23rd Annual Cucalorus Festival Expands its Reach

Written by: Kaisey Skipper | Photography by: Saben Kane

One night in 1994, a group of 12 filmmakers screened 16 short films at the old Water Street Restaurant in downtown Wilmington. Crowds wrapped around the restaurant trying to get in and see what was taking place—the beginning of the Cucalorus Film Festival.

Twenty-three years later, the festival fills downtown Wilmington every November. Thousands from all over the United States and other countries around the world come to attend this non-competitive festival.

Instead of screening all films in one night, the festival now spans five days, and more than 300 films are screened throughout the festival. What Cucalorus Film Festival fans have come to know has now rebranded and expanded into the Cucalorus Festival.

This year, the 23rd Annual Cucalorus Festival will be held November 8 through November 12th.

Dan Brawley is the executive director of the Cucalorus Foundation and the “chief instigating officer” of the Cucalorus Festival. He attended his first Cucalorus Film Festival in 1997 and has worked with Cucalorus for 16 years.

The expansion and rebrand

 The Cucalorus Festival now includes three branches: film, stage, and connect. Cucalorus also came out with a new logo this year to brand the three branches as part of the festival.

Brawley said the Cucalorus Film category will show a variety of films including short films, slasher films, and documentaries.

The Cucalorus Stage includes music, dance, theater, and comedic arts. Brawley states that Dance-a-lorus, which began in 2005, will now fall under Cucalorus Stage rather than be its own section.

“Cucalorus has responded to what’s happening in Wilmington,” Brawley says. “Our expansion into stage is an acknowledgement that Wilmington has an incredible theater, music and comedy community.”

In 2015, Cucalorus Connect was added to the Cucalorus brand. This conference gives attendees a chance to learn about the economy and how the digital world is changing it. Brawley says the Connect conference could help shape Wilmington’s future economy.

“We’ve been feeling for the past few years that Wilmington was ready for a tech conference, a national tech conference that had some real power behind it,” Brawley says. He says this year’s Connect conference will be held almost completely at Cape Fear Community College’s Union Station in Daniel’s Hall.

“We’ve chosen to focus our attention and all of our support cultivating emerging voices,” Brawley says. “We’re doing that in film, and now we’re doing that in business.”

The evolution

“Cucalorus itself, in the early ‘90s, grew organically from the film industry and its presence here,” says Brawley. “Wilmington was a pretty significant spot for independent film production in the ‘90s, and that’s how Cucalorus grew organically out of that. It was an expression of this naturally occurring ecosystem growing in Wilmington.”

For the first nine years of its existence, Cucalorus focused primarily on film; however, in 2005, the focus shifted. Brawley calls the addition of Dance-a-lorus a “pivotal moment” because they began showing another art form, making “it really clear that we were an organization and a festival where we were going to encourage experimentation and innovation and cross boundaries.”

The festival has grown in numbers, too. During the first Cucalorus, the filmmakers were in North Carolina. Now, Brawley says people from 15-20 countries and around 100 cities in the United States attend the conference.

According to a brochure from Cucalorus, more than 17,000 people cumulatively attended the festival in 2016.  

In 2016, they made a decision and challenged the kinds of films they accepted. “Last year, 50 percent of the films were directed or produced by women,” he said. “We made the promise that we would do that every year. The result was beautiful.”

Brawley’s team will be doing the same this year—making sure at least 50 percent of the films are directed or produced by women.

What can you expect this year?

According to Brawley, “If you live in the greater Wilmington area, it’s a way to reimagine your city.” More than 200 events will happen throughout the course of five days, so those attending will have plenty to choose from. “In its simplest form, the cool thing about Cucalorus is you discover people and places and things and stories you didn’t know, and you meet interesting people,” Brawley says.

He likens the festival to the grocery store: When someone goes to the store, they are picking out what they want to eat or use. The same goes for attending Cucalorus. Attendees can see one film in the morning, see a stage performance in the afternoon, and go see a connect speaker that evening. Someone else might attend different events instead.

As Brawley will tell you, “There’s a little something for everyone at Cucalorus.”

For those interested in Cucalorus, you can visit their website at cucalorus.org or call their office at 910-343-5995.

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