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IMAGE makeover: Atlanta film fest gets a new cast

Gabriel Wardell takes top spot

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When Gabriel Wardell assumes his new role as executive director of the IMAGE Film and Video Center in September, he expects to bring some steadiness to a venerable Atlanta arts organization that recently has seemed anything but stable. "IMAGE is not a phantom ship riding through the fog without a captain," Wardell says. "I'll be responsible for setting the agenda and being the voice of the institution."

In the past two years, the 31-year-old non-profit film and video center -- best known for producing the Atlanta Film Festival -- has suffered turnover at the top, going through three executive directors and three film festival directors over the past two years. Jake Jacobson, who contends he was fired after directing the 2006 Atlanta Film Festival, says, "The road is just strewn with discarded festival directors over the years."

When Wardell steps in, part of his job will be to help energize a film festival that, despite its size and successes, seldom lives up to the expectations you'd have for a 30-year-old event in a city as big as Atlanta. Primarily, Wardell must provide a new vision for IMAGE at a time of enormous and rapid changes in the film industry.

Jon Aaron, president and CEO of IMAGE's board of directors and acting executive director of IMAGE for more than a year, admits that the staff has undergone a high share of changes. "Ever since Brian Newman left (as IMAGE executive director) two years ago, we've gone through fits and starts," says Aaron. Previous Executive Director Alison Fussell (Newman's replacement) and Atlanta Film Festival Director Jessica Denton each remained in their respective jobs for less than a year.

Jacobson came on board in early 2006 to program the Atlanta Film Festival, which had a record 27,000 attendees and saw ticket sales go up 10 percent. "When the festival ended, I was getting ready to prepare for next year, and Jon Aaron said I would not be continuing there," says Jacobson. "It's been referred to as a 'resignation,' but that's simply not true. I was asked to leave."

Aaron thought Jacobson's festival was a success. "If the film festival was all that IMAGE did, he would have been fine," Aaron says. "But he didn't seem like a good fit." Jacobson says he was never given a firm reason for the dismissal. But he thinks Aaron may have been upset by a caustic letter Jacobson wrote to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who criticized the paper's coverage of the festival. Aaron, a realtor and president of Crosstown Business Management, Inc., plans to leave IMAGE's board by the end of the year, having served over too many terms while serving as acting executive director. He plans to remain in the organization to assist in Wardell's transition.

Critics of the Atlanta Film Festival include former members of its own board of advisors. "There's a total lack of leadership at the film festival," says advertising executive Joel Babbitt, for four years a member of IMAGE's board of advisors. Babbitt recently resigned out of frustration, saying the board never met. "My resignation was a statement more than anything else," he says. "What's the sense of being a member when there's no meetings?"

Wardell plans to begin his duties as program director starting Sept. 1. Moving to Atlanta qualifies as a homecoming of sorts for him; he served as IMAGE's program coordinator in 1997 before leaving to program festivals in Maryland and Sonoma Valley, Calif. His roots run deep in the at-times scruffy world of independent film. His mother worked as an extra in John Waters' film Female Trouble, and Wardell has been a long-time board member of the Slamdance Film Festival, an "underground" answer to the prestigious Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah.

Wardell says IMAGE's appearance as a revolving door is not unusual. "It's par for the course to have turnover in the nonprofit arts world. There's a lot of burnout and a lot of people who feel underpaid and underappreciated. The strength of IMAGE is that it has survived. IMAGE is among an elite group of festivals. Of maybe 7,500 in the country, only a handful is more than 25 years old, let alone 30."

Wardell says that hiring a director for next year's 31st Atlanta Film Festival is one of his first priorities. "The festival director job, I think, will be an easy decision to make. I already know people in the festival world I'm interested in, so there's an attractive pool of candidates."

Wardell takes the helm at a time when digital filmmaking and the Internet are causing enormous changes in film festivals and video centers like IMAGE nationwide. Most notoriously, New York City's renowned Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers closed earlier this year. "When organizations like IMAGE were founded in the late 1970s, if you wanted to make film, you needed access to technology -- cameras, lights, etc.," says Wardell. "Now I can shoot a film on my camcorder, edit it on a laptop, distribute it around the world by posting it on YouTube."

Wardell won't mention any of his specific plans for the organization, saying that he wants to meet with the IMAGE staff, board and members of Atlanta's filmmaking community before he announces changes or new initiatives. If IMAGE were a movie, its script would still be under wraps, but the organization finally has cast a leading actor.

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