Jesse Harris has spent his brief adult life creating opportunities for young filmmakers as the co-founder and executive director of the National Film Festival for Talented Youth. Now it’s his turn to seize those opportunities.
By the time the seventh annual NFFTY kicks off in Seattle next spring, the organization the 20-year-old started will have a new executive director and Harris himself will be back behind the camera.
At the tender age of 17, Harris made his first feature length drama, Living Life. The film was picked up by a distributor, which gave Harris the chance to see his creation on the big screen. He knew he was lucky—and that he shouldn’t be the only one to have that experience.
“I felt there should be a film festival for young people,” he says. “For some reason I thought I should start it. I don’t remember why. I just thought it would be a small little hobby, something I could do while continuing to be a filmmaker.”
In 2007, Harris put on the first NFFTY, quickly realizing that to do it right, he would need to devote himself entirely to the enterprise. He also realized that NFFTY was working, providing young filmmakers with a much-needed forum. So he folded up his director’s chair.
Since then, the festival has become a nonprofit that employs three full-time employees, plus several more employees who work during the fest. In just five years, Harris has enough corporate sponsorship and grants to support an annual operating budget of roughly $400,000.
“For the first two or three years, it was so exciting building and creating this,” Harris says. “But once it was big enough to run itself, it became less exciting. I love having young filmmakers tell me that we changed their lives. But the rest of the year was just sending emails. And I’m a director, so it became frustrating to have to turn down opportunities because of NFFTY.”
Harris’s desire to make films found an outlet while he was managing the festival, though. To better integrate his auto sponsor into the vibe of the fest, Harris created a car ad to run prior to NFFTY screenings. The sponsors loved it (they even sold a car at the fest) and soon Harris’ directing talents became a part of his sponsorship package. More commercial work followed, with Harris producing ads for online and television. Soon he had generated a client list, as well as the confidence, that helped him step away from the festival directorship.
“Raising money and starting something from scratch was insanely hard,” Harris says. “But I feel like it’s finally grown to the point where it can take care of itself.”
Harris will be less involved in the day-to-day business of the festival but will remain in place as the artistic director.
“I will help to pick the films and maintain the integrity,” he says. “That’s the stuff I actually like.”