Karen Sadler’s World Arts Film Festival wants to rekindle Jacksonville’s love affair with the movies — and help kids with special needs along the way


There was a time, about a century ago, when Jacksonville billed itself as the Winter Film Capital of the World, and with good reason.
This was where New York City producers traded the snow and cold for sunnier, more scenic locales. This was where silent era star Oliver Hardy (of the famous Laurel and Hardy comedy team) shot his first film (1914’s Outwitting Dad), where Kalem Studios opened in 1908, where Metro Pictures (later the first M in MGM) originated, where the first full-length Technicolor picture was filmed (1917’s The Gulf Between, now lost to history), where Norman Studios produced silent films with all African-American casts in the Roaring Twenties.

But this was also where moviemakers set buildings afire just to watch (and film) them burn, where filmmakers drove a car off the Main Street Bridge, where directors staged machine-gun fights Downtown.

“That kind of shenanigan doomed the film industry here,” says local author and historian Wayne Wood, who documented some of the city’s movie history in his book The Jacksonville Family Album: 150 Years of the Art of Photography. The Bohemian Yankees quickly wore out their welcome.

There were other factors, of course — World War I, the rise of Hollywood — but Wood points to the 1917 election of Mayor John Wellborn Martin, a teetotaling anti-film crusader, as the crucial moment when the city lost its filmmaking mojo.

Since then, Jacksonville’s support of the movie industry has come and gone in fits and spurts. The Jacksonville Film Festival brought independent film to the city for a decade before screening its last picture in 2012. Sun-Ray Cinema’s eclectic mix of special events and the efforts of owners Tim Massett and Shana David-Massett to screen indies have won the theater a fanatical following. But Northeast Florida is as well known for what might have been as for its share of screen time in Cool Hand Luke, Tigerland, The Devil’s Advocate and G.I. Jane.

Into this void steps the relentless Karen Sadler, a producer with a deep history in the music video industry in New York City (she’s worked with A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J and Russell Simmons, among others), who aims to raise Jacksonville’s film profile both regionally and globally. Described by supporters as a tour de force, a born leader, a little puppy nipping at your leg, a producer with “the heart of an artist,” Sadler founded the World Arts Film Festival in 2013 with a broad mission to go “beyond age and beyond ability” — to inspire professional and first-time filmmakers, including those with special needs, and to reignite a passion for the medium in her adopted hometown.

That may sound grandiose. But then again, Sadler may be an uncommon visionary with the tenacity and sincerity necessary to connect the world and film in Jacksonville again in a significant way. (Her celebrity cachet won’t hurt either.)

Karen Sadler isn’t a name-dropper. It took more than an hour talking with her in Hemming Plaza and several phone calls before she delved into the details of her career with music and film heavyweights in the 1980s and ’90s.

After finishing a presentation for a Pecha Kucha event last month at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, Sadler mingled with members of the audience taken by her ardor for film, arts and education. By then, MOCA was closing, so we sat on a bench in Hemming (even as an animated debate was still rumbling in another part of the plaza) — across from the Downtown Main Library, where her World Arts Film Festival will take place May 15, 16 and 17.

Sadler is a reservoir of boundless energy; she looks to be in her mid-40s, but dodges even a question about the ages of her son and daughter — “They’re grown” is all she tells me — much less her own.

At a meeting of World Arts Film Festival organizers, Sadler clutches a silver thermos, a gift from her daughter, like a security blanket (her drink of choice is tea, not coffee). She’s quick to trust her collaborators and does not micromanage. This thing might be her baby, but she’s not uptight about it.

She was born in Trinidad, arrived in the U.S. as a 2-year-old, and moved around as a child because her father taught civil engineering at several far-flung colleges. She lived in Montréal from age 11 through her college years at Concordia University.

“The day that I found film is one of the most memorable days,” she says. “I walked into an English class. [The teacher] said, ‘I’m a filmmaker and I’m making this film this weekend and you guys are all invited.’ ”That was the beginning of a great, lifelong love affair.

After earning a degree in visual arts, Sadler took on New York City, paying her dues first at commercial production companies Knightsbridge and Shooting Stars, working her way through every level of the industry (production assistant, coordinator, assistant producer, supervising producer), and ultimately becoming an executive producer. Around 1990, she started her own production company, the first in the industry devoted solely to representing music video directors. She worked on videos with Public Enemy, Method Man, Ice Cube and A Tribe Called Quest, all back when MTV was relevant and the excitement was palpable. (She reminisces about the night Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons arrived at her house party just after recording Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way.” “He was like, ‘Oh my God, this was so good.’ ”)

She stood at an important nexus in the industry: “Film industry by day, music industry by night; I couldn’t have had a better life.”

Sadler collaborated with top directorial talents from New York University, Rhode Island School of Design and Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore as they were honing their craft. Many went on to major success in the film and TV:
Charles Stone III, who directed the original Budweiser “Whazzup?” ad, based on his short film True.
Millicent Shelton, who directed Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” and earned an Emmy nomination for 30 Rock.
Andrew Dosunmu, whose feature films Restless City and Mother of George premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sadler credits Simmons with first recommending she meet a young filmmaker named Brett Ratner, best known for directing the Rush Hour trilogy, Red Dragon and X-Men: The Last Stand. (Marvel fanboys haven’t gotten over that last atrocity.) Sadler and Ratner worked together for more than two years before he broke into features.

But then, in the late ’90s, a crazy thing happened.

“My daughter was 5,” Sadler says. “We were living in the Village, and we pretty much had everything we could possibly ask for in a New York state of mind. I had gone to Washington Square Park with her one day, and we were hanging out. I looked up and realized we were in line for a swing. That was it. It was over. I said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ ”

A friend who’d moved from Connecticut to Atlantic Beach convinced her to visit. Within weeks, Sadler had decided to move to Northeast Florida. And then, after two years commuting to New York by plane, Sadler took a step back from her career and turned her focus to arts education.

A friend called one day, telling Sadler there weren’t any creative outlets for her daughter, who had autism. “I had watched this little one grow up. She was wonderfully creative,” Sadler recalls. “I said to her mom, ‘Let’s do something about this.’ ”

A friend had seen the camps that Joey Travolta (yes, John’s older brother) was leading for children and teens with autism spectrum disorders on the national news. Sadler reached out to Travolta and partnered with the HEAL Foundation (Healing Every Autistic Life) in Ponte Vedra Beach and the University of North Florida to organize film camps. Each summer from 2008 to 2011, these camps brought together 50 children — about 30 with autism, along with their siblings — and some three dozen UNF education students.

“Here was a perfect opportunity,” says associate professor Karen Patterson, department chair of UNF’s Exceptional, Deaf and Interpreter Education program. The camps provided a hands-on learning experience that textbooks never could. “It’s making filmmaking something that’s not special, not just for the elite. It’s something for all students.”

They are “ready to turn the key as soon as we can for another summer camp,” Sadler says. But to do that, they need money — about $100,000. Enter the World Arts Film Festival, the primary tool to spread awareness for Sadler’s World Arts Education nonprofit, the umbrella organization for the film camps and other programs.

In 2008, Sadler began pondering a new film festival as an opportunity to present the kids’ works from the camps and bring top filmmakers and films into Downtown. About 2,000 people attended last year’s fest at MOCA over three days in April.

“Like any other small organization with a big idea, there’s growing pains, but you wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Sadler says. One advantage this year is that the screenings, panels and workshops will all be held on one floor in the library’s conference center. Another is the move to May, which Sadler believes will work better for students coming to the festival.
“I don’t think I could have kept going if I hadn’t heard wonderful words from so many different people [last year],” she says. “That’s what I heard from families: ‘It’s very special and we need this.’ ”

Sadler’s vision for this festival is quite different than the one she had for Jacksonville Film Festival, which she co-founded with Joan Monsky in 2003. Then, Sadler’s focus was on providing a festival that would connect the city’s disengaged neighborhoods. The city is more connected now, she says.

She left the Jacksonville Film Festival after helping get it off the ground, saying she turned her focus on other projects and raising her kids. After her departure, the festival went through several organizers, scaled back its schedule and even rebranded itself as the Jax Film Fest, before putting on its last event in 2012. In the end, the bulk of the work seemed to fall on just a few, some of whom were volunteers.

The films in World Arts are all shorts, generally 1 to 20 minutes long, with a mix of professional and amateur talent from the U.S. (including Northeast Florida) and more than 30 other countries.

Australian hip-hop and spoken word artist Luka Lesson will be a virtual guest; three of his music videos will be screened. When his work was selected, he didn’t know of Sadler’s extensive background in the music business. “All of a sudden, I was, like, don’t look at my video,” Lesson says with a laugh, speaking via Skype from Australia. Lesson (real name: Luke Haralampou) also plans to share his new album, EXIT, which dropped earlier this month, with attendees.

California animator Dani Bowman, a 19-year-old with autism who’s had three films screen at Comic-Con in San Diego, brings Hannah Lost Her Smile to this year’s World Arts fest, after showing Mr. Raindrop and The Namazu last year.

Bowman founded the Power Light Animation Studios at age 11 and began working professionally at 14.

“I like that all people with disabilities get to show their abilities,” says Bowman, who has taught animation at Travolta’s camps in Jacksonville and elsewhere. “Not only do you get to see the screenings, you get to see the art.”

“Jacksonville has always loved the movies. It just hasn’t always been able to support them,” says Wood. The historian, who has supported independent film opportunities here since the 1970s (along with Folio Weekly movie columnist Pat McLeod), sees World Arts as ambitious and focused, another worthy effort to bring great film to the city’s doorstep.

Sadler, always effusively positive, buys in completely to the idea of Downtown’s resurgence — and her festival’s role in it. “I still love New York, of course, but this is an entrepreneur’s paradise,” she says. “I love that openness about Jacksonville.”

Her approach to and goals for her film projects are markedly different from those of the filmmakers who lit up (and burned down) Jacksonville a century ago.

Memories of her 17-year-old self discovering that love of film and her family life, shaped around colleges where her father taught, helped her write the script for her life. She often repeats one of her father’s sayings: “If you teach the love of learning, the learning itself will follow.”

Her supporters, many of whom are volunteering for the festival, share that vision.

“If Jacksonville is going to speak to the world, it needs to speak through a number of mediums,” says Keith Marks, executive director of Party, Benefit & Jam, a nonprofit organization that’s assisting Sadler. “Jacksonville has tended to be a bit culturally insular. And in regard to children, this city will only be as intelligent and creative as its citizens are. Jacksonville needs to invest in youth in a big way if it wants to be a culturally dynamic place to live in the future.”

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