Founder, theater owner reflect on North Bend Film Fest

North Bend Film Fest co-founder Jess Byers reflects on running the North Bend Film Fest.

Under the iconic marquee sign of the North Bend Theatre on a warm August day, a line of patrons were waiting for “Swan Song,” the opening night movie of the fourth annual North Bend Film Fest in 2021.

At a time when many arts and film projects were struggling in the aftermath of the public health crisis, North Bend’s annual summer film fest had made a triumphant return to the city’s single big screen.

“We’re together in-person watching a movie,” one organizer remarked before the screening. “My heart is full.”

Yet, while they survived the worst of the pandemic, and returned again the next year, the festival will not come back again in 2023. Late last month, organizers announced the fest had shown its last film.

After delighting audiences at the North Bend Theatre each summer since 2018, organizers said financial challenges and a lack of backing had prompted them to shutter the event.

“It came down to a decision and we decided to basically end on a high note,” said Jess Byers, who founded the festival alongside Hugues Barbier and Justin Timms.

“Last year we felt like we produced a really good, awesome event,” he said. “Our finances were just looking pretty bleak.”

Patron wait in line outside the North Bend Theatre during the North Bend Film Fest. Photo courtesy of Jess Byers

Patron wait in line outside the North Bend Theatre during the North Bend Film Fest. Photo courtesy of Jess Byers

While the pandemic was certainly a disruption for the festival, it was only partially to blame, Byers said.

“Ironically, because we were able to stream nationally and get streaming sales, our finances actually improved throughout the pandemic,” he said.

In the end, what made the festival difficult to sustain was the same thing that made it unique — its location.

One of only a few festivals in the county held outside of Seattle, the North Bend festival struggled to find enough ticket sales or financial supporters. Outside of a few local businesses, Byers said, organizers struggled to find local partners, often having to look for support in Seattle.

“I truly do believe that we gave it our best shot,” he said. “[But] that’s the one thing that I would’ve loved to see go down differently.”

For its founders, the original intent behind the North Bend Film Festival was to build the fest into a destination event — one that existed outside a major city, but drew patrons from all over.

Byers was living in New York and had already co-founded the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival when he came up with the idea for a destination event that would become the North Bend Film Fest.

A Northwest native, Byers had been to North Bend as a kid, and his family were fans of the cult-classic 1990s TV show “Twin Peaks,” which was partially filmed in the Valley.

It was the combo of North Bend’s relationship to “Twin Peaks” and its well-supported historic theater that made the city an ideal spot for a destination festival, Byers said.

“It’s like 30 minutes from a major metropolitan area, 45 to the airport, has an awesome little theater, very adorable town, super nice people,” he said. “It just felt like it had all the right bones at the time.”

And while North Bend’s connection to “Twin Peaks” may have been a draw for patrons, Byers emphasized the goal was to show new films, not be a “Twin Peaks” repeat. Yet, he said, the festival did take on director David Lynch’s artistic ideals of taking experimental storytelling and attempting to push it in the mainstream.

“We looked at it from the perspective of why did this town inspire David Lynch? Why did he choose this town?” he said.

Under its tagline “something strange is coming,” the North Bend Film Fest emphasized vanguard filmmaking, a style of film that is boundary pushing in either subject matter or style.

Byers recalled they were “nervous as hell” about the initial film fest in 2018, and set a goal of not having to use their own money to support it.

While festival organizers had worked on larger festivals like Sundance or Tribeca, the festival in North Bend gave a blank slate for them to design the event how they wanted.

“We all kind of considered it like summer camp,” he said. “It was sort of this low- to no-paid thing that we’d come together to do just because we loved being with each other and doing this.”

With such a small team that never got much above 12 people, Byers said everyone wore multiple hats. Organizers would curate the festival’s screenings and also take tickets during the event, he said.

“What we were able to project on the outside was so much bigger than the resources that we had on the inside,” he said. “That’s something that I’m very proud of.”

The fourth annual North Bend Film Fest. Photo courtesy of Jess Byers

The fourth annual North Bend Film Fest. Photo courtesy of Jess Byers

Beth Burrows, owner of the North Bend Theatre, called the festival “such a creative and unique” festival, noting she was sad to see it go. Burrows had just taken over as owner of the 82-year-old theater in 2018, when Byers and festival organizers approached her about holding a summer festival there.

“They were so professional,” she said. “They brought in curated films that you’re not not going to see anywhere else.”

While the North Bend Theatre will still host the BANFF Mountain Film Festival, a traveling festival, it will be without its own event.

Burrows said North Bend lacked the infrastructure needed to support a crowd of people attending the festival. The city has little public meeting space, and only recently made plans to bring in a hotel.

“I really would have liked to see them be more supported locally,” she said. “Not only with the audience, but also structurally.”

At a time when both locally owned and corporate theaters are going under, Burrows said she hopes there is more opportunity for the North Bend Theatre to support a film festival in the Valley.

“I’d like to think that they’re not really gone,” she said. “I’m hoping it’s more of a pause. I see so much interest coming to our Valley for filmmaking.”