NYC Hosts the First Time Fest for Directors

The first annual First Time Fest is set to begin March 1st and run through March 4th in New York City and its a tremendous salute to the independent film spirit and the importance of diversity in film and helping new artists to get their start. The mission is to showcase the work of first time filmmakers both locally and globally. The work of 12 finalists will be judged by a panel of 4 experts, as well as the audience, and the winner will receive theatrical distribution from Cinema Libre.

In addition to showcasing the work of these twelve debut directors, the festival will be screening the film debuts of some of our great established directors like Sofia Coppola, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Todd Solondz, and Darren Aronofsky, and Martin Scorsese will be giving the first John Huston Award to Darren Aronofsky.    Its an amazing undertaking and we’re excited to support it. If you’re in the New York area, go to to find out how to get tickets and for the full schedule, and visit their twitter @firsttimefest.

sat down with the co-founders and directors of the festival, Johanna Bennett, and Mandy Ward to talk about the event. Some excerpts from the interview appear below.

 * * *

Mandy and Johanna Talk About First Films and Directors

Ron Bennington:  First of all, congratulations, because I’ve never heard of a festival like this before.  It’s actually a brilliant idea.  

Johanna Bennett:  When we first had the idea – we had no idea it had never been done before.

Ron Bennington:  Is that right?  

Both:  Yeah.

Johanna Bennett:  We had no clue.

Ron Bennington:  Well, the thing about it that’s great is you give some young people a chance to have the first time.  But the fact that you’re bringing back other established people and going over their first film –  we’ve had a great time before you got here talking about who’s made the best first movies of all time.  And some people have rallied after making a bad first movie, but some – if you look at a and you look back and think – oh my God, if you go back through it all.  Look at these things that were there early on.  

Mandy Ward:  Sure.  Well that started as a short at Sundance.  So even where they started from and where they went.

Ron Bennington:  Alright.  Good point.  Do you consider the short the first film?

Johanna Bennett:  No.  The first feature length.  What’s your favorite first film?

Ron Bennington:  Well, I guess you would say “Citizen Kane”.  

Mandy Ward:  No, that will do it.  That’s good.

Ron Bennington:  But I would have to think the first film that made my jaw drop and I thought movies are being changed.  It’s a bit of a cliche, but “Reservoir Dogs”.

Johanna Bennett:  No, of course.  It’s brilliant.

Ron Bennington:  The opening scene of “Reservoir Dogs”, I’m like – why haven’t I seen people talk like this?  Why haven’t I seen this look before?  And I think this has changed things.  But if we go back to the 90’s, one after…every year we had a great first time director.  

Mandy Ward:  Yeah.  There was a chunk there for awhile in the 90’s that was doing well.  Sam Mendes, “American Beauty”.

Johanna Bennett:  There seemed to be like…maybe it was that money was floating for stuff like that.  Because you see, one of the issues of why First Time Fest kind of came into being – is Mandy would say things to me like – you know, I keep seeing these things cross my desk at her producing job – that are incredible projects that I can’t get them financed because it’s a first time screenwriter or first time director or something like that.  And sometimes I think it just has to do with the general climate of what’s going on in film financing.  So, as you were pointing out, in the 90’s – I think there was just a little bit more of a free flow of money.

Ron Bennington:  There was a belief that we all wanted to see something new.  Because, I mean, we were talking about first time films – alright, Robert Redford’s first film, fantastic, but he had been around in film for years before he made “Ordinary People”.  But then if you go over to who didn’t even know what he was doing and made something great – that’s a totally different animal.

Johanna Bennett:  You know what you’re pointing out is something that I keep trying to express to people over and over again.  Each one of those films that you just said – Kevin Smith with “Clerks”, Orson Welles with “Citizen Kane”, with “Reservoir Dogs” – all of those films which seem to have nothing in common, have one thing in common.  Each and every one of those films completely informed us, the audience, of what we were in store for.

* * *

Mandy and Johanna Talk About Some of the Established Directors Coming to First Film Fest

Ron Bennington:  I want to go over the First Time Fest and some of the line up because you’ve got these young people bringing in their films.  But what I love is you’re bringing back some really great people to talk about their first film and what I love about that is – no one has probably asked them about this in a lot of years.  I mean this is their real passion I would imagine.  

Mandy Ward:  They are really connected.  And what we realize with all the people that we’ve invited that are coming like Sofia Coppola for the first night with “The Virgin Suicides” – she’s invited all her friends and they’re all coming.

Ron Bennington:  Wow.  

Johanna Bennett:  Yeah.  I don’t think anybody’s asked Sofia to do any kind of retrospective yet.  She’s young.  She’s a young filmmaker.  It hasn’t been that many films yet.  So, I think that’s why she said yes.  But at the same time, it’s just been this amazing thing.  I keep turning to Mandy like – I can’t believe everybody’s saying “yes” to us.  I just can’t believe it.

Mandy and JohannaMandy Ward:  I can believe it, but…(laughs)

Ron Bennington:  Who was the first person to say “yes”?

Johanna Bennett:  Martin Scorsese.  (They laugh)

Ron Bennington:  Okay, so then I would say yes too, after I heard that.  

Johanna Bennett:  But we weren’t allowed to announce Martin Scorsese because we didn’t know what he was saying yes to exactly because he didn’t know.  Because he’s in post.  So, we got Martin Scorsese out of post-production.  Out of the editing room.  That’s pretty…I can’t believe it.  I can’t believe he’s doing it.  I’m so grateful.

Ron Bennington:  And he’s giving out an award to who?  

Johanna Bennett:  He’s giving an award to Darren Aronofsky.

Ron Bennington:  See.  This is insane.  This is insane.  

Mandy Ward:  Which is my favorite filmmaker, all time.

Ron Bennington:  Oh, absolutely another guy who changed things.  

Johanna Bennett:  Oh right.  Totally changed things.  And we’re giving the John Huston Award for achievement in cinema.  John Huston of course, his first movie was “The Maltese Falcon”.  So, like “Citizen Kane” – right out of the box with a masterpiece.  And we’re trying to design the award and stuff and we didn’t have any time, so I asked my dad to do a charcoal sketch of John Huston and that’s going to be the actual award.

Ron Bennington:  So you’re going to hand over a Tony Bennett charcoal sketch?  

Johanna Bennett:  Yeah.

Ron Bennington:  That’s an unbelievable idea.  Now, here’s the weird thing.  Who would have not known that there wasn’t already a John Huston award?  

Johanna Bennett:  I think that there are in like European festivals, but I don’t think anybody’s made it like a big award in show business in the U.S.  Like I don’t think it’s like the Academy with the Irving Thalberg Award or something like that.  But there are awards out there, I just don’t think anybody’s like talked about it the way that we have.

* * *

Johanna  Talks about The Players Club

Ron Bennington:  And the Players Club is another really cool thing.  Explain to people around the country exactly what the Players Club is.  

players clubJohanna Bennett:  The Players Club was founded by Edwin Booth who was John Wilkes Booth’s brother.  And at that time, Edwin Booth was like…I don’t even know how to describe him.  He was like a George Clooney or somebody like that.  Like literally, there was no bigger star.  And there wasn’t radio and there wasn’t television.  People had to go to the theater.  He was a very big deal.  And his youngest brother shot Abe Lincoln.  And after that, as an apology to the country – he retired from the stage.  And literally, America demanded that he come back on stage.  And he also found, like everybody else in show business at that time, anyone’s name associated with the theater was very very like bottom of the barrel because of the assassination.  Not that anything’s changed.  (laughs)

Ron Bennington:  No.  

Johanna Bennett:  But anyway, so he got together with like Mark Twain and John Singer Sargent and maybe also the president of the stock exchange at the time and said – let’s make a club.  Because in those days, those private clubs – you have to remember it was like the age of innocence, 1888, right?  So those private clubs were the only places that – if you didn’t belong to a club, you really weren’t anybody.  And no club would have them at that point.  So, those guys got together and created their own club and I think that their reasoning was so that members of the bill, meaning anyone associated with the theatrical bill – would be able to mingle and associate and elevate themselves with other artists…with like-minded in other fields of art.  And they meant like law and architecture and things like that, yeah.

Ron Bennington:  And so, this has been going on for that long.  

Johanna Bennett:  Yeah. And it’s a totally weird, haunted crazy place.

Mandy Ward:  On, of course, Gramercy Park South where you’re looking at the beautiful park.

* * *

Johanna and Mandy Talk About Putting the Festival Together

Ron Bennington:  How long did it take you guys to put this together?  Because this is really…

Johanna Bennett:  It’s about 3 1/2 years since we had the idea.

Ron Bennington:  3 1/2 years since the first idea.  

Johanna Bennett:  Nobody would give us any money to do it.

Mandy Ward:  Yeah.  Nobody would help us.  They were like – theatrical distribution…

Johanna Bennett:  They were like – this is the most incredible idea.  That’s great.  Let me know when you get it off the ground.

Mandy Ward:  Yeah.  I want to be involved the second year.  (laughs)  We really struggled, but we really believed in what we were doing.  And we were waiting to find the right person who was going to connect to it as much as we did.  And once we start building that – of finding the proper people to connect – it didn’t get any easier.  But it did get more supportive.  And you have to have support.

Ron Bennington:  And the goal for the first time directors is to get distribution.  

Johanna Bennett:  Well, the criteria for entering festival was it had to be your first time at directing, cinematography, screenwriting, editing, or film scoring.  Did I miss anything?

Mandy Ward:  Producing.

Johanna Bennett:  Or producing.  And we were unable to clarify that to the film community or to make it clear enough for them. And what we ended up getting was movies that were all first time directors.  And I was talking to…ASCAP is, by the way, putting a panel together for us called “From Rock to Score”.  Rock stars that become famous film scorers.  Well, not famous.  They just become film scorers.  So, I was talking to ASCAP about it saying – my heart broke a little bit that I couldn’t get the composers in on this one.  And it was literally that the producers didn’t realize was that’s what was happening for us.  So, then after one of those criterias is met – the films are judged on…really there’s one criteria for judging them.  Does this movie deserve to be seen by the rest of the world?  Or does it not?  That’s it.  Very simple.

* * *

Mandy and Johanna Talk About The Future of the Festival

Ron Bennington:  This is kind of mind blowing.  I’ve never really seen someone leap into this and what I love it about it too – is the first time stuff is going to keep this fed into it.  And then what you’re doing with the nights of people coming in and showing off and talking about these films, just think of the amount of people that I would love to see…I dont’ know, Rob Reiner come in and talk about “Spinal Tap”.  

Mandy Ward:  Yeah, we want him next year.  Rob, if you’re out there.  You have to come to New York.  (laughs)

Ron Bennington:  Well, you know who comes through all the time and had an amazing first film and stayed in that style is Ed Burns, who’s just down in Tribeca.  

Johanna Bennett:  We were corresponding with him.

Mandy Ward:  We tried.  He was unavailable this year, but hopefully we will be able to get him next year.

Ron Bennington:  But he’s certainly one of those guys that came up with it, did it on his own and still feels like I’d rather do stuff in that fashion.  And the last film that he did, I think may have been the best film that he ever did.  

Mandy Ward:  I saw it.  It was wonderful.

Ron Bennington:  The Christmas one.  And he also was able to kind of put that out in different ways, yes it’s in the theater, but also On Demand at the same time.  

Mandy Ward:  Yeah, didn’t they like release it before pre-theater or On Demand?  Because I that’s how I watched it because I was in Georgia at home, but it was amazing actually.  I paid attention to that a bit because we were trying to get him at the time.

* * *

Ron Bennington:  It’s going to be an amazing time.  If you want to get out for this – not only to see these films, but any of these panels that will be going on, to have the opportunity to walk in and hear Philip Seymour Hoffman talk about film.  Christine Vachon talk about film.  Sofia Coppola who was to me, one of the really big surprises – that first film she did, “The Virgin Suicides” blew me away.  Second film, I thought was even better.  She’s turned into this great filmmaker.  And there was a weird thing, that because of her last name, instead of working for her, we were all waiting for her to fall on her face.

Mandy Ward:  Oh yeah, but boy, what a point of view.  I mean it’s hers.  It’s nobody’s else’s.  It’s not her family’s.

Ron Bennington:  It’s certainly so much different than anyone else in her family has done.  So, she’s been this amazing find.  And I never really heard her talk at length about this.  

Mandy Ward:  So are you going to come?

Ron Bennington:  Yeah.  I’m definitely going to be there.  

Johanna Bennett:  We just had this happen yesterday or the day before yesterday.  Michael Shannon is coming from “Boardwalk Empire” to do a stand alone, Friday at 2 o’clock at the Loew’s AMC.  We have this amazing panel that’s also put together at the last minute for one of our main sponsors – is Morgan Stanley.  And they wanted a diversity in cinema panel.  And so, we’ve got Jenny Lumet who’s the daughter of the incredible Sidney Lumet and the granddaughter of Lena Horne and who’s an incredible screenwriter.  She wrote “Rachel Getting Married” which is a beautiful indy film.

Ron Bennington:  Oh, I love it.  

Johanna Bennett:  And Frida Torresblanco who produced “Pan’s Labyrinth” and we have a small guy that nobody’s ever heard of – Harry Belafonte.  (laughs)

first time festRon Bennington:  Okay, so you make do.  

Johanna Bennett:  So, Harry’s coming and then he’s going to do a stand alone for us just after that panel.  So I hope that everybody will want to come to that and buy tickets to it and that will be on Saturday, the 2nd at 11 in the morning.  It’s a brunch. It’s lovely.  Please come.  You’re invited.

Ron Bennington:  I’ll be there.  I love the idea of this.  First Time Fest.  I’ve never heard of anything like this before because it’s never been done before.  And talk about the independent spirit that you guys had this idea 3 years ago and stayed with until you got it done.  The Twitter is @firsttimefest.  Johanna and Mandy, thank you so much.  

Both:  Thank you so much.

Johanna Bennett: We really appreciate it.

Ron Bennington:  And congratulations with all this.  It’s just mind blowing.  I’ll see you next year.  


Get more information at and on twitter @firsttimefest 


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You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews