Quick: What’s the largest, longest-running film festival in Nevada? Chances are most people don’t realize that it’s the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival, celebrating its 10th year in 2011 and quietly developing into not only the most successful but also possibly the best film festival Southern Nevada has to offer (Boulder City’s Dam Short Film Festival is its only real competition). And with CineVegas an increasingly fading memory, LVJFF co-founder and director Joshua Abbey is looking to expand his festival even further, to take his unique model and apply it to films beyond Jewish culture and history.
One of the original founders of CineVegas, Abbey bowed out of that festival after its first year because “it just grew too big too fast, and I sort of lost my influence.” He took his experience both in film (he studied theater at UNLV and film production at the American Film Institute) and festival organizing (in addition to CineVegas, he put on the Las Vegas Literary Film Festival at the Summerlin Library) and joined with Betsy Cowan to create the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival in 2002. (They worked together for six years before Cowan left for Tucson). For two years, Abbey and Cowan invited the directors of other Jewish film festivals around the country to present highlights from their events, and while the selection quality was high, the attendance was not what the founders hoped for.
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So in the third year of the festival, Abbey developed what has become the secret to the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival’s success: Each year, he invites various Jewish organizations, including temples and synagogues, social groups and charities, to sponsor screenings, and those groups in turn sell tickets to their members. By turning the festival into a vehicle for nonprofit organizations to raise both funds and awareness, he guaranteed himself an audience and the sponsoring groups a pre-made fundraising event. These days, nearly every Jewish organization in Las Vegas participates, and nearly every screening draws a crowd (many are packed to capacity). Last year, the festival inaugurated a special partnership with the Jewish Family Service Agency, where Abbey serves as a consultant and special-events coordinator, raising “tens of thousands” of dollars for the charity.
As an indicator of Abbey’s grand plans for the future, one of this year’s 17 films, the Argentinean drama Anita, is sponsored by a non-sectarian organization, Opportunity Village. Abbey hopes to eventually reach out to more nonprofit organizations beyond the Jewish community, turning the LVJFF into what he calls “a true international film festival.” He envisions bringing five or six more groups on board next year, and is even open to representatives of other faiths. “It’ll still be a Jewish film festival, but it’ll be a hybrid that will enable me to have much broader options in terms of films that can be curated,” Abbey says.
In the absence of CineVegas or any other sustainable general-interest festival, Abbey is using his unique approach to grow a niche event into something for the entire community. Although, as he notes, the LVJFF has always been accessible to anyone who appreciates good movies; each year the festival showcases films that have played to discerning audiences around the world, and it frequently includes groundbreaking works that can’t be seen elsewhere. Still, “even though I’ve relentlessly tried to dispel the misnomer that it’s somehow exclusive or not of interest to a general population, I’ve still never really had more than 10 or 15 percent of my audience be non-Jewish,” Abbey says.
With an estimated 65,000 to 85,000 Jews in Las Vegas, and “hopefully an equal number of non-Jewish movie lovers,” Abbey sees the festival a decade in as really just getting started. “The goal is to create this inclusive, eclectic palate of different cultures and different faiths celebrating life through the art of cinema,” he says. Sounds like something Vegas could really use.