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Judge Joel - Associate Editor Feeds Passion For Cinema As Omaha Film Festival Judge

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By Joe Foreman, Editor

Joel Stevens’ love of cinema began at a young age – 4 to be exact.

“My mom took me to see my first movie in 1977, “The Rescuers,” Stevens recalled. “She has a love for movies and passed that love down to me.”

For Stevens, associate editor at The Opinion-Tribune, watching movies is more than a pastime – it’s a passion that led to his invitation nearly a decade ago to join the panel of judges for the annual Omaha Film Festival.

“I got to know the three people who started the festival – Marc Longbrake, Jeremy Decker and Jason Levering – and we’d talk movies,” Stevens said. “They asked me about eight years ago if I’d be interested in judging entries and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

The Omaha Film Festival, established in 2005, showcases over 90 films each year – selected from over 500 entries from around the world.  Narrative features, documentaries, short films and animated shorts are screened during the festival, along with a special selection of Nebraska-made films. Selected filmmakers are invited to attend the festival and are given the opportunity he audience after each screening.

The festival is held in early March, but most of Stevens’ “work” as a judge of feature films usually begins in September or October. This year, he watched 48 features, down from the nearly 70 he judged for the 2018 festival.

“It used to be, we (judges) would get a canvas bag of DVDs and work our way through the stack and then pass them on to the next judge,” Stevens said. “Now, everything is available streaming through a couple different services so I can watch on my iPad or Smart TV.”

After watching a film, Stevens is required to complete a digital form to grade out the entry. Judges give their scores for everything from originality and production value to the acting and plot.

Not all films are festival worthy, Stevens said, but he follows a simple rule when judging entries.

“I never turn a film off in the middle,” he said. “If I start it, I watch it all. I think all of the movies deserve that. I think since I’ve been judging, I’ve only turned one film off and didn’t finish it. It was just terrible.”

So, what does Stevens look for in a film when deciding if it’s worthy of consideration for the festival?

“I really like films that look and feel like they cost more than their budget,” he said. “A lot of these films are really low budget; so if they look like they cost more, that impresses me. And of course, I like a good story, one that’s smart and has good performances. Nothing bugs me more than terrible acting.”

After all the films have been viewed and scored, judges convene (usually in January) to compare notes.

“We talk about our top scoring films,” Stevens said. “Usually they (festival directors) ask what our favorite five or six movies were and we talk about why.”

The judges provide their input, but the decision on which films make the final cut and which films take home awards is made by the festival directors.

The Omaha Film Festival has received national acclaim, recognized in 2015 as one of Movie Maker Magazine’s “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee.”

The festival is promoted as an event to celebrate the artistic, educational and historical importance of motion pictures. It gives independent film artists a platform for sharing their work and creating a dialogue with the community while introducing audiences to innovative new films. The annual Filmmaker’s Conference, which runs concurrent with the festival, promotes discussion and study of filmmaking with students and attendees learning personal lessons from the filmmakers themselves.

Stevens has been attending the festival since its inception 14 years ago.

“I enjoy all the films obviously, but there’s also events following the movies each night and you get a chance to meet some of the actors and filmmakers,” he said. “I actually met my wife when she was a volunteer. We started talking at one of the post-movie parties and hit it off. We’ve attended every year since.”

Stevens added that his participation in the festival continues to feed that passion for film he acquired as a child.

“I’ve always loved movies,” he said. “I took a lot of film classes in college and at one time I was planning to major in creative writing with the intention of becoming a screenwriter. It wasn’t until later I turned to journalism.”

The 2019 Omaha Film Festival will take place March 5-9 at AkSarBen Cinema in Omaha. The film and event schedule along with ticket information is available online at omahafilmfestival.org. Information is also available on the Omaha Film Festival Facebook page.