about being intimate is we can travel.

Well, a big congrats to both of you for creating FTF and delivering an amazing platform for new filmmakers. It’s so refreshing that you’ve created a film festival that is so passionate about supporting new talent and are making such relevant industry connections available to them. Much, much success to everyone involved!

JB: As I said, we are big fans of Miramax and Miramax is welcome at FTF any time, any place!

MW: It’s fun supporting the journeys of all these filmmakers and hearing the journeys of our first exposure filmmakers as we too last year were first timers!

We hope the value in inviting these high-caliber guests encourages emerging filmmakers to get out there and create new work. Thanks so much for joining us today! Follow FTF on and .

photo credit: WireImage L-R, Tony Bennett, Johanna Bennett, Robert De Niro, Mandy Ward

photo credit: WireImage
L-R, Tony Bennett, Johanna Bennett, Robert De Niro, Mandy Ward

Mandy Ward
After graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2002, with degrees in FILM/VIDEO PRODUCTION and MEDIA AND PERFORMING ARTS, Ward moved to NYC to produce off-broadway plays with partner, JP Sarni. Together they founded a production company, Metropoleink, and created the pop culture blog JoyHog. From 2003 to 2010 Mandy worked at Radioaktivefilm, producing independent documentaries addressing social and political issues in modern society, such as We Will Not Die Like Dogs, Palestine Blues and Pennhurst.

Johanna Bennett
Johanna began her entertainment career singing on stage with her father, Tony Bennett, at the age of ten. After years of training at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, Johanna made her film debut in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and continued to appear in independent films, television, and numerous Off-Broadway plays. In 1994 she started her own decorative painting company called “The Mock Turtle,” designing custom finishes for walls, ceilings, and floors for private homes and restaurants in New York. In 2000 Johanna segued into real estate, dealing in high-end international realty with Sothebys. Johanna serves on the Board of Governors for Nile Rodgers’ We Are Family Foundation, and is an active advisor and fundraiser for The Shang Shung Institute in America, MusiCares, The American Cancer Society, and Urban Farming.

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