By Katie West
"South Carolina" may not have quite the same ring to it as "Hollywood," but the filmmaking scene is becoming increasingly visible in the state.
Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than this week in Columbia, where the eighth annual Indie Grits Film Festival kicks off Friday.
The festival has made MovieMaker Magazine's "Top 25 Coolest Film Festivals" list twice in the past four years, and organizers are determined to keep the accolades coming. Indie Grits has added length and variety to its schedule since its start in 2007, with this year's 10-day festival celebrating film and a sometimes crazy array of other arts: puppeteering, variety shows, video game creation and hip-hop culture, to name a few. If that sounds unusual to you, well, that's the goal.
"We have a very specific brand that we try and define ourselves by," explained Indie Grits co-director Seth Gadsden. "We're not trying to be any other kind of festival. You won't find another festival like us. That's why we're going eight years strong, and we keep getting bigger and bigger, because we do our own thing and people respect that."
The first Indie Grits Festival attracted around 500 attendees, said Gadsden. Last year welcomed 16 times that many, and even more are expected this year.
Most of the films, filmmakers and performers at Indie Grits don't have ties to South Carolina, although all are required to have some connection to the Southeast, but the state still benefits from the money and the attention it brings.
South Carolina Film Commission's Tom Clark said that Indie Grits is appealing to out-of-state filmmakers.
"So many of the film festivals are really hard to get into – Sundance and Toronto and Tribeca and SXSW – they are all so big that having the Indie Grits is a breath of fresh air," he said.
Gadsden said the festival is an undeniable asset to Columbia.
"Out of 8,000 people last year, 40 percent of them were from out of town, so they were finding places to stay, they're eating at the restaurants, they're doing different things in town," said Gadsden. "And not only that, but you're talking about awareness in the national attention that we could potentially bring Columbia in the future – being in the magazines, having an Internet presence, having filmmakers who live all over the world know about us and talk about us. Every year, we increase in submissions simply because world has spread about the festival."
South Carolina also profits from the broader film industry, which the South Carolina Film Commission estimated poured more than $1 billion into the state from 1994 to 2012 through hotels, food, the use of local businesses and hiring locals. The Motion Picture Incentive Act became state law in 2012, increasing rebates on resident and non-resident labor.
"We're probably in the top 20 out of the 44 states that offers incentives," said Clark.
South Carolina filmmakers benefit from Indie Grits, too. Chris White, a writer and director from Greenville, says festivals are helpful to filmmakers however they choose to use them.
"If you just want to go to a screening and a party, you can do that," said White. "We won the People's Grit award last year, and we think of ourselves and our work in terms of how to advance ourselves as filmmakers, and Indie Grits was like a momentum boost. We leveraged our win into audience development, but you can also go and just have fun. You can meet people and network."
Columbia resident Michael Tolbert is writing, directing, producing and starring in a Web series called Underground 13, which is being filmed in Columbia. He said he's excited that the film industry is paying more attention to the Southeast.
"A lot of shows are being filmed in North Carolina and Atlanta, and that's bringing jobs in," said Tolbert, a student at the University of South Carolina. "Not only is that stimulating the economy, it's allowing the creative people to be creative and not have to go all the way to California to do it."
From what he's seen, Columbia is warming up to the idea of seeing people run around town with filming equipment in tow.
"A few years ago, it probably would have been really taboo to see anyone with a film set, and we're not getting the same stares we were just a few years ago," he said.
Indie Grits plays a prominent role in Columbia's acceptance of film culture, and it wants to do more. It supports itself with ticket sales, grants and funding from Columbia's hospitality tax, and Gadsden says his hope for the near future is that the festival grabs the attention of prominent companies who would like to sponsor it.
"It's amazing what we've been able to do up to this point with what we have," said Seth Gadsden. "We've built a reputation up to this point that if and when it happens, we'll be ready."