The tenth Anthem Film Festival will run liberty-oriented films in Rapid City, South Dakota, from July 21-24. The festival, part of FreedomFest, the world’s largest Libertarian financial and political conference, has undergone major changes over the years. I spoke with festival founder and director Jo Ann Skousen about the festival’s evolution.
Anthem, Where Are You?
Eight years live in Las Vegas, one year virtual and now Anthem is in Rapid City, South Dakota. What happened?
We fully expected to be the only liberty conference meeting live in 2020 during the COVID lockdown. We met several times with the hotel staff in Las Vegas leading up to the festival and complied with every mandate regarding distancing and room capacity. Then, just ten days before show time, Governor Sisolak decided to reinterpret the rules to allow no more than 49 people per event in the conference center, despite allowing hundreds of people in the casinos right next door. That was a killer. We had to close down.
Rapid City is generally more expensive for many of your long-term attendees than Vegas. Will you be moving back?
Most people have loved the idea of coming to South Dakota. They’re excited about the travel excursions as well as the conference. In fact, we sold out of our hotel block in March and had to add rooms at ten more hotels!
And the film festival will be held in the beautifully restored 100-year-old Elks Theatre instead of a conference room. It’s a far cry from the small banquet room on the 26th floor of Bally’s Hotel where we held our first festival! So overall, the move has been a big success. In fact, I think it’s going to be our second largest attendance ever. But you’re right—travel costs escalated around April, and hotel costs doubled after our discount deadline ended. So, we aren’t going to get our usual bump in attendance at the door. We’ll be back in Las Vegas next year, but we’re looking into doing events at other locations in the future.
In 2013, you said that you started Anthem Film Festival in order to encourage filmmakers to consider libertarian ideas. Have you seen an increase in libertarian films?
Absolutely! We’re really overbooked this year — 39 films! — and I worry about staying on time with our Q&A and shortened panels. Even then, I had to turn away some films I would have eagerly accepted in previous years, simply because I had so many great entries. Many come from think tanks that have discovered the power of movies to present a message. Others come from independent filmmakers who have learned there’s a market for movies about individuality, choice, and accountability. And Iranian filmmakers have discovered our festival as well. So, while the major Hollywood studios still love to hate on business and individuality, I’m pleased to see the universe of libertarian films continuing to grow.
Will any Anthem alumni be attending?
We’re bringing back several of our favorite films from previous seasons as part of our tenth anniversary celebration. Bob Bowdon will be there with our very first Grand Prize winner, The Cartel, and Corey DeAngelis, the super star of school choice, will join him for a post-screening discussion on the state of education today. Mark and Gabi Hayes are bringing back Skid Row Marathon, our 2018 Grand Prize winner. And we’re reprising some short films as well that are particularly timely in today’s political climate. John Kramer is bringing back his award-winning short narrative Everything, about a mother’s desperate search for a bone marrow transplant for her daughter.
In past years, Anthem has featured mostly shorts and documentaries, but few features. Will it be different this year?
I love narrative features, and I’m ecstatic when good ones end up in our inbox. Do you remember the remarkably quotable Re-Evolution we showed in 2017? Kind of a John Galt Meets V for Vendetta vibe, and it was made on a budget of just $10,000! And the luminous Bassila’ora we showed last year that was part documentary, part scripted narrative. What a beautiful film!
The three feature narratives we’re presenting this year are excellent. Speed of Life, a sci-fi, time-travel rom-com set in a dystopian future, was our Best Narrative Feature in 2020, and we’re bringing it back as part of our Best of the Fest. The movie version of our namesake, Ayn Rand’s Anthem: The Animated Movie, was submitted just in time to coincide with our tenth anniversary. How serendipitous was that? And wait till you see our animated libertarian rock opera, Rocket Stahr’s Death of a Rock Star! The director, Cole Gentles, spent thirteen years animating it, writing the music, and recording it. Quite a feat!
Nevertheless, I think we will always have more shorts and feature documentaries because of our association with FreedomFest. Our audience tends to be looking for meaty, informative material with hard-hitting panels after the screenings. We tend to save our narrative features for the evenings, and we have just three evenings at the festival.
Learning from Experience
Do you do anything to encourage and support the filmmakers who attend Anthem?
I spend a lot of time with my filmmakers leading up to the festival, and we often end up becoming great friends. Sometimes I offer suggestions about the films, if they’re open to it, but I always do it sensitively, acknowledging their creative authority. The Locastro brothers sent me their short documentary Seized several months ahead of time and asked for my advice. I made several suggestions on how to tighten the story and shorten the film. Not only did it win the award for Best Short Documentary at our festival, but it went on to win an Emmy! I’ve also tried to connect filmmakers with possible distributors and additional filmmaking jobs. This year the Harmon brothers will be part of our Filmmakers Reception and Master Class, and I expect they will provide concrete support for libertarian filmmaking.
Looking back at the previous years, what stands out as a highlight in your memory?
Without question, the highlight for me was 2014, when we had nearly 1,500 attendees at our opening night screening of Atlas Shrugged 3. It was such an emotional moment to look out over that vast crowd and realize how far we had come from the 26th floor of Bally’s in just four short seasons. John Aglialoro’s heartfelt acceptance speech for the film’s Best Narrative Feature award was also very moving. That season really moved us into the spotlight as the most unique and significant new feature of FreedomFest.
Was there anything that backfired that you learned from?
I was thrilled to have Little Pink House as our opening night feature in 2017. It was just about perfect, with a strong cast, strong music, strong story, strong message, and a big enough budget for director Courtney Balaker to do a first-rate production. The main players on whom the movie was based — Susette Kelo, John Kramer, and Scott Bullock — were at the festival. We arranged for red carpet photo opportunities with them during the cocktail reception before the screening, and we had posters strategically placed to remind people of the film. After our huge success with Atlas Shrugged 3 and the Dinesh D’Souza’s America: Where Would the World Be Without Her? in 2014, I fully expected a similar crowd.
But I assumed people were reading the emails and social media posts I had been sending out. I assumed they knew that this opening night film was the best of the festival. Wrong. I needed to do more, on the spot. We had several hundred people in the audience that night, but not the 1,500 it deserved.
If I had that to do over again, I would have invited Susette Kelo to tell her story on the main stage before the cocktail reception so people would have understood the significance of the film and flocked to meet her, the way they did after the screening that night. Those who watched the film stayed for over an hour, buying the book, getting her autograph, and taking pictures with her. The film received our highest Audience Choice rating ever, with only one person giving it a 4 and everyone else giving it a 5. Those who missed it missed something truly special. I really flubbed that one. Since then, I always arrange to have 15 minutes during the opening session to bring our biggest star onto the stage.
What should attendees look forward to the most this year?
I’ve really worked at curating the films thematically this year into two-hour sessions instead of just scheduling them according to their length. Viewers will need to move from the civic center to the theater three blocks away, so they need to commit themselves to more than a 20-minute movie. We have sessions about education, individuality and self-expression, medical marijuana, the rising threat of socialism, entrepreneurship, and the pandemic lockdown, cancel culture, and outrage journalism, and much more.
What’s the one film everyone should see this year?
We have so many standouts this year! Partly that’s because we’re bringing back half a dozen of our previous winners. How can you go wrong? All 39 films are wonderful. I would suggest that you make a point of attending all the evening features. They start at 9 pm every night, with Q&A or panel discussions following the films.
And honestly, those first sessions every day are outstanding too. I know, it seems kind of strange to be sitting in a darkened theater at 8:30 in the morning, but wait till you see Rush to Judgment and the panel following it about cancel culture and outrage journalism. Or the outstanding session on education and school choice Thursday morning. And so many films about the unintended consequences of business regulation on Saturday morning that it spans two sessions! And if you’re concerned about Critical Race Theory permeating our culture, don’t miss Better Left Unsaid with its panel that includes Phil Magness, Rob Montz, Bob Bowdon, and Gloria Z. Greenfield.
Why do you think your festival is significant?
Do you remember the old phrase, “Banned in Boston”? Several of our films have been banned from traditional festivals, either because the directors are too male, or the messages are too libertarian. One was withdrawn from Amazon Prime just before it was set to open. I snapped it up.
The discrimination is so bad that many of our filmmakers have started using pseudonyms when they work on libertarian projects. That isn’t a problem at Anthem! For ten years we’ve created an environment where filmmakers feel safe to come out of the libertarian closet. Their works are praised and embraced. They’re able to add laurels to their projects that help them get accepted into other festivals and secure funding for future projects. And they’ve discovered skilled, like-minded colleagues when they attend one another’s screenings and hang out at our reception. Sometimes when the credits scroll on a new submission I’m watching I’ll see several names I recognize from previous individual films, and now they’re collaborating together. That makes my heart happy.