Written by Lindsey Lowe Osborne
Photo by Beau Gustafson
It might surprise you that the last movie Chloe Cook Collins, executive director of Sidewalk Film Festival, saw was not an indie film slated for festival success, but Cinderella (she saw it with her 8-year-old daughter, Clea.) And it might also surprise you that Collins’s first experience with film was “the classic children’s movie” 9 to 5. “Seriously, that was my first exposure to film. Dolly Parton made a big impression,” she says. “I have loved going to the movies ever since.”
While she’s always loved it, she didn’t actually begin working in the film industry until 2009, when she secured the role of executive director of Sidewalk. She’d graduated from Auburn University with a degree in communications in 2000 and then spent nine years working in marketing, public relations, and event planning. So she didn’t interview for the position with much film experience in her back pocket—but something about her must have seemed right. “I interviewed for this job at the insistence of a dear friend and professional mentor, Gail Vaughan, and honestly couldn’t believe the board offered me the job several weeks (and multiple interviews) later,” she says.
Nonetheless, Collins has shone in her role. Sidewalk celebrates its 17th year this year, and she’s played a key role in its continued success. Sidewalk is the city’s largest festival, with some 10,000 attendees, 200 films, 12–15 venues, and eight to 12 parties, all in two and a half days and with only two full–time employees. And each year seems better than the last—it’s one of the most revered film festivals in the country. Last November, Sidewalk was named on MovieMaker Magazine’s list of “The Top 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World,” and in February of 2014, USA Today said Sidewalk was one of the “Top Ten Places For a Fabulous Film Festival.” “Sidewalk plays a significant role in shaping the image of the city,” Collins says. “It brings a wide variety of people together in a way that I’ve never experienced before—a true cross section of the city that is beautiful and spirited and ultimately willing to work together to make Birmingham (and the South in general) look good.”
And Collins is the woman heading it all up. Between logistics and funding, volunteers and bookkeeping, it’s a big load, but Collins says it’s worth it. “With a full-time staff of only two and a team of 500+ volunteers, you are forced to work harder, be more resourceful, and put faith in people,” she says. “The challenges of this job are probably obvious: as a small arts nonprofit, we are constantly working to raise more money and cut expenses while improving our programmatic offerings and events. The rewards might not be as obvious, but they are overwhelming. I work with some of the most creative, generous, community-minded people, and that is by far the best part of the job.”
How does she do it? Well, in part, she’s a chameleon, always changing roles. “I wear many, many hats,” she says. “I write grants, sell sponsorships, manage marketing, public relations, and internal communications, develop new program ideas, and of course, the general day-to-day operational tasks like board interactions, staffing, bookkeeping, etc.” She’s also part dreamer, which helps her keep the whole thing not just in motion, but moving forward. These days, she’s dreaming of opening up an art house theatre under the Sidewalk name, which would give Sidewalk a year-round brick and mortar presence in the city. And while she may still be learning the craft of balancing, she’s able to gift grace to herself as she does. “Several years ago I read Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project, and she shares a story about her need for ‘gold stars’ and how that need complicates her relationships and impacts her happiness,” Collins says. “She comes to the conclusion that she should do things for herself (not for outside recognition). This resonated with me in an unexpected way, and I’ve since tried to follow her guideline, so that the actions I take are right for me and not tied to an expectation of praise or reward.”
And what lights that fire—what urges her to continue on when the path seems unclear—is the fact that she really believes in what she’s doing, both for the sake of film and for the sake of our city. “As a young person, I never imagined living my adulthood out in Birmingham (or anywhere in Alabama), but I moved here after college for my first job and damn am I glad that I did,” she says. “I love Birmingham. One of my favorite aspects of living in Birmingham is the whole idea of a ‘little big city.’ We have world-class restaurants, an ever growing arts and music scene, fantastic green spaces, and—and this is huge—you can get involved in the community so easily. If you want to make an impact on some aspect of the city (arts, education, the environment, whatever) you can do it whether you are a teenager, young professional, or retiree. It is easy to get plugged into things here, to find the pulse of something and quickly find a way to make your mark.”
There’s no doubt that Chloe Collins has done just that.