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On Heels Of Local Film Surge, Cucalorus Gets Back To Its Roots

By Johanna F. Still, posted Nov 9, 2021
Dan Brawley, Cucalorus Film Festival director, stands outside Jengo's Playhouse, before recent renovations took place. (File photo)

In its 27th year on the heels of the pandemic, Cucalorus Film Festival is back, with a refocused emphasis on film.  

The multi-day festival launches Wednesday and will last through Sunday, with a selection of 126 films. 

“This festival might even feel like a bit of a throwback. It’s the Cucalorus Film Festival again,” Cucalorus director Dan Brawley said. “This is really a return to our roots.” 

For several years, the festival dropped “film” from its title to make room for other offerings, such as Cucalorus Connect, a tech-focused multi-day conference launched in 2015. Following a virtual festival last year, Brawley said the leadership team was in refinement mode when it decided to not move forward with another round of Connect.  

Last year, Connect shifted away from its traditional entrepreneurial focus to instead host racial and social conversations. This time around, organizers nixed both the tech and social conversation programming altogether. “It just kind of organically dropped off the radar,” Brawley said.  

Performance arts are still integral to the festival, with a show preceding each film slot from either comedians, musicians, or dancers. The award-less festival focuses on camaraderie over competition, but still, a slate of judges narrowed down hundreds of submitted films to curate this year’s offerings.  

“With the films that are submitted to Cucalorus, we could really program four different festivals and not have any of the same movies,” Brawley said.   

This year’s events take place amid a banner year for film in Wilmington and national workplace negotiations as the largest film union is vying for better pay and less extreme working conditions.  

“The labor dynamics of our industry are changing very rapidly,” Brawley said. In the past, film buffs would volunteer 80-plus hours to watch films as part of the selection process. For the first time last year, Cucalorus began offering judges a small stipend to compensate them for their professional time.  

Cucalorus must be a leader in workplace equity for all players involved, Brawley said, including representing marginalized artists. At least 50% of all films this year are directed by women and at least 50% are directed by people of color.  

“We’re working towards that kind of equity,” he said. “It’s not something you just flip a switch.” 

This year will be a homecoming of sorts, Brawley said, for both old and new filmmakers alike. Returning attendees are sure to notice several changes, notably on the Jengo's Playhouse facade, with two movie marquees that were installed last week. “It's so rare these days that you see a marquee at all,” Brawley said. “I'm really excited to see filmmakers’ reaction when they see ... the title of their film up there.” 

Interior renovations at Jengo’s are aplenty, a process that began after the last in-person festival in 2019. Work continued throughout last year, serving as a creative outlet for organizers who were otherwise bound by gathering restrictions.  

Seats are spaced out with added cupholders, the cinema has grown, a permanent concessions and box office area was installed, and the lobby has doubled in size, Brawley said. There’s even a custom wallpaper of a patterned cucoloris, for which the festival is named after (a film device with cut-out designs used to cast a shadow) – “there's some really funky stuff,” Brawley said. 

Planned to enhance the flow and experience of attendees, the changes were mapped out by Big Sky Design’s Natalie Lentz, who was previously the festival’s program coordinator. “It was really nice to have someone who was a Cucalorian working on the design,” Brawley said.  

At its last in-person gathering in 2019, the festival attracted 21,000 people. Showings will take place at Jengo’s, Thalian Hall, and Hi-Wire Brewery.  

Brawley said he isn’t sure what to expect as far as attendance goes. “We're looking at this as a new baseline, a new beginning for the festival,” he said.  

Tickets are on sale now, at $10 per show, or purchase an all-access “Pegasorus” Pass for $200. Proof of vaccination is required to attend all events.  

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