This month the Tallgrass Film Festival will celebrate 10 years in the community.
It all started back in 2003 when Tim Gruver left Los Angeles to return to his hometown and start a film festival. First step: assemble a team.
“We were really good friends and he called me up and said do you want to come to Wichita to produce this film festival and I was like, ‘I don’t know what that means, but OK, that sounds great,‘“ says Lela Meadow-Connor.
“Tim came to my office repeatedly trying to get me to join the board, or someone from the office to join the board and it took about six months, but he finally convinced me,” says Ann Keefer.
“He asked me if I could plug in a DVD player, and I could and suddenly I was the tech director for a few years,” says Nick Pope.
Meadow-Connor, Keefer and Pope all still work for Tallgrass.
Board member Ann Keefer says the first festival was scary.
“It was a new concept for Wichita and everybody thought why would a film festival work here,” she says.
But she says, that was exactly why it did work – because they were showing films that otherwise wouldn’t be.
Pope is the director of programming at Tallgrass. He says founder Tim Gruver was right, that Wichita had a need.
“We have great art museums and we’ve got music theater and all these things, but aside from your traditional movie theater, there wasn’t anything to bring in independent film,” he says.
Lela Meadow-Connor looks through her name badges from the last 10 years. “I guess over the years my role has changed, the first year I was festival producer,” she says. “The second time I was a producer, the third year I was director. That was the year that Tim passed away.” Gruver died unexpectedly at the age of 33 just weeks before the third Tallgrass Film Festival was set to kick off, and Meadow-Connor found herself in a leadership role. “I definitely think that Tim’s passing propelled me to want to make this happen for the city,” she says. “I think his vision was so great. And it wasn’t just me. It was amazing board members and amazing staff banded together and we knew, the show had to go on. This is what Tim would have wanted and this is what the city deserves, this is what they city wants.” The Tallgrass Film Festival has grown and evolved over the years. The first year the team had to search out films, this year they had to wade through around 700 submissions. Board member Ann Keefer helps set up screening venues across the city. She says as Tallgrass grows it brings more and more recognition to the city, and more of the city to the festivalgoers. “I was able to showcase some buildings that a lot of people had never been inside,” says Keefer. “For instance the Scottish Rite, there were a ton of people that had never been inside that theater and now it is one of those regularly talked about and enjoyed theaters.” This year Tallgrass will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a US premiere, more than 120 films and dozens of visiting filmmakers– a feature Meadow-Connor says really has been instrumental in growing the festival. “Many of them have never been to Wichita before and they get off the plan sort of expecting one thing and totally seeing something else,” she says. “And every year what blows me away is the comments that these people make about the city and the audiences. They are always so overwhelmed and delighted with what they find.” They become ambassadors for Wichita, she says. And they spread the word about the vibrancy of the city and of the people who live in it. “One thing everybody recognizes here, and it always goes back to this and is why Tim hit the nail on the head– the audiences are so open, so willing to watch films,” says Meadow-Connor.