Ninth Idyllwild Film Festival headed for the Oscars

One year shy of qualifying for Academy Awards accreditation, festival awards 85 filmmakers

Photo by Kyle Selby / The Valley Chronicle
Crowds gathered in flocks for the 9th annual Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema Awards, Sunday, March 11. Filmmakers Justin and Mary Lou Sandler (right) won the WeSpark Award for their documentary chronicling Justin’s year-long journey with cancer.

■ By Kyle Selby / Reporter

Are you a cinephile? Do you have an appreciation for artistry behind and in front of a camera lens? Do you like to take a break from reality every now and then, finding yourself totally immersed in a really good movie? Do you wish to collaborate with brilliant minds in the industry?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema is the place for you.
In what can only be described as an intimate first-hand look at the filmmaking experience, this film festival brings new and seasoned filmmakers together to meet, network, and share the one thing each of them have in common—film.
The 9th Annual Idyllwild Festival of Cinema (IIFC), ran from March 6 to March 11 and showed over 139 features, featurettes, shorts, and documentaries of all genres, out of over 360 film submissions.
Festival Director Stephen Savage, who founded the film festival nine years ago, kicked off the festival’s awards ceremony Sunday afternoon at the Idyllwild Rustic Theater, where he co-hosted opposite his seven-year-old niece, Violet Spataro, who many will recognize from the Ellen show as a regular guest.
“You’ll be more famous than I’ll ever be,” bantered Savage.
“Oh come on, you’ll be more famous, dude—you’re a director!” Violet replied. “I’m just an actor!”
Along with Spataro, celebrity hosts included actress Erika Christensen (“Traffic”, “Parenthood”, “Ten Days in the Valley”), and Wolfgang Bodison (“A Few Good Men”, “CSI”, “NCIS”).
A total of 84 awards were presented Sunday afternoon. The following four films won Best of Festival awards, the highest honors selected by the director, executive producer, and the viewing audience.
Hard Surfaces’ director Zach Brown took home the award for Best of Festival – Overall.
Director Manny Rodriguez Jr.’s film Butterfly Caught won Best of Festival – Festival Director’s Award.
Krieg won Best of Festival – Audience Choice. The World War II-set featurette was written and directed by Jeff Fry, who was also celebrating his birthday Sunday, and who was surprised by a song of “Happy Birthday” by the entire theater crowd.
Ben Hartley’s film, Early Mourning won Best of Festival – Producer’s Award.
Idyllwild presented a special award for people who accomplish wonders while inspiring others, the WeSpark Award, previously awarded to Nancy Ellen and Anne Archer. This year, the WeSpark Award was awarded to filmmakers Justin and Mary Lou Sandler.

Photo by Kyle Selby / The Valley Chronicle
The four Best of Festival awards winners: Zach Brown, director of Hard Surfaces; Jeff Fry, director of Krieg; Manny Rodriguez Jr. (and his wife, producer Lisa Rodriguez) director of Butterfly Caught; and Matt Simpkins, cinematographer for Early Mourning.

The Sandlers, who won Excellence in Filmmaking awards during last year’s festival, went home last year to discover that Justin had a 12 centimeter-long mass inside his chest—cancer. The couple spent the next year documenting Justin’s cancer journey in a series of Facebook Live videos, chronicling the hair-loss, the chemo, the surgeries and the tears. After a year of hell, Justin was cleared of all cancer in January 2018.
“Embrace cancer, love cancer, free cancer,” said Justin, a mantra he coined in contrast to the “F*ck Cancer” campaigns. “It’s affecting a lot of people, but at the core level, it’s validation for our journey.”
The Sandlers will now be taking an RV trip across the United States to visit care centers to familiarize patients and their friends and families living with cancer for their upcoming films Caregiving Cancer and Mantimacy.
The Marshall Hawkins Awards, whose legendary musician namesake sat front row Sunday afternoon, recognized three films for best original scores; Dark Iris, Passage, and Alone.
The Mary Austin Awards, named after a mentor of Savage’s who he described as a patron of the arts, an actress, a writer, and a champion for women, were presented to 14 female filmmakers.
“When you add up shorts, featurettes, [etc.], you have as many female filmmakers in positions like directors and producers; in the top position, as there are men,” said Savage the day before. “I’m glad to see that this year it looks like things have turned around, and we are actually seeing a lot of women, and a lot of minority filmmakers making some big strides in film.”
Savage shared during the awards ceremony that half of this year’s festival films were submitted by female filmmakers.
“Film festivals are like the trade shows for the filmmakers,” said Festival Executive Producer, Trinity Houston. “Our goal is to be a festival that’s big but that still really takes care of their filmmakers.”
Per regulations, film festivals must be 10-years-old before maturing to Academy Awards stature, and Savage and Houston plan to deliver.
“We should qualify before our 10th year; it looks like we’ll get our Academy accreditation before next year,” said Savage. “I think we’re doing pretty well.”
To see a complete list of films and award winners, go to

See next week’s issue for exclusive interviews and photos with the filmmakers and celebrities, including Stephen Savage and Trinity Houston, Violet Spataro from the Ellen Show, actress Erika Christensen, and filmmakers Zack Brown, Derek Talib, and Jeff Fry!

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