Akron Film+Pixel is creating a local culture of independent film one movie screen at a time

Steve Felix has been making movies since he was a kid. At 19 he began working as a wedding videographer and also made his own short films. Now he is the Executive Director of Akron Film+Pixel, a year-round social organization for creators and fans of films and games.

Felix got involved with the organization in 2007 while working as a professional videographer and amateur filmmaker. At the time, the group was known as the Akron Film Festival and was entirely focused on producing the annual film festival. “I got involved with the Akron Film Festival because I didn’t feel like I knew my peers and didn’t know who to reach out to,” says Felix. “Ironically it took over my life! But hopefully other people benefit from it.”

The Akron Film Festival was formed in 2002 by Rob Lucas. In 2007, an expanded organizational team incorporated the festival and it attained 501(c)3 nonprofit status. The festival was moved to the Akron Art Museum in 2009, where the organization was renamed Akron Film to encompass the greater diversity of year-round programming it was offering. It was again renamed to Akron Film+Pixel to reflect the growing interest in videogame arts and the group’s incorporation of this medium as well.

Felix went to school for finance. As a filmmaker he is entirely self-taught from books and the Internet. He was doing wedding videos full time while writing a feature-length screenplay. “I was halfway done and I thought, ‘Okay, how do I make this once I’m finished?'” The film festival was held at the University of Akron at the time and Felix was a little familiar with the people involved, so he came on board and started out in marketing.

Akron Film Festival was a student organization at the time, but as people graduated and others moved away, the fate of the festival was in jeopardy. Separating the festival from the school in 2008 was a huge step forward. “It was a reinvention of the project,” says Felix. “That allowed us to dramatically expand the scope of [Akron Film].”

One of their first expansion efforts was participating in the 48 Hour Film Project (48HFP) in 2008, though the next year they split off from the main organization with its highly regimented format. They made the challenge two weeks long and focused more on the collaborative aspect of the challenge. “That gave us a chance to create a more structured screening,” Felix says. “[We wanted to get] away from the contest element and make it more of a group project. We’re not an official part of the 48 Hour Film Project now but we want to do it more often anyway.”

They took the idea of having an overarching theme from 48HFP and made it their own. One of the challenges they did was using the “Missed Connections” section of Craigslist as prompts; another was called “The New History of Akron” which had teams shoot fictional documentaries answering historical questions with the wrong information. One annual event that has become very popular is their Freakishly Short Animation Festival, held every year around Halloween. Similar to Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation, the selection is all curated by the Akron Film+Pixel board and is a guaranteed sell-out every year.

Until recently Felix was still working as a freelance videographer making corporate videos, motion graphics, and doing some video editing. But the demands of the growing film organization now take all his time. Akron Film+Pixel is currently working on opening a full-time arthouse movie theatre with support from the Knight Foundation. “We’re moving away from just doing special events for awhile,” he says. “We were showing one film a month at the Akron Art Museum and one at the [Akron-Summit County Public Library] but that’s not really enough. Cleveland has seven screens of arthouse theatre; Akron right now has none.”

The Knight Foundation awarded Akron Film+Pixel a grant specifically to renovate and operate an independent movie theatre in Akron. Construction on the one-screen space has already begun and Felix hopes to have it open later this spring. He also hopes to add a second screen next year.

The new theatre will show independent films but of a more mainstream nature – nothing too esoteric that only the buffest of film buffs will appreciate, but more approachable with a wider appeal. They will screen films from local filmmakers as part of events, world cinema, and films from the indie labels of major studios. They’ll also maintain their partnerships with the Akron Art Museum and the main library. All three venues are within one block of each other, which will work well for their next multi-day film festival, currently on hiatus as they focus on building up year-round programming and making it sustainable by building their individual donor base and memberships.

While fostering a strong independent film culture in Akron is certainly a goal of Akron Film+Pixel, the ultimate mission of the organization is to bring together creative people who are interested in film and other media, whether filmmakers or not. “I would call it more of a social organization. I got involved n 2007 to get to know other people than myself, working on movies alone in my bedroom,” says Felix. “I certainly feel like I’m part of a network now, and I have seen people through our contests who are now working as professionals.”