If anyone knows what makes a great film festival, it’s Jackie Tepper.

Since getting her start in the entertainment industry 30 years ago, Jackie Tepper has been around the world travelling to festivals in search of great independent films as an acquisitions executive.

But for the past 15 years, Tepper has been on the other side of the festival world. She serves as Producing Partner and Documentary Programming Chair at Dances With Films – one of Los Angeles’ premier independent film festivals.

Since its inception in 1998 as a small fest with only a few dozen titles, the operation has grown considerably in size – the festival now features over 200 films across several categories, from countries near and far. Even so, the event stays true to its independent spirit that puts the success of its new filmmakers first.

We caught up with Jackie about her career and what it’s like to run a film festival in 2022.

JC Taylor: What initially got you interested in the film industry? Did you come from a creative family?

Jackie Tepper: Yes, I come from a music industry family. My father was an established song writer back in the day, whose songs were recorded by many of the famous artists in the 50’s and 60’s. He wrote music for all the Elvis Presley films.  They were specialty songs based on the screenplays. I grew up in a creative environment, and film was always my true love.

I moved out to LA about 30 years ago. At the time, I didn’t know anyone, so I had to start at the very bottom. I was mostly fetching coffee and lunch for people. They were the sort of things you have to do to get your foot in the door.

I kept at it, and eventually got my start at New Line Cinema. There was an opening for an assistant position in the home video department. Funny enough, after [CreativeFuture CEO Ruth Vitale] left the studio, Mark Ordesky filled that position as President at Fine Line Features. I moved over from home video and became Mark’s assistant. That was my initial connection to Ruth, and where my real journey in the industry began.

JC: How did you first get involved with Dances With Films?

JT: I got involved with them 15 years ago. I started helping them out with their events, and I really loved the film festival. It’s such a cool, casual vibe for filmmakers, and a great space for emerging talent. Then, that following year, I wanted to become more involved, and as the years went on, I kept taking on larger responsibilities. So now, I’m co-producing the film festival, as well as programming the documentaries.

JC: I don’t think our readers are aware of the amount of work it takes to program a film festival. Could you talk about that process a little bit?

JT: Yeah, it’s a big job. I am the programming chair for the documentaries. But I have a team of screeners that I utilize, because we want the films to be seen by a lot of people. We watch every single submission from beginning to end. That’s our rule, and it makes for a lot of work. But we have a great, dedicated team of people that have been with us throughout the years. A lot of our screeners are alums, which is great!

JC: What is the volume of submissions that your division has to sift through? How many hours are you spending watching these films?

JT: I watch probably three documentaries every day, and those are just the features. For the shorts, I like to have a virtual watch event evening session with the screeners. We used to do it in-person before COVID, but have adapted since, and now participate in weekly group zoom screening nights for the short films.

JC: And you have experience on the other side of film festival grind too, right? I was reading about your year-round visits to film festivals around the world for acquisitions. That’s a grind, too. What is that like?

JT: Well at the time, it was a grind. But it was a good grind. I used to do acquisitions and co-productions for New Line Cinema and Fine Line Features. My job was going to film festivals to look for indie films to acquire for the studio, whether it be for theatrical or ancillary markets. So, I was attending all the major film festivals year-round.

It’s interesting to be on the other side of that now. What I love is that I get to bring that experience to the film festival and to these filmmakers.

JC: Would you say that Dances With Films is unique in the festival world?

JT: I feel that it is a unique film festival for a variety of reasons. First of all, the philosophical corner stone of the festival, since its inception in 1998, was always: no politics, no stars, no shit. And they really stuck to that.

But, as someone who has traveled to a lot of film festivals, what I love about this festival is that it’s an eleven-day event and it’s solid networking from start to finish. It has a sort of summer camp feel. It’s just a great place for all of the filmmakers to meet one another.

In fact, over the years, we’ve had many filmmakers meet at the festival and go on to produce a film together the following year. I think we’ve actually had a few marriages come out of it!

JC: Wow! That’s amazing.

JT: The filmmakers tell me that too – they just love that aspect of the festival. There is just such a togetherness about it. And that, for me, is what sets it apart from other festivals.

JC: I want to talk about the origin of the festival. What was the idea behind its founding and its message?

JT: Leslee Scallon and Michael Trent are the festival founders – and they’re filmmakers themselves. So, in 1998, they created a film and entered it into film festivals, and it was their first feature, so they faced a lot of rejection. They were kind of disillusioned by the politics and the process that they endured and finally said, “To hell with that, let’s create our own festival.” So, in the summer of 1998, they started Dances With Films, and they had 36 titles that year.

Now, we have over 200 from all over the world. They wanted to help other filmmakers that had no connections in the industry and have kept the festival thriving for 25 years.

JC: And now you guys just celebrated your 25th anniversary. Congratulations! That’s amazing.

JT: Thank you. I think it is. You know, aside from AFI, we are the largest discovery film festival in LA now. I am very proud of that. It takes a village, and we have an amazing one!

JC: Do you have any favorite films that have come out of the festival? I’m sure in some cases it’s like picking children, but do you still have those moments where it’s like “oh my God, this is why I am doing this.”

JT: There have been so many great films. But in 2021, we opened the festival with a documentary called The Art of Protest. Basically, it’s a documentary about protest art, street art, and music. So, there were interviews with all of these protest rockers like “Pussy Riot” and all of these underground street artists. I absolutely loved that film. I thought it was wonderful and delivered a strong and powerful message.

Our opening night film last year called “The Walk” was a powerful portrayal about the origins of bussing in a Chicago suburb. There were outstanding performance by Terence Howard, Justin Chatwin, Jeremy Piven, and Malcolm McDowell.

There have been so many gems over the years, it’s hard to pick favorites.

JC: Why documentaries for you? What sets them apart from other genres in your mind?

JT: Documentaries are exploding and have become so mainstream and popular. The filmmaking has become incredibly elevated and enticing over the years. It has become more and more of an art form rather than the old school ones that I watched as a kid. There is a greater audience appetite for true stories, and streaming has created a huge platform for those stories to be told. The impact of social change that has come about is undeniable, and if I can help introduce emerging documentary filmmakers to bring about that change, then I have succeeded in life.

JC: Let’s go back to your festival touring days. When you are sitting in a screening, watching a movie, I assume you are looking for some kind of quality that catches your attention about the film, like if you want to pursue an acquisition. Are those skills that have translated into your programming skills, or do you look at films differently now that you are on the other side?

JT: No, it’s different. When I was working for a studio, I was watching independent films while thinking “How can we market this?” “Will this make money for the studio?”

At a film festival, as a programmer, it’s completely different. Some of the submissions are from first time filmmakers, and the films aren’t perfect, or edited perfectly. You find those gems and that raw talent that you hope to introduce to the world or give a step-up in the industry. So, it’s different in that way.

JC: Sounds almost more fulfilling, in a way. It seems like now you are watching as a fan instead of a marketer.

JT: A lot of people ask me why I work for an independent film festival. The answer is simple: it’s so incredibly fulfilling to discover untapped talent and try to make those introductions in the industry. That is incredibly gratifying.

JC: Do you think the future of festivals will change because of COVID? Do you think there will be more of an adaptation into a virtual world, or do you think we will find a way back to the old ways?

JT: I noticed that some festivals are doing hybrids (both in-person and virtual). I personally don’t care for the hybrid scenario. Film Festivals are meant to be a shared experience, and there is no substitute for watching in a dark theater on the big screen with an audience.

JC: Dances With Films had its 25th anniversary this year. What do you have planned?

JT: We are excited about creating a more national presence and are bringing Dances With Films to New York City the first week in December. DWF:NYC will hopefully be the first of many new cities to explore for the film festival.

JC: It is incredible for any festival, let alone a festival started by 2 people to have a run like that.

JT: It is indeed! I attribute much of the festival’s success and longevity to being a lean and mean machine, staffed by a crew that has become more like family, who are dedicated to making each year more exciting than the last. We put on what is essentially a seamless 11-day event, and it really is impressive given the size of our staff. 

JC: From someone who has watched countless documentary films and narrative films around the world, what kind of advice would you give young creatives entering the industry?

JT: I always advise new filmmakers that they have to get used to rejection, and not to be discouraged by it. You can’t be thin-skinned in this industry. Also, networking is so important.  Any kind of film festivals, markets, etc., are essential to connecting to your community.