Courtney Pledger has spent close to 30 years getting original film projects to the screen.
Now she is doing her part to get people to the screenings.
Pledger brought a Hollywood pedigree and resume to Little Rock when in 2012 she left Los Angeles to take the executive director post at the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute, the umbrella organization for the state’s growing number of film festivals.
A veteran actor and successful producer, Pledger’s work for AMPI the past two-plus years has included continuing to grow and promote the Little Rock Film Festival, doing her part to save the troubled Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and throwing AMPI’s weight and resources behind the state’s other film festivals springing up from Bentonville to Texarkana.
“Festivals are just fantastic cultural and community events,” Pledger says.
The nonprofit AMPI, founded by noted Little Rock filmmakers Brent and Craig Renaud in 2011, works cooperatively with the Arkansas Film Commission and commissioner Christopher Crane. But while the commission works primarily to draw film projects to Arkansas and nurtures the work of the state’s filmmakers, the AMPI promotes completed works by such filmmakers, or films with Arkansas-related subjects, through the film festivals.
“The concept being there’s so much going on in the state culturally in film in addition to what Christopher Crane is doing at the film office,” Pledger says.
Her position brought Pledger from Los Angeles, where from 2009-2011 she worked for the publishing and film entity Relativity Media, which developed properties into film projects like “Oblivion,” starring Tom Cruise, and “Hercules,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
With a twin son and daughter still in high school at the time, Pledger was happy to relocate to Little Rock and lend her expertise to the AMPI.
“It made sense,” she says.
Festivals under the AMPI umbrella include Little Rock and Hot Springs, in their ninth and 24th years respectively, as well as festivals — either in their first or second year — in Eureka Springs, Texarkana, Jonesboro and El Dorado. There are also offshoot events offered by the Little Rock Film Festival: The Little Rock Horror Picture Show and the Reel Civil Rights Film Festival.
Pledger wants to see the festivals take their place in each city’s arts community — alongside the theater, galleries and symphonies — to promote film culture and encourage tourism.
“It’s another spoke in that cultural wheel,” she says.
Stage To Screen
Pledger was born in Little Rock but grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, returning to the Arkansas capital frequently to visit family as she grew up. She pursued an acting career that took her to New York, where she performed in commercials and plays, then followed her muse to the West Coast.
She appeared in the NBC-TV series “Walking Tall” and had had a number of guest roles, then opportunities to produce came her way.
Producing, Pledger says, is not something people are born knowing how to do.
“Nobody does. Just do it,” she says.
Pledger first worked in television production and among her projects was the 1990 TV movie “A Killing in a Small Town,” based on the book “Evidence of Love,” which won an Emmy for Barbara Hershey.
“How about those buzz words?” says Pledger, in full producer mode, pointing out how the title change opted for target words like “killing” and “small town,” designed to draw attention while appealing to middle American demographics.
Pledger also produced the 1990, ABC-TV movie “Challenger” about the 1986 space shuttle disaster. Pulling back the Hollywood curtain, Pledger explains that the movie was intended to be about the NASA whistleblower who revealed the technical oversight that caused the explosion, only to wind up, thanks to studio tinkering, being much more about the doomed astronauts.
Pledger produced pilots and worked as an executive for people like the late Ray Stark (who produced “Annie,” “Steel Magnolias” and “Funny Girl”) and the late Dan Melnick (“Altered States,” “Straw Dogs” and “All That Jazz”) who in 1982 co-wrote an expose titled “Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street.”
Pledger gravitated to London in the early 2000s, spending five years overseas and working with producer Sarah Radclyffe, who co-founded the production company Working Title Films in the mid-1980s. It is one of the UK’s most significant production companies, but Radclyffe wanted to strike out on her own and proposed that Pledger work with her on projects rooted in UK children’s literature.
That resulted in the 2009 film “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” and “B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations,” an animated film awaiting a release date and featuring the voice work of actors Bill Murray, Seth Rogen and Melissa McCarthy.
Stopping off in Little Rock, before her most recent Los Angeles gig, Pledger had conversations with people like Crane and Gary Newton (Little Rock Film Commission chairman) and the discussions may have at least held ideas for an entity like AMPI, which the Renaud brothers — who created the Little Rock Film Festival — then founded in 2011.
“I think it was a great idea and several people were thinking along those lines and Craig Renaud and Brent Renaud said ‘Let’s name it’ and that was the first step,” says Pledger, who was announced as AMPI executive director in August, 2012.
Not long after its formation and not long after Pledger arrived from California, AMPI naturally took an interest in the struggling Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, the oldest documentary film festival in North America.
The event’s chairman of the board Susan Altrui, who moved into the post after serving as the festival’s marketing director, brought Pledger on board as interim director shortly after Pledger’s arrival in 2012.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’ ” Pledger says.
If she ever regretted those words Pledger doesn’t let on, but at the time the festival had sprung more leaks than James Cameron’s “Titanic.”
Arvest Bank filed a foreclosure suit on more than $300,000 in loans on the Malco Theater, the festival board owed close to $20,000 in taxes, there were an additional two years worth of unpaid bills to local vendors, many longtime backers had dropped their support and then, with the event scheduled for its usual October dates, an August micro storm severely damaged the Malco and rendered it useless.
“It was really us against the world in those early days,” Pledger says.
Thanks to AMPI and its inventory of state-of-the-art screening and projection equipment, the festival was able to relocate to the Arlington Hotel, turning the ballroom and other large spaces into theaters.
“We would not have been able to rescue Hot Springs without that AMPI equipment,” Pledger says.
With Altrui working on relieving the debt and Pledger working on creative ideas and logistics, the festival is back on track and is designated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as an Oscar-qualifying festival in the category of documentary short subjects. It is a distinction that puts the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival among only 32 such designated festivals in the world, allowing it to take its place alongside New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, Sundance, Canada’s Hot Docs Film Festival and the American Film Institute’s AFIDOCS.
“It’s exciting,” Pledger says. “The Academy just awarded Hot Springs a grant for an Academy-sponsored sidebar which is ‘Women Behind the Lens.’ ”
Pledger points out the money comes at a time when the Academy has been cutting back on grants and that the sidebar’s theme dovetails with the women and minorities theme planned for the new Bentonville Film Festival, launched by actor and advocate Geena Davis.
“So we’re glad to be promoting women in two festivals here in Arkansas,” Pledger says.
With her oldest daughter Miranda apprenticing with a Shakespeare group in Atlanta and her twins India and Liam now out of school after graduating Pulaski Academy, Pledger plans to continue to produce, but her heart is definitely in her AMPI work.
“Once you put your heart and soul into saving something it’s not a light commitment,” Pledger says.
While Hot Springs is known for being solely focused on documentaries and Little Rock has the glamor and prestige of being the state’s foremost multi-genre event, Pledger is excited about all the state’s fledgling festivals.
Some will have a technological wrinkle, like the event in Jonesboro, she says, some lean toward independent films, as in Eureka Springs and some, like the Charles B. Pierce Film Festival in Texarkana or the Reel Civil Rights Film Festival in Little Rock have history as well as name recognition behind them.
Pierce, the Texarkana event’s late, namesake filmmaker (“Legend of Boggy Creek,” “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”) claimed to have been related to famous, Arkansas-born football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Hence Pierce’s middle initial “B.”
The Reel Civil Rights Film Festival is presented each September close to the dates Little Rock Central High was desegregated in 1957.
“Some lean to narrative, and have a few documentaries and some are still defining themselves,” Pledger says of the festivals.
In addition to working with the festivals and related events, AMPI generates its own unique happenings. In 2012 it launched the STAR awards to honor Arkansans with outstanding entertainment careers. The first honorees were Glen Campbell, for his work in music, film and television and ESPN broadcaster and producer Jerry McKinnis for his global outdoor programming.
Up next for AMPI is its first fundraising gala planned for later this year, with longtime local television personality Craig O’Neill being honored for his contributions to media. The organization will be forming an advisory board intended to include significant filmmakers with Arkansas ties — Pledger mentioned director Jeff Nichols and actor/director Joey Lauren Adams.
Promotionally, Pledger wants to reach out to sports media outlets because, while she can’t give much away yet, the Hot Springs festival will have a sports-related world premiere.
Meanwhile she praises the Little Rock Film Festival — and its creators the Renaud brothers — as it continues to grow and prosper.
Last year MovieMaker.com named the Little Rock Film Festival, held in May, among its “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee.”
“It’s one of the few festivals founded and run by filmmakers,” Pledger says.
The Renauds, who grew up in Little Rock, founded the festival on the claim they felt it was “unacceptable” a city of Little Rock’s size not have a film event of its own. The duo, with multiple awards that include Emmy and Director’s Guild nominations, culled the best parts of the many festivals in which their work has appeared and Little Rock has welcomed others whose work has been screened at events like Cannes, Sundance and Tribeca.
Attendance doubled almost every year since the first Little Rock Film Festival, and over time it expanded from three days to a week-long event while also earning national notice and appearing in a number of national rankings.
Helping to make the Little Rock Film Festival unique is the opportunity for audiences to interact with the filmmakers. Many screenings are followed by Q&As with the on-screen talent and creators, while the festival’s scope and Little Rock’s cozy size bring the filmmakers and viewers closer together than at some of the more media-saturated events.
Pledger notes with some pride, the two oldest film events in the state, Little Rock and Hot Springs, both are run by professionals who work outside the state.
“Tribeca has their Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal and we have our Renaud brothers,” she says.
She avoids mentioning herself by name, but then, Pledger is used to working behind the scenes.
Arkansas Motion Picture Institute film festivals
- Delta Flix Film and Media Festival - (Jonesboro) April 7-11
- Eureka Springs Indie Film Festival - April 23-25
- Little Rock Film Festival - May 11-17
- Charles B. Pierce Film Festival* - (Texarkana) June
- Little Rock Horror Picture Show# - Aug. 6-9
- Reel Civil Rights Film Festival*# - September
- El Dorado Film Festival - Sept. 17-19
- Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival - Oct. 9-18
*Exact dates TBA
#Offshoots of Little Rock Film Festival
The Arkansas Film Commission — A state office whose purpose is to support projects by Arkansas artists and to attract and promote film production within the state. Also the parent organization for the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute and Arkansas Production Alliance.
Arkansas Motion Picture Institute — The nonprofit, umbrella organization for the state’s growing number of film festivals, including mainstays like the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Little Rock Film Festival. AMPI promotes and celebrates completed bodies of work, often by Arkansas filmmakers or pertaining to Arkansas-related subjects.
Arkansas Production Alliance — In partnership with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Film Commission and the Northwest Arkansas Council, the APA is a conglomerate of stakeholders interested in film as an economic development tool and means to promote the creative economy. The APA provides producers with single-contact access to all the state has to offer a production — from on-camera talent to technical know-how to incentives.