Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.

Brighid Behind the Scenes: The Life of a Festival Programmer

When you think of dream jobs a person can have in Memphis, being a programmer for one of the 50 best film festivals around probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But there she is anyway. Brighid Wheeler. Living the dream.

Or, at least that’s how I saw it.

I’d been to Indie Memphis Film Festival multiple years and noticed Brighid weaving through the crowds, chatting up the celebrity panelists, helping filmmakers get acclimated, making sure the booze or the ballots were where they needed to be, etc. She darted around doing all the things, looking cool, calm, and like she was having a blast.

I’ve always wanted to talk to her about how she got there and what it’s really like to do what she does. I finally decided to ask. What I learned is that the “dream” didn’t happen without moments of doubt, long hours, and a rocky start on the way to loving Memphis — oh, and that she’s as badass as you’d think she is. 


You work year-round as Shorts Programmer for Indie Memphis and work full-time as Director of Operations at the agency RocketFuel. How do you balance it all?

My wife and my co-workers will tell you I’m a little crazy and a lot tired, but I truly believe that I couldn’t do both if it weren’t for the support of Reuben [Brunson] and Lori [Brunson] and everyone at RocketFuel. It means the world to me that Reuben and Lori believe so much in what I do at Indie Memphis and the organization as a whole that RocketFuel continues to be a festival sponsor year after year. It’s not always ideal to have me out of the RocketFuel office for Indie Memphis stuff, but they always figure out a way to make it work. It’s a lot of trust and it’s not something you’d ever want to take advantage of or take for granted. I know I’m in a very unique position to have that support.

Do you have a background in film? How’d you get into festivals?

I went to the University of Alabama and got my degree in Telecommunication and Film, specializing in documentary filmmaking. I became very panicked towards the end of my time there thinking, ‘I don’t really enjoy production like I should.’ That’s a very scary thought to have when you’ve spent four years studying this particular craft and you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know if this is really what I was signing up for.’ I wanted to be in film and I liked helping creatives bring their ideas to the forefront and facilitating that, as opposed to being the sole creator, so to speak. 

A now mentor of mine and dear friend, Rachel Morgan [Creative Director at Sidewalk Film Festival], had introduced me to the world of film festivals when I was in college. I went to a Sidewalk Film Fest for the first time per her suggestion.

The first film I ever saw at a festival was this music documentary called “Dig” by Ondi Timoner and that moviegoing experience changed my life. There I was watching this really cool film NOT in a traditional theater, and one that I probably wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise. This makeshift venue was packed and full of excitement and it got me thinking, could I be a part of this world as my career? Is that even a thing? What that looked like, I had no idea. I just knew I wanted to be a part of it. 

When I graduated, I moved to Birmingham and decided to volunteer for Sidewalk in the office which ended up turning into volunteering 40 hours per week for close to a year. I would bartend at night to try to pay my portion of rent and bills, etc. Could I do that now, go volunteer 40 hours a week for an entire year? No, but I was very lucky to be able to do that and have the energy and the determination to do it knowing that it could set me up for the career I wanted years down the road, festival programming.

What brought you from Birmingham to Memphis and Indie Memphis?

I moved here about ten years ago to be an Assistant Store Manager at the Apple Store. That first year I was here, I lived in Cordova and I didn’t do a whole lot, but I did know about Indie Memphis so I attended that year. I’d worked for Erik Jambor [Indie Memphis Executive Director at the time] at Sidewalk, so when he found out that I was here in Memphis, he came to the Apple Store and sought me out and was like, “Hey, I could really use your help, you interested?”

I knew I wanted to program, but I also knew that you can’t just walk in and say, “I want to program.” You have to earn that title and credibility. Getting involved with the festival by volunteering was a good place to start.

I watched Erik’s processes and tried to identify areas that I could easily take over to help make his life easier or contribute to the overall feel and experience of the festival. I started to help organize the festival panels and conversations, and manage the VIP and filmmaker area, being their liaison — which meant that I was essentially an ambassador for the city and festival.

It required me to think through all of the ways I could show our guests what a special and unique experience Indie Memphis was, and show that you’re not going to get this experience at just any other festival, certainly not at some of the larger festivals where there’s often a disconnect in that very personalized experience.

I’d save up enough vacation hours at Apple so I could take off work around 7-10 days and work the festival around the clock. I eventually left Apple to work for Indie Memphis full time at one point, and that’s when I gained even more experience with producing the festival like recruiting key volunteer positions, vendor relations and coordinating, booking travel for jury and VIPs, setting up and breaking down the festival and other major things like that. I also became more involved in the process of programming films for the festival, and eventually took on the shorts programming process with Erik’s guidance and mentorship.

 

What does your year look like building up to the festival?

So, this year we pretty much hit the ground running January 1. Ryan [Watt, Executive Director] and I started the year by attending Art House Convergence, which is the largest conference for film festivals and arthouse theaters. It takes place right outside of Park City, Utah in the days leading up to Sundance. We met up with Miriam [Bale, Senior Programmer] and around that time is when we sent out a big press release announcing her joining Indie Memphis along with our call for entries.

I started watching shorts around the beginning of February and have screened pretty much non-stop until our lineup announcement that happened at the end of September. There’s a lot of collaboration between Miriam and myself when it comes to creating the most well-rounded overall program we can, first and foremost for our Memphis community, but also to attract people all over the world to want to come and hang out with us in Memphis for five days. As you can imagine, it requires a lot of back and forth via email and weekly scheduled programming calls, and sometimes daily depending on whatever impending deadline was up next.

February is also when the Indie staff started discussing the overall festival experience like panel topic ideas, special guests, local tie-ins whether it be with our musicians or other organizations.

All that to say, it’s not just watching films, it’s also working on some of the higher-level programming and curated experiences for our festival goers.

I’m also responsible for year-round programming for one of our monthly Indie Nights screenings called MicroCinema, where the focus is short films as a way to provide more screening opportunities outside of the festival for short film lovers.

On top of my programming responsibilities, I often get to serve as a juror for other film festivals. This past year, I served on juries for Oxford Film Festival, IFFBoston, and Sidewalk Film Festival, just to name a few. Serving on a festival jury allows me to network with other festivals’ organizers to exchange ideas and to also promote Memphis as a city where a filmmaker, and a film festival, can truly thrive. 

Lastly and often most importantly for me, I spend a good bit of my time throughout the year with our Memphis-based filmmakers providing additional opportunities for support and growth. This looks different from filmmaker to filmmaker, whether it’s giving feedback on a recent project or guiding them through creating a submission strategy for other festivals to hopefully share their work outside of Memphis. 

Has there been an instance where you were just really geeking out about someone that you had to interface with?

This might sound really nerdy and a bit exhausting, but I geek out with almost every person I interact with on some level at the festival and throughout the year. From Ryan Watt, whom I interact with most, to Miriam, Joseph, Macon, May, Jason, Tracee, Molly, Iddo and the rest of the core Indie Memphis staff, to key volunteers and board members, everybody brings a such a high level of talent and their own piece of the puzzle that makes all this happen. 

The Memphis filmmaking community never ceases to amaze me. They keep upping the ante every year. Their voices are getting stronger and more refined every year and their storytelling more daring and interesting. Then there’s always our first time filmmakers or “new to Memphis” filmmakers which seem to increase year after year. It’s so refreshing and energizing to see the growth of these fresh voices and the potential this has to raise the bar for the entire Memphis filmmaking community.

Of course, I can’t forget our special guests, VIPs, attending filmmakers and our general film loving festival goers. So yes, I do geek out and it’s pretty much a constant state of being for me.

What would you say to people who may feel intimidated because they aren’t really in that world and don’t think of themselves as film people?

You don’t need to be a “film person” because we truly do our best every year to make sure the programming is as accessible as it can be. Now, we’re going to have some really weird or niche stuff, but we work to make sure it’s balanced, that we’re not too heavy handed on any one type of experience, and that there’s something that will draw in hopefully most every type of person. We want to make sure that we’re being as inclusive and as exciting as possible. Looking at our overall programming and going, ‘Is this going to be reflective of our community? Will our various communities walk into the theater and see something they can identify with or relate to?’

How has that goal manifested in this year’s choices?

To speak specifically to the short film programming, I want to make sure that anyone who attends any shorts block at Indie Memphis, especially if you are a Memphian, finds something that’s for them in that block.

With a little over 200 short films, the breakdown of filmmakers in this year’s shorts program is roughly 45-50 percent directed by female identifying filmmakers and 45-50 percent directed by people of color. For the features programming, Miriam and her support team have created one of hell of a lineup full of unique perspectives and diverse voicesI’m proud of the work we’ve put in this year to ensure that we’re getting the right content and putting it together in a way that’s enjoyable, relatable, and exciting!

But I also believe that none of what I just said is enough if we’re not committed to listening and learning from those moments when we may miss the mark. We never want to be perceived as not pushing hard enough to demand a higher standard, or that we’re and settling and relying on previous successes. This is the standard and expectation of what we do at Indie Memphis and of each other.

ON LEARNING TO LOVE MEMPHIS

The best thing that ever happened was Erik Jambor seeking me out to come and help. I thought, ‘I’ll do some festival stuff to kind of give me a piece of home, and it’ll help me pass my time here in Memphis.’

Of course, as each year came and went, I took on more and more. Then when finally I moved to Midtown and was closer to the festival and the creative people I had met along the way, I became more in tune with the city which, in a lot of ways, forced me to look around and take stock of everything around me.

At the time, I remember thinking, ‘I’ve been wasting so much time in such a vibrant, incredible city’ and I realized that I could contribute and invest so much more into Memphis.

 

If it weren’t for Indie Memphis I don’t think I would have realized how truly incredible our city is and all of its potential. Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. But there’s just something really exciting about being a part of a city where you feel as though you can, with support and collaboration, help create and shape your environment in positive and significant ways. 

My biggest hope is that I’m able to provide something similar to at least one person each year the way that Indie Memphis and all of these amazing people I’ve met along the way have done for me — change their perspective on Memphis. If I can help facilitate that moment for someone and reflect back on the previous 12 months just to have one person say, “You know, Brighid, maybe Memphis isn’t that bad after all,” it makes all of this worth it. 

You’re right. It’s really, really incredible and one the greatest honors to be a part of it all.

Indie Memphis Film Festival is November 1 – 5. See the schedule and get tickets at indiememphis.com.