What can passion for a belief in something bigger than you, passion for film, and know-how in PR accomplish? Brandon Millett and Laura Law-Millett can answer this. They are the highly creative husband and wife team that formed the highly inspirational and successful non-profit GI Film Festival in Washington D.C. Laura graduated from West Point Military Academy, and served in the Army and Army Reserves. Brandon graduated from University of New Hampshire, and then began working for the Leadership Institute in D.C., eventually transitioning into a career in public relations and communications. Together, the Millett’s passions for films, their own experiences, our U.S. Military men and women, and the goal of finding films which portray the military in a positive light, were the driving forces for them to create the GI Film Festival. The festival will run May 6th through May 12th in the DMV area.
Brandon Millett shares how they began, their inspirations, and the journey of bringing the festival into its seventh successful year and beyond.
How did you start it? What was the beginning like?
We started planning it in 2006. At that time, there were a number of films coming out of Hollywood that were portraying GI’s in a negative light. We didn’t feel that this was accurate or a fair portrayal of the men and women who serve for country. Laura and I wanted to show the other side of the story, and show films that depict the courage, honor, and integrity of American service men and women. You know, it just seemed like there was this narrative that was being offered by Hollywood in a group of films that was negative, and we wanted to show and produce another more positive narrative; that’s why we started the film festival.
We made phone call after phone call, turning over every stone, looking to every contact we ever had for guidance and assistance. There was a lot of energy around this idea, and we realized that we were on to something, almost immediately, because people were just jumping on board. There were great films in the first festival, and really good sponsors that came on board to support us. In terms of the film component and recruiting films, we did what most other film festivals do; we did some grass roots work. We tried to try to educate people about the festival and the goal, and we also worked on marketing the festival.
How did you find the places to screen?
We turned over every single stone, and networked with every contact. We looked at every venue in the Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia areas. Over the years we’ve grown to where we now use more than one venue. At the beginning, we used the Ronald Regan Building for every event. Now, we have the AMC Theater in Shirlington, Signature Theater, AMC Hoffman Theater, American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD, and the U.S. Navy Memorial Theaters as venues. There are a lot of venues that are now a part of the festival.
Who were the original people that worked on the festival with you, and how has that changed?
Well, in terms of working on the festival, year one was a family affair. My father was out on the mall handing out flyers, and my mother and my sister were helping with ticketing. Laura’s sister and aunts were helping. So, it was very much a family affair in year one. Now, we have wonderful people that volunteer their time to support the festival. Now, there are team leaders and an army of amazing volunteers that donate their time and energy to a much bigger festival than we had even imagined in the beginning. We are so grateful.
Does the military provide support for the festival at all?
The support comes from the standpoint that the U.S. military will spread the word about the festival. We sometimes have some people who are serving in positions in the military come and speak at events for the festival, but we are completely independent and separate from the U.S. military.
What are some of the most prominent films that you’ve had to screen at the festival so far?
We had the big screen premiere for HBO’s film Taking Chance, which won a, Director’s Guild Award in 2010, a Golden Globe Award, and many other significant industry awards. Last year we had an advance screening of the film Battleship, which is an NBC Universal film released a day after we screened it for Wounded Warriors at our event. Then we had a screening of Valkyrie for MGM in conjunction with the DVD release. In addition, we also had an advanced screening, which we co-hosted with an organization of The Hurt Locker. So, those are four examples, and I think one of the measures of the evolution of the festival was when we had started getting studios interested in using the festival as a vehicle to promote their films. Primarily, 95 percent of our films are independent films, and I think that Hollywood sees great value in the deep reach that we have into the military community. They are starting to recognize the festival as a great opportunity for their films about the military.
What else would you like to tell people about the festival that they may not know?
What separates us from other film festivals is that we don’t just screen movies. We bring real heroes into the room, and that changes everything. It goes from having an experience that could be entertaining to having an experience that could be life changing, and I don’t say that lightly. We’ve had people come to the festival and tell us that the experience of being at the festival has changed their life. For example, we had a big producer that didn’t really want to come to the festival, and had never really heard of it. After he came to our Wounded Warrior event, the next morning he called Laura and me on the phone. He said, ‘my wife and I have been up all night, and we are consumed now with a passion for helping the wounded warriors. What can we do?’ That’s the kind of thing that happens at our festival. So, I just want to emphasize attending the festival can be an extremely rewarding experience, as well as an entertaining experience.
The GI Film Festival is about showing the ground truth experience of American GI’s inside the arena of war and back on the home front. We also highlight the experiences military families as well, because they serve alongside the GI’s.
There are also films in the festival this year which deal with the issue of Post Traumatic Stress. We have films that approach the subject of Post Traumatic Stress in a hopeful way, and offer solutions, rather than just highlight the problem. So for example, a film called Exit Wound will be shown, which is about a GI suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. It explores some of the issues of PTSD; alcoholism, drug dependency, and brain injury. The GI in the film joins a program in Idaho that helps veterans by channeling their addiction into outlets like skiing and paragliding. It is a hopeful film about one of the many ways to treat Post Traumatic Stress that are being explored.
Will you be expanding the festival to other cities?
We held our first annual event in Hollywood of the GI Film Festival this last November, and have another event this year. There are also events scheduled in New York City this year as well. The New York City event will be the weekend after Veterans Day weekend, and we will be hosting some film screenings at NYU, and for the Army’s birthday in Bryant Park. The festival will also be going to Poland for an International Military Film Festival. Additionally, we started our television show on the Pentagon Channel. The show is a weekly series that focuses on the films from the festival.
We are also starting a film therapy program for returning GI’s who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress, and expanding training programs for veterans who want to get into the entertainment industry. The GI FILM Festival is much more than a film festival, and all of this takes resources. Obviously this is a tough environment with the state of the economy, and we hope to continue with all of our programs in the future.
These wonderful professionals are concrete proof that positive vision, strong partnerships, passion, leadership, and creativity yield positive and successful results. The Millett’s are more than just a strong example of what can happen when people pursue their passions, they are proof of it. They have together with the strength of their organization, volunteers, and sponsors set a high bar for festivals in the area. For more information on the festival, tickets, volunteering, please visit their web site (in text links). If you are interested in any of the programs mentioned, please contact the festival directly, and access their additional links to other non-profit organizations through their website.