The Nantucket Film Festival: A Reason to Leave the Beach

It's pouring rain on Nantucket, but we don't mind. We're here for the The Nantucket Film Festival, which opened June 22nd with screenings of Cars 2 and Buck.

This is the festival's 16th year. "In our early years, it was a much more ragtag event," Artistic Director Mystelle Brabbee said in a phone interview two days before the opening. "We'd go to the beach between screenings."

It's a lot more polished now. This year, the second we've come, the five-day event includes morning coffee with writers, directors and producers, late-night storytelling with Anne Meara, and an afternoon session with the latest giants of comedy -- including Seth Meyers and Jerry Seinfeld -- and 55 films.

Entertaining, to be sure, but what's the point of having a film festival? There are hundreds of them worldwide, and more seem to pop up every year. Some insiders complain that they've outlived their usefulness, are expensive to attend and are no longer an effective way to connect filmmakers with deep-pocketed distributers.

Success at a big festival like Sundance or Toronto can still vault a film into theaters or onto cable, but the scope of the Nantucket festival is more modest. There aren't many premieres here; the festival is more a feel-good artistic enterprise that boosts the local economy (a goal not to be sneered at given the toll the recession's taken in recent years). And there's a chance that some buzz can help boost a film's exposure on iTunes, Amazon and Netflix.

According to Brabbee, what makes Nantucket unusual is its distinctive focus on screen writing and storytelling. "Our films are hand-selected to represent the best-written works out there," Brabbee said. She and her colleagues are motivated by a desire to support budding screenwriters and nourish artistic expression. "The island has been an enclave for writers over the centuries, so this is a nice continuation of the tradition."

She's right: the island's whaling history provided Melville with inspiration for Moby Dick, and was home to Mr. Rogers and New York Times columnist Russell Baker. Nathaniel Philbrick, who wrote about the same vengeful whale that haunted Melville, also is a resident.

More than 10,000 people have signed up for screenings this year, according to Brabbee. To keep it connected to the islanders who live here year-round, the organizers make a special effort to screen regional films, and support local institutions like the high school, where they run a teen filmmaking program, and the Nantucket Screenwriters Colony, which cultivates emerging talent.

This year's movies include Senna, about the eponymous Brazilian Formula One driver, Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, an inside account of the paper's brush with internet-induced obsolescence, and The Other F Word, about aging punk-rockers' collision with fatherhood. Among other festival highlights are Margin Call, Submarine, Terry, and Unraveled.

The island's beaches, top-tier restaurants and abundant shops make it an attractive destination even without actors like Vera Farmiga, who is being honored here, and directing-legend Paul Haggis, who will be interviewed Friday. (Still, it's comforting to know that this weekend you might not feel out of place wearing jeans and flip-flops rather than island favorites Lily Pulitzer and Tory Burch.) Most other film festivals happen to be held at appealing locales -- the south of France, the mountains of Colorado, Maui, Jackson Hole, Santa Fe, to name a few -- putting Nantucket's in good company.

According to organizers, even the pristine beaches and sophisticated shops aren't enough to lure attendees away from the screenings. That was true for us last year. Despite perfect weather we were happy to head indoors and scramble for seats in the dark high school auditorium and other cramped venues. Plus, we never knew when we might run into Elizabeth Shue, Sarah Silverman or Zach Galifianakis.