By Anna Grace Usery
Melanie Addington is quite the movie buff. If those words cause you to envision a staunch and stuffy critic with pretentious tastes, think again. Addington’s bright and bubbly personality certainly deems her a delight in the community. Drawing from her California upbringing, she meticulously molded her love for creativity, film and storytelling into a career as the executive director of the Oxford Film Festival. HottyToddy.com’s Anna Grace Usery sat down with Addington to discuss her story.
Usery: Melanie, tell our readers a little about where you grew up.
Addington: That’s a long question, actually. I was born in Upland, California which is outside of Los Angeles, but then grew up in San Diego. In high school I moved to Minnesota and then immediately to Atlanta. Then I moved back to California. It was a weird transition of high school – I went to five different high schools.
Usery: Did your family have some sort of military influence?
Addington: My dad was a higher up in the mortgage industry, and that was sort of a booming time. He kept getting head-hunted and we moved all over the country. We finally made it back to California where we stayed until I moved here in 2002.
Usery: When I think of the larger metropolitan areas of California I think of cinema, movies and storytelling. Did film have an impact on you during your childhood?
Addington: Yes! I watched a movie called “Howard the Duck” when I was a kid, which was a terrible movie. It was Marvel’s first attempt and they bombed. Watching that and seeing what Marvel does now is amazing. But I loved it. I was like, ‘How did they make that?’ So I got interested in movies at a young age. My little suburban area of San Diego wasn’t a big movie area, although a kid was cast in the movie “Kindergarten Cop.” That was our big claim to fame. I got more interested in film in high school and college, but all the film programs were impacted in southern California in the 90s so I was a film minor. I didn’t really do anything with film until I moved to Mississippi.
Usery: Are you more versed on the production side of things?
Addington: I was never an actor. Every time someone tries to put me in front of the camera they realize that it’s a mistake (laughs). I’m more in production in both my day job at the festival and aspects of what I do outside the festival. In fact, this week is our community film so I’m acting as producer and, this year, caterer which I’m very excited about.
Usery: How did you get to Mississippi?
Addington: My parents were still living in Orange County, California. I got a journalism and film degree in undergrad and was trying to figure out what to do. Ole Miss was close to family, but also far enough away from where I grew up. I came here, first, to further my journalism career. I started working on campus and really fell in love with it. I did a lot of things like orientation, the art department, etc. and ended up getting a higher ed degree. I started volunteering for the Oxford Film Festival and ended up going that route instead. I did a hybrid of things because I love journalism, education and film and got to explore all three in Mississippi.
Usery: You’ve been with the Oxford Film Festival for 13 years, correct?
Addington: Yes, so I’ve been paid since 2015 (laughs), but I volunteered full-time along with a lot of other people for many years. The festival started the year I moved here, but I just attended. I don’t think it was until year two or three until I became involved as a volunteer. That was because Michelle Emanuel, who was a co-director for a long time, did screening committees and let people watch movies. That’s my favorite thing to do, so I got involved and kept saying ‘Well what if you did this?’ every time she had an issue with the festival. Finally she said ‘Why don’t you do that with us?’ I said I would.
Usery: Early on working with the festival, what drew you in a caused your passion for film to flair?
Addington: Going back to growing up in southern California, there’s independent film everywhere. We had all kinds of movies I thought other places had access to. I thought you could go any time to the theater and watch a great new independent film. When I moved here, as much as I love Malco, I learned there was pretty much just your mainstream films available. The festival for me was a draw of ‘Oh, that’s what I’m so used to having access to all the time and we only have it once a year.’ It drew me in because it felt like home and it was something creative to do.
Usery: Tell us a little bit about the upcoming festival. What are you excited about?
Addington: Yes, it’s February 6-9. Although, we do have nine events before that. We do at least two events per month. I don’t know what I’m excited about yet because we are still taking submissions. There are some vague things I’m really excited about.
1) The first two years of the festival they had a student category and then it got removed. We’ve added it back this year. I teach in the film minor — the Film Fest Programming class — every fall, so I’ve worked closely with the theater department. We’ve met a couple times this year and they’re going to do a whole lot with the festival. We going to be meeting with some MFA students to get them involved as well. We thought since we have more students interested in film now here in Oxford we need to add that category back. I’m very excited because my programming class is actually going to be deciding the best student films out there. I have no idea what those are yet because we have until November for that.
2) Every year we do special screenings. I love that Julie Aubrey, when she took over the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, immediately reached out. She’s so great at community, so now we have a big opening night at the Ford Center every year. Everything else is still in play.
Usery: You’re bringing a multitude of films to Mississippi that don’t get shown in most of the conservative parts of the southern U.S., including LGBTQ+ films. Can you tell us more about that?
Addington: When HB1523 came along that really made me mad because that’s not the Mississippi I know. So, I talked to a friend of mine, Brian Whisenant, who is now the programmer. I’m all about inclusion, and we’ve always shown LGBTQ+ films in our festival. It’s not new for us. But we felt we had to do something. That was our way of fighting back was saying ‘OK. We’ll show even more of them.’ Those were the tools in our toolbox. We lost some funding and a couple of sponsors for that. That was a hard choice but one that our board, that ranges from all political parties, all agreed we needed to do and make a stand. The turnout has not been as great as what I wanted it to be, because we are bringing some really amazing films to a place that are not being shown anywhere else in the state. The Oscars Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences recognized our efforts and gave us $6,000 to expand it. I’ve been trying to get in contact with them every year and finally one of the main people called me and said ‘You guys are fighting the fight there. You need to ask for money for that.’ They’re really supportive that we’re challenging the status quo in Mississippi. In the past we could only have room for three features but now we’re expanding to five. We’re also doing a special screening. There’s a filmmaker—Malcolm Ingram—he did a film called “Small Town Gay Bar” ten years ago and he’s made a part two. It hasn’t played a lot of places yet. He’s going to do his Mississippi premiere with us. I’m hoping that will draw people in. There have been several people like Jonathan Kent Adams that have given us great film suggestions, like “Fishy” which ended up winning last year. We have some support, but I hope more people will take a chance. There are some great films in that category that are labeled LGBT, but they’re stories like any other stories.
Usery: What do you think the impact of storytelling provides a small community like Oxford?
Addington: I think it’s at the heart of what we do. It’s part of our mission. Not just in showing movies, but doing the community film for the past eight years people learn how to make their own movies. We started a kids camp this year for the same reason. You have so many unique stories, especially in Mississippi. People have such imaginations. Working with the kids this year really taught us that. They would suggest we make a movie about something and I’d say ‘Oh my God that’s a good idea. I wish I knew that at 8.’ It give you a chance 1) to tell your story in a creative way, just like writing a story or song. But it’s different than other art styes because it’s collaborative. You have to work with other people and it’s bigger than just you. You may be alone as a scriptwriter, but in general, making a film takes so many people to share a vision. I love it.
Usery: Throughout your film career, have you met any producers, actors, etc. who have a lot of notoriety?
Addington: Yes. We’ve brought a lot of people here to Mississippi. One of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life is Tim Blake Nelson, who’s in most Cohen Brothers movies. He was in a James Franco movie, and James Franco also came that year. There are a lot of genuine people in this industry and a lot of non-genuine people in this industry, but there aren’t a lot who are genuinely so fascinating and smart at everything. We took him to Rowan Oak and he knew everything about Faulkner. I just want to sit and talk to him all the time. What’s been great is watching careers bloom. I’ve been friends with Tate Taylor since he did a very small Indie short we played year two or three called “Chicken Party.” No one knew who he was and now he makes huge movies. Meeting Rutger Hauer was amazing. Whether people are on their way up or way down in their career, it’s good to treat everyone nice in this industry because you never know the next Oscar winner.
Usery: What’s your favorite movie?
Addington: I don’t know. It’s the hardest question. It probably changes 25 times. There are always go-tos. Two movies that impacted me are “The Godfather 2” and “Howard the Duck.” I watch so many 80s movies and consumed them. I would watched “Labyrinth” every day for weeks trying to figure out how they did the stair scene. I didn’t just watch movies as a kid. I tried to consume them to understand how they were made.
Usery: What’s your favorite thing about the Oxford community?
Addington: I was waiting for an appointment when I started scrolling through Facebook, and I laughed 20 different times because of all the different people in this community and their different posts. I’m really lucky. Yes, Oxford is a small town and people always ask me ‘Why would you leave California?’ I meet the most unique and interesting people in this town. If they’re just coming through Square Books or if they’re just locals with fascinating stories, I’m lucky how many fascinating and unique people live here. I don’t think every town always has that — or they’re too busy to notice it. You can really see it in Oxford.