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Front Page - Friday, February 10, 2017

Reel love: Passion drives Dortch’s push for top festival

“Movies have always been it”’

The city’s cultural landscape was incomplete before the Chattanooga Film Festival was birthed in 2014.

Chattanooga’s multiplexes were packed every weekend with audiences eager to see the newest mainstream releases, but there was little room for independent and arthouse films – and the people who loved them.

As art, music, dance and theater thrived in Chattanooga, the city seemed to be in a holding pattern when it came to the kinds of movies that played at Sundance, South by Southwest, Telluride and other film festivals.

Although video-on-demand was growing in popularity, it was no substitute for gathering together with like-minded people before the warm glow of a big screen and collectively experiencing the profound wonders of cinema.

So Chattanooga waited for someone to light the flame that would create that unique and transcendent encounter.

People waited for Chris Dortch to claim his birthright.

More than a fan

Dortch, 35, is the founder and director of CFF. While it’s a dream job, it’s also a full-time gig that keeps him busy year-round. He might allow himself to take a relaxing breath after the festival is over each April, but then it’s back to work.

If there’s ever a contest to come up with a look for the part of film festival director, Dortch would be a solid contender. He’s often dressed in a casual button down shirt and jeans, which go well with his salt and pepper mop and unkempt beard. His demeanor is as relaxed as his attire , and he’s often either smiling or looks about to.

While all of this gives Dortch an air of approachability, it still doesn’t prepare people for the friendly enthusiasm that pours out of him when he speaks. More than most folks, Dortch seems as though he could talk with anyone about anything and relish the experience.

His favorite topic is movies, though. If one thing defines Dortch above and beyond all else, it’s his all-consuming passion for films.

“Movies have always been it for me,” he says. “There has never been a plan B.”

Dortch freely calls his relationship with movies obsessive. He can talk about the directors he admires and their works for hours. His brain is an exhaustive archive of movie trivia as immense as the warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark. And his personal collection of movies – more than 13,000, all absorbed into the CFF archives – includes films in every format.

Dortch walks over to a shelf and retrieves a VHS copy of “The Keep” by director Michael Mann. Released theatrically in 1983, the film has yet to become available on DVD.

“This is a great movie. If I didn’t have it on VHS, I wouldn’t be able to own it,” he points out. “I always try to find the best version of a movie no matter what the format is.”

Dortch’s taste in movies is all-embracing, as well. Although he has an aversion to “Sharknado” and its ilk, he says he loves many more things than he hates.

“My taste in movies really is kitchen sink. I love a little bit of everything,” he adds. “It’s like ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ They all feel like my children.”

That said, Dortch gravitated toward genre films early in life. One of his first “favorite movies of all time” was the George Pal-directed version of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.” His love of fantasy films grew from there and never abated.

Dortch became just as zealously avid about science fiction and horror. When his family settled in down the street from a video rental outlet in Chattanooga, the movies the owner of the store put in his excited hands – “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” “Evil Dead” and others – stamped themselves onto his soul and made him who he is.

Today, Dortch’s list of favorite movies is more inclusive. He calls “I Am Cuba,” a 1964 Soviet-Cuban drama and experimental film, a gorgeous, fluid piece of filmmaking, and says “Possession” and “On the Silver Globe” both have a special place in his heart as well.

But if there’s one film that surpasses all the others, it’s “Repo Man,” a 1984 fantasy film in which Emilio Estevez plays a young man who stumbles into a world of wackiness after taking a job repossessing cars.

“It’s a punk rock sci-fi western with an incredible sound track and an Iggy Pop theme song,” he says. “It feels like it was made for me.”

Dortch’s understanding of the building blocks of movies and the visual language of film runs deep, as many of the titles he enjoys suggest. But he’s no stuffy arthouse snob. Rather, he gets as much of a thrill out of watching “Porky’s” as he does absorbing the brilliance and historical significance of “I Am Cuba.”

“I believe films exist along a spectrum, and you can have the most fun when you’re open-minded and can enjoy both ends of the scale,” he says. “People say ‘Roadhouse’ is a legitimately bad movie, but I have a lot of fun watching it, and I don’t consider that to be a bad experience.”

Even when it comes to the films that don’t appeal to Dortch, he’s more thoughtful than dismissive. Regarding “Sharknado,” he explains, “You can’t manufacture the charm of a B movie. It has to be earned. When you make something contrived, all you’re doing is checking off the boxes B movie fans want to see.

“That’s not the same as ending up with a B movie. When Ed Wood made ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space,’ he did his damnedest to create a masterpiece, and in his mind, he’d made one.

“I believe it’s important to buy into the Ed Wood delusion when you watch that film and get in his head instead of just making fun of it.”

The birth of a fan

Dortch’s relationship with films began at a very young age. Unable to form lasting friendships because of the frequency with which his family moved, Dortch turned to movies. They were an escape, an adventure and occasionally even a babysitter.

“My dad tells a story about me bringing him a book about John Carpenter’s special effects for the ‘The Thing’ and telling him that was what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wasn’t even old enough to read, but I loved the idea of a pretend world.”

Dortch came of age when he was about 15 and became aware of the existence of independent films.

“There was a world of movies that wasn’t available at my local Blockbuster, so I started assembling these insane lists of films and traveling to any video store within 500 miles to try to find them,” he points out. “When I was 15, ‘Trainspotting’ opened here, and it was like a Christmas gift.”

Around the same age, Dortch started working at every video store that would hire him, including an outlet that doubled as a tanning salon.

“I didn’t know they had tanning beds. After a week, they told me to go out back and clean those puppies up,” he recalls. “It was hell, but they had a great horror section, so I stayed there longer than I should have.”

Dortch got his first taste of curating films when he assembled his staff pick shelf at a Blockbuster. As the store’s customers became familiar with his taste in film, they grew to trust him and his choices.

“It was a point of pride when someone rented a video off my shelf,” he says. “I loved being the guy who put a good movie in their hands.”

When Dortch turned 18, he moved to Nashville to attend classes at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film. While there, the future film festival director took another step toward his destiny when he began hosting weekly movie nights in his apartment.

After college, Dortch took a job as the director of programming for a start-up network in Nashville called The Documentary Channel. Although Dortch enjoyed the work, he longed to be involved with the full spectrum of cinema.

Around this time, Dortch discovered the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, which he calls one of the best arthouse theaters in the country.

Even though Dortch was working as a TV executive, the people at the Belcourt let him pick up shifts and “bum around with the movie junkies” that saw films there. They also invited him to take part in planning their midnight movies.

Seeing people react to the films he had a hand in selecting was a rush. “I loved seeing people laugh or freak out,” Dortch adds. “I got hooked on the live response to what we put in front of them.”

The birth of CFF

After Dortch returned to Chattanooga, he started hosting movie nights in his one-bedroom apartment as a means of making friends and showcasing the off-the-wall things in his collection. When he started tripping over the bodies of strangers, he knew it was time to take his movie nights to the streets.

This leap out his front door gave birth to the Mise En Scenesters film club, a pop-up arthouse theater that screened independent, classic, cult, genre and obscure movies. As the group spread the gospel of the strange but wonderful world of cinema, it continued to grow. In the process the audience Dortch attracted became increasingly loyal.

In time, Dortch was invited to join the board of the now defunct Chattanooga Film Society. Although the board was already aiming to launch a destination film festival in Chattanooga, most of its members said they believed they were a decade away from making it happen.

Having proven through Mise En Scenesters that there was an audience in Chattanooga for independent and arthouse films, Dortch balked at the idea of waiting ten years and suggested they try to do it immediately.

“While I was in Nashville, I put together a hellacious Rolodex of filmmakers and distributors. I knew that would give me the ability to program the festival,” Dortch explains. “Since I’m a pretty impatient guy, I decided to just prove this thing needed to exist.”

Ignoring the naysayers, Dortch and his allies rolled up their sleeves in September 2013 and went to work. Their fundraising efforts netted $80,000, which they spent on 25 features and 50 short films. In April, about 3,500 people showed up at the Carmike Majestic 12 to watch these selections on three screens.

In 2015, attendance at CFF doubled to 7,100. Last year, the festival expanded to four screens and accommodated 10,000 film fans.

While Dortch is thrilled with the numbers, he’s not gloating. Rather, as he reflects on the success of CFF, he’s reminded of the countless hours of hard labor that went into making it happen.

“We’ve had to bootstrap it the whole way. That’s kept us hungry and humble,” he says.

Even so, CFF exists today largely because of Dortch’s will and determination and his deep, abiding passion for film.

“We found the audience first and made them trust that we were doing a good and pure-hearted thing,” Dortch says. “If you build it, they really will come.”

Like all sequels worthy of the designation, this year’s CFF promises to be bigger and better than the previous iterations. The number of screens will jump to five, including the Tennessee Aquarium Imax 3D Theater, which CFF has reserved for its opening night selection. In addition, one of the parties this year will act as the retirement shindig for a legendary filmmaker Dortch is keeping under wraps for now.

“I’m contractually obligated to say every year is my favorite year, but there are some things I don’t know how we pulled off, and I’m excited about being able to share them,” he adds.

Although Dortch is holding the list of films close to his chest, too, he does promise the selections will be hyper-curated and include the customary assortment of the strangest, most fun and diverse stuff out there.

“Every year, we look at the movies people watch at CFF so we know what to program the following year, and it ends up being movies like ‘The Raid 2,’ ‘It Follows’ or ‘What We Do in the Shadows.’ This is the stuff people enjoy the most, so we try to give those audiences what they want.”

At the same time, someone who wants to see a quiet indie drama will have the option to do that.

Dortch is predicting a big jump in attendance as well. But the numbers are not what has him chomping at the bit for April 6 to arrive. That would be the smaller moments – the heartfelt conversations about films between festivalgoers; the way CFF will connect the artists, musicians and comedians who will perform between screenings to the community; the doors CFF will open for local directors, including student filmmakers; and the work of the many volunteers who will pull off one of the cultural highlights of the year in Chattanooga.

“No matter how big the festival gets, we’ll continue to make it warm and friendly,” Dortch says. “The atmosphere of love is palpable. You can find people in the hall and just start to talk with them about the movies they like. It creates a cool culture. We don’t want that to change.”

With its celebrity and filmmaker appearances, CFF also breaks down the walls between the people who make films and those who love them.

Although the 18-year-old Dortch never even dreamed that Elijah Wood would attend one of his movie nights, that’s what CFF is – an extension of Dortch’s staff picks at Blockbuster, the fully formed infant conceived during his movie nights and the culmination of a dream to be able to share the things he loves.

Every human heart has a passion for something burning within it, but in most cases, that fondness never grows beyond the level of a hobby or casual pursuit. Dortch has taken his love for film and drawn the city of Chattanooga to its flame.

The only question now is how he’ll be able to keep it burning.

The Palace Picture House

With CFF settled into its new headquarters in The Tomorrow Building on Georgia Avenue and the build out for The Palace Picture House underway on Patten Parkway, Dortch is very busy.

The many things on his plate tend to force him into an unconventional work schedule, especially in the months leading up to the film festival. In the past, this has taken a physical and mental toll on him.

To mitigate burnout, Dortch is eating healthier and exercising, neither of which he’s ever done. He’s lost a significant amount of weight as a result and has the energy he needs to sustain him through the most demanding portions of his schedule.

Dortch’s motivation for taking care of himself is like that of any loving parent: he wants to be around when his baby grows up.

“I want to see year 50 of this thing. Maybe it can be a ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ thing where my corpse is cryogenically frozen and wheeled out every year,” he says, laughing.

In his spare time (a commodity rarer than screenings of the unseen Jerry Lewis debacle, “The Day the Clown Died”), Dortch is working on another labor of love: a movie.

He admits to having made a couple of “terrible films” but is pressing forward with this third project, which he hopes to shoot in Chattanooga at some point.

“Although I love being a professional appreciator, I’ll always go back to filmmaking,” he explains. “Creating something and doing what I love is a big deal to me.”

The relationships Dortch has formed around CFF are also important to him. Although movies are still an escape and an adventure, they’re no longer his only friends.

“Screening films publicly over the last few years has brought lasting friendships to my door,” he says. “My passion for movies has helped me to make the best friends and most important relationships I’ve ever had.”

In the era of video-on-demand, when film festivals occasionally show content already available on Netflix, some people might think an event like CFF has limited appeal. Why would someone leave the comfort of his or her home, drive across town and pay to sit in a theater with strangers and see the same thing?

Because going to the movies is a sacred thing.

“I still love to see content exhibited theatrically. It’s the best way to watch a film,” Dortch says. “It’s one thing to see a movie at home or on your laptop. But when you’re in a theater full of movie junkies and everyone is coming alive, the experience of watching a film begins to fire on all pistons.

“That’s the experience I want audiences to have. There are still plenty of people who care about buying a bag of popcorn, settling into a seat and having a great communal experience. I want to be one of the keepers of that flame.”