Back when I started my company, I interviewed a young woman for an assistant position and walked her through the stresses of the job of managing prickly PR clients. In the end, I asked her if she thought she could do it. Her answer surprised me: “Well,” she said, “I’m from Texas, and I can handle anything y’all can throw at me.” I thought to myself: could that really be enough? And you know what? There’s just something about Texas.
In that spirit, come along with us to the fourth edition of the Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival, which brushed aside a freak second year in a row of foul weather to present an impressive and uplifting slate of 31 feature, short, student, and animated films from around the world focusing on diversity/BIPOC programming, inspiration and celebration of the human spirit. Many films competed for Grand Jury Prizes following three days of screenings, dance, golf, fashion, and filmmaker education in venues across Waco, from the historic Hippodrome Theatre to the Pivovar, the remarkable Czech-themed brewery, restaurant, and hotel that served as de facto Festival headquarters.
“Our growth and strength build every year, and it’s our community and our sponsors that are responsible for that,” begins Festival Founder, Executive Director, and chief evangelist Dr. Tyrha Lindsey-Warren. “That community comprises our local residents and supporters, from students to seniors; our visiting community of filmmakers who came to Texas from far-flung New York City, Los Angeles, and abroad; festival enthusiasts and the more than a dozen sponsors that enable us to show our films and year-round programs.”
“…31 feature, short, student, and animated films from around the world focusing on diversity/BIPOC programming, inspiration and celebration of the human spirit.”
The damaging ice and snowstorm that cut power, felled trees and outbuildings, and snarled air and auto traffic across central Texas claimed only one Festival victim: the Wednesday Ozomatli concert, which Lindsey-Warren promised to present under the auspices of the Festival later this season.
Filmmakers and industry executives came in numbers anyway, defying the elements to attend the Festival. We landed in sleet and freezing rain in Austin after two days of canceled flights and undertook a white-knuckled drive two hours up I-35 as the temperature dropped below freezing and the wipers smeared semi-truck sludge across the windscreen which caked conveniently at its edges. With the storm at my back, threatening to overtake me, I didn’t dare pull over for fear of being stuck on Texas’ evil, ubiquitous “service roads,” which flank all major highways but confound visitors. I did pass by “the world’s largest convenience store”–Buc-ees–“a chain of travel centers known for clean bathrooms and many fueling positions (I counted 40),” and whose happy beaver billboards promise “eat at Buc-ees, get gas” and pepper the Interstate for 150 miles in either direction—a Texas-style “South of the Border.” But we pressed on.
I got to the Pivovar at 9:05, minutes after the Festival’s new opening night: its second annual “Fashion & Style Show” reception and shopping event at Art Center Waco, which featured celebrity stylist Deborah Koenigsberger presenting fashions from her New York boutique Noir et Blanc, local student models and the WFFFF’s 4th annual class of “Champion Awards” recipients, which honored exemplars of innovation and “good disruption” in the arts. The 2023 Champions Award recipients included multiple award-winning animation artist, director, and producer, Bruce W. Smith, who is the creator and executive producer of “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” on Disney+; the legendary television producer, Ralph Farquhar, who is the executive producer of “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” on Disney+; Latin Grammy-Award winner, OZOMATLI; and award-winning TV journalists, Ke’Sha Lopez and Pete Sousa, co-anchors of the morning news show on KWTX-TV/Ch.10-CBS in Waco and Central Texas. Everyone except for Ozomatli was on hand to collect their awards.
Everywhere you looked at this festival, there were signs of excellence that belied its size. From the programs to the passes, the look and feel of all the festival indicia were first-rate, a constant surprise that attracted me to the festival in the first place. It might seem silly, but its remarkable fit and finish speak volumes. The tickets and directional signage look great. The pre-roll screen was gorgeous. The clips and events went on without a hitch. There was always someone nearby to cheerfully answer questions and lend a hand.
A Baylor college professor who started in TV production and who also owns a marketing company, Dr. Lindsey-Warren promises that was no accident. “I’ve spent years honing and refining my team, and many have been with me for ten years,” she says. “My production head puts on shows at the Kennedy Center, for example.” With that team, precision, and discipline in hand, the Festival has recently started a Nigerian edition and plans a festival of works from HBCU educational institutions.
Waco significantly advances the concept of what a family and faith film festival really can be. “It’s come a long way from ‘Sunday School on Screen,’ Lindsey-Warren says. Most significantly, the family and faith genre embraces impact filmmaking: the concept of filmmakers and films acting as agents for positive social change. “At their best, all faiths hope to improve the social condition—with many underpinned by a commitment to charity, service, and compassion. It’s our hope to bring more of those films under our umbrella.” Lindsey-Warren stretched the traditional boundaries of the genre in other ways too, screening films with sci-fi, magical realism, and educational elements. One film, Nathan Scoggins’ WHAT REMAINS, was billed as a murder mystery and was Anne Heche’s last film.
“Waco significantly advances the concept of what a family and faith film festival really can be…”
Scoggins served as my wingman, faith-based translator, and believer. He commented, “The Waco Family & Faith International Film Festival is seeking to do something new by specifically engaging filmmakers interested in faith in a bold and contemporary way. It was a pleasure to meet other like-minded colleagues and dive into deep conversations, all against the fast-developing Waco backdrop.”
Friday morning, under the guidance of Sidney Warren, self-styled “Minister of Fun” and co-founder of festival presenter the GB Lindsey Family Charitable Fund, 40 golfers—fortified by copious amounts of Dutch Bros. coffee and H.E.B. box lunches—bravely set off in 36-degree temperatures for the 3rd annual Celebrity Golf Classic, presented by Greg May Honda. As the wind initially strafed the golfers under “very wet conditions,” Team H.E.B. emerged victorious with a better ball 11 under par 61; The Dutch Bros. team came in second with a 71 as the temperatures warmed up to a balmy 55 degrees.
The bulk of the festival programming took place Saturday, beginning with Waco’s first annual “Pitchfest” hosted by Courtney Parker, President of LostNThought Productions and Senior Executive Consulting Producer of Development and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for A+E Factual Studios. Parker patiently took well over a dozen pitches from aspiring reality TV show creators. It was a revealing and fascinating exercise that went on for three hours, washed down with Raisin Cane’s fried chicken fingers and (VERY!) sweet tea nicked from The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder presentation downstairs in the Hippodrome, the only one of Waco’s grand early 20th-century entertainment palaces to survive. While Parker said there were few new ideas—but rather only different ways of presenting them—the winning pitch came from Brenda Self, titled, “The Releaser,” based on her own experiences in a job that prepares inmates to leave the prison system. Self won $250 and a Shopping Agreement with Parker’s LostNThought Productions in Hollywood. At the end of the pitch session, Courtney told her suitors: “I can’t imagine doing my job WITHOUT faith, and neither should you.” With thousands of pitches landing in front of development executives and acquisition people each year, how could it be otherwise?