Heather Waters and the Richmond International Film Festival

Let’s see, we’ve pretty much got dining in the bag, and we’ve long been a musical and visual arts powerhouse…but what about film? Does RIFF’s massive growth over four years indicate that we’re on the movie map?

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Opening with a bang this Thursday, the Richmond International Film Festival spans four days, screens more than 120 films, and is the brainchild of just one lone human being. 

Heather Waters is knee-deep in films. No, that’s not true. She used to be knee-deep when she co-founded the Creative World Awards with Marlene Neubauer.

Then, when she became president of the Virginia Production Alliance, she was in film up to her elbows. But now, as founder and the driving force behind the Richmond International Film Festival, Waters is absolutely and happily up to her ears in movies. 

In it’s fourth year, RIFF has grown from short films to a mix of feature length, shorts, and screenplays from all over the world. “I never set out to start a film festival, to be honest,” admits Waters. “It was sort of a rebellion against Big Hollywood.”

Her work with Creative World Awards, which has been helping screenwriters navigate the increasingly difficult development process that one must face in order for a screenplay to become a movie, has seen a sea change in the industry. After the recession hit, studios were less free with their money, opting for the sure-things–the comic book sequels and the teen vampire movies. Writers with other ideas had to get in line for indie production.

“It’s really tough for some of our writers to enter he market,” she explains. “And after I moved to Richmond and fell in love with the area, I noticed there wasn’t much exposure for all the talent we have here.” Originally from Atlanta (by way of Los Angeles), Waters had seen the effects of a state and community that support the film industry,1 and she couldn’t believe that Richmond didn’t yet have a competitive film festival2

So, she put her bags in the trunk, pointed her car towards Georgia, and drove away, crumpling up her film festival idea (which was written on a piece of paper) and tossing it out the window.

JK! Heather Waters stayed here, thank goodness, and made it happen.3 The MIX, RIFF’s first iteration, was short-films only. Its success in 2011 encouraged her to push it farther, expanding the scope of films as well as the actual festival itself. More screens, more films, and more seats, and funding it on her own for three years running. Now, she tries to come up with mutually beneficial community partnerships to help shoulder some of the growing financial load.

To put things in perspective: Waters and her team of volunteers received 200 submissions that first year. Now they see more than a thousand submissions from all over the globe. Waters goes against the current trend of going out and curating her own festival–cherry-picking films that she thinks are winners. “I saw a real problem with that. What kind of spots would these indie filmmakers have at the end of the day if we’d gone out and found these huge films? We wanted to give equal footing to both [big and small films] and focus on quality.” As a result, 100% of the films featured at the festival came to RIFF as a submission. 

A year in the life of a very busy person

“I work in my sleep,” Waters says a little desperately and without laughing. “It’s crazy.” 

She spends four to six weeks after each festival wrapping it up, helping the winners find distributors, that sort of thing. Then, RIFF immediately opens up for submissions, and Waters oversees and administrates a team of preliminary industry judges to keep the backlog down. All the while, Waters is establishing sponsorships and working on programming and events. Around September, she brings on some more help–folks to assist with solidifying more sponsor partnerships–interns, apprentices, and volunteers come aboard in late fall. “There’s no way I could have done it this year without my team of eight volunteers, and my intern and apprentice,” says Waters. The festival reminds me of Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, only a benevolent Audrey II without a thirst for blood. “It’s predominantly me [handling the fest], but I’m trying to change that. At least I love what I do, so it doesn’t feel like work. So that helps!”

How to plan your RIFF

From Swedish comedies to shorts about OCD that’ll leave your emotions raw, RIFF has–on purpose–a huge range of possibilities for the moviegoer. Waters recommends that newbies to film festivals pick three films from the schedule, and try to keep it diverse, say, with movies from three different countries or genres. “Try something that’s out of your comfort zone, because then you get the full festival experience. And you may come away and say ‘Wow, I didn’t know I liked that.'”

Waters thinks long and hard when asked to come up with some recommended films. Clearly, they’re all recommended, but she did admit to particularly liking Unlikely Heroes (12:45 PM on Saturday at the Byrd), The Fool (12:00 PM on Saturday at Movieland), Wildlike (4:00 PM on Saturday at the Byrd), Contamination (a short film made by local filmmaker R. Shanea Williams) (7:00 PM on Saturday at Movieland), The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (1:30 PM on Sunday at the Byrd), and The Japanese Dog (2:30 PM on Saturday at the Byrd). 

There’s also the films we’ve covered over the past month as well as about 100 more to check out. Festivities begin this Thursday with a packed schedule of hang-out opportunities, movie opportunities, and meet-the-filmmaker opportunities.

If you run into Heather Waters, be sure to encourage her to go home and get some rest–after you thank her profusely for making all of this happen, of course. We can do without her for one night (just one, though).

Photo by: intellidryad


  1. Georgia has one of the most generous (or aggressive, depending on how you look at it) programs for filmmaker tax rebate incentives out of all 50 states.  
  2. A competitive festival differs from, say, the French Film Festival, which is an exhibition-only event. Both have their merits and uses. Competitive festivals allow filmmakers to get some exposure and they help promote films to distributors.  
  3. She presumably doesn’t litter, either, but I can’t be certain. We didn’t discuss it. 
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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