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Inaugural Hillsboro Film Festival creates a new hub for West Side cinema

The two-day event at The Vault drew entries from around the globe and raised funds for host Bag&Baggage Productions.


Christi Dodge and Nik Whitcomb introduced Hillsboro Film Festival at The Vault

In April 2023, Christi Dodge was Zoom-interviewing to be a board member of Bag&Baggage Productions. Her interviewer, the Hillsboro theater company’s Producing Artistic Director, Nik Whitcomb, started off with easy questions about her background in theater and arts. But Dodge was eager to get to the important stuff. Like most boards of arts organizations, one of B&B’s board’s most pressing tasks was to raise funds. And, like so many arts organizations just emerging from the pandemic, Bag&Baggage needed to raise a lot of money — the sooner, the better. 

Dodge, a filmmaker who with her husband runs a family-owned Washington County media production company, told Whitcomb about their own filmmaking, including A New Promise, Second Story and more in progress, and about their cinephile podcast.

And then she told him about her dream project, which Dodge had harbored ever since graduating from Portland State University’s film studies program in 2017. But it had been deferred by the realities of building her family’s nascent business, Dodge Media, which created commercial video and audio productions for corporate clients. 

Then, not long after the company was up and running in 2019, pandemic struck, which pretty much scotched any other ideas that involved bringing people together.

But now, with the economy and their company on the rebound, and Bag&Baggage in need of a fundraising event, Dodge revived that dream.

“I think that a film festival would be a great fundraiser for the theater,” she told Whitcomb. “Low overhead, low staffing needs, and multiple revenue streams with sponsorships, submission fees, ticketing, and concessions night of.” B&B’s The Vault Theater & Event Space could host it. Proceeds would benefit the theater company. Though it likely would raise less money than a traditional fundraising gala, it’d be cheaper. Instead of high upfront overhead costs like catering, “we can just give ‘em popcorn!” Dodge noted.

Then the closer, the words she hoped would secure her a seat on B&B’s board. “I would be happy to organize it.” 


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Whitcomb’s eyes lit up. “My first thought was ‘Absolutely!’” he remembers. “I’m very interested in expanding the work we do outside just theater and live storytelling, to other facets of art we should uplift.” The board invited Dodge to join.

This past November, he invited her to the company’s home, The Vault, to talk about what a film festival fundraiser might look like in 2025.


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But she knew the company’s financial situation was precarious. Dodge — “I’m a ‘now is better than later’ kind of person” — didn’t feel they could afford to wait. 

“Why not 2024?” she asked.

Whitcomb gulped. Creating a brand new film festival from scratch in six months — why not indeed? But he could see Dodge’s enthusiasm and commitment, knew her connections to the Hillsboro community, including four years as a member of the local chamber of commerce. And he knew that hosting a signature event this year, with attendees patronizing local restaurants and hotels, could also boost downtown Hillsboro’s ongoing resurgence from the pandemic.

“We are eager to be a space for community gathering in all forms,” he says, “and also know that we have a responsibility to be a driver of economic prosperity for the area.” 

Whitcomb agreed to put the company’s resources behind Dodge’s idea. Because of other commitments, including Bag&Baggage’s annual outdoor summer show in June, they decided on the first Friday of May, 2024.

Katie Prentiss’s “Gamer” won Bronze in HFF’s Micro Short Category.

The gamble turned out to be a better bet than either of them expected. After a frenzied winter of work, tickets to the first annual Hillsboro Film Festival sold out in days, forcing them to add a second show the next night, which also filled up. The debut festival was so successful that they’re already planning for next year’s edition. 

Such success is rare for any startup, let alone a new arts venture. How did they pull it off?


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West Side Scene

In truth, Dodge had been incubating the idea for years. For her 2017 PSU capstone project, she’d crowd-funded and created a short film, and wanted to screen it for her friends — in an actual theater. Portland offered plenty of candidate venues, but the Scholls (near Newberg) resident “knew all my country folk weren’t gonna cross that river,” she explains. “Everyone’s afraid of the [Sunset Highway] tunnel!” 

She’d long cherished Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, Bag&Baggage’s original Main Street home, now an events space, and imagined showing her film there. But she knew she needed more than her own 12-minute production to lure viewers, so she asked her fellow students to screen their capstone projects alongside hers, and engaged a songwriter friend, who’d written a song for her film, to perform an opening set. Without quite intending it, “I’d created an unofficial film festival!” Dodge says. 

“This was so fun, we should do this every year!” a friend told her at the reception afterward. “I totally should!” Dodge replied with a grin. And she wanted to do it in Hillsboro. 

Kyle Nelson’s “Grizzly Business,” Silver Winner in Micro Short Category

Creating an annual festival wasn’t a whim. “I do feel that there is a small but growing indie film scene here on the West Side,” Dodge explains. “[Portland Community College Rock Creek], Pacific [University in Forest Grove], and George Fox [University in Newberg] all have film programs,” not to mention that Hillsboro’s the headquarters of world renowned LAIKA Studios, which wound up playing a role in HFF. 

Plus, technology had made filmmaking more accessible than ever, notes Dodge, who’s old enough to remember the days of big clunky Avid editing workstations and “exorbitant” film development and editing costs. Stephen Soderbergh has famously shot several films on an iPhone, and he’s only the best known of many. 

Anna Lueck’s “The Kelp Keepers,” Silver Winner in Short Category

Was Hillsboro big enough to support a new film festival? Dodge’s primary inspiration, the McMinnville Short Film Festival, which started in 2011, and Bend Film Festival, have both become solid contributors to the U.S. indie film scene. And Hillsboro, Oregon’s fourth largest city, was bigger than both.  

“We’ve got a wonderfully supportive arts community in Hillsboro,” Dodge told Whitcomb. “There’s no reason we couldn’t have a festival here.” 


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Last April, when Dodge led a chat about HFF at Hillsboro’s Brookwood library under the auspices of Just Create Community (one of HFF’s sponsors), “there were 40-50 people who showed up to hear how we make independent films,” Dodge remembers. “People came up to me afterward and said, ‘I have an idea for a movie.’ ‘I’m gonna make something for next year’s film festival.’ I think they’re out there. We just need these groups to come together.” 

And now, HFF could provide a place to do just that — if Dodge could create a festival in five months. 

Pulling Together

Dodge started with an enormous advantage: Bag&Baggage itself.

“We have our own infrastructure,” Whitcomb notes. “We’re a 501c3 [nonprofit organization that makes contributions tax-deductible, among other advantages], we have a marketing staff, ticketing system, website platform, press materials. And we have the space — and a screen. A lot of festivals have to arrange all that. We didn’t have to answer a lot of those questions. Without us being an established organization, it could not have happened that fast.”

Dodge did have to answer other questions — what might the total costs be, and how much would they have to raise in sponsorships to pay them? After those costs were covered, filmmaker submission fees, ticket proceeds and the concession take from patrons buying drinks and snacks would go to support Bag&Baggage. When she arrived at  a number, Whitcomb sent out letters to possible contributors, including past B&B supporters and businesses around its Main Street home. “Within a week, we had that number covered,” she says. “The Hillsboro community stepped up and supported us.” Sponsors included Just Create Community, and local businesses, such as the Main Street pet supply store Puppernickel. 

That last one happened when Dodge and her husband were walking down Main Street, and she stopped in to introduce him to its proprietor, her friend Krystal Michaels-Monroe. “What are you doing downtown today?” she asked Dodge, who explained that she was meeting with Whitcomb to discuss next steps in the film festival. Michaels-Monroe, a theater lover, knew Dodge’s reputation and had been looking for a way to support Bag&Baggage. She wrote a sponsorship check then and there.

“Corporate sponsorships are not easy to come by,” Whitcomb says. “The fact that we had five corporate sponsors is huge. It shifts the way I think about how we fundraise, how we talk to potential corporate sponsors. The community really rallied around this, too.”


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Friends and supporters put Dodge in touch with other film festivals, and she did plenty of her own research. 

One of several HFF animated feature submissions, “Marble Me Free” was directed and produced by Dr. Diane Kaufman, a Portland-based founder/director of the Hold On Campaign for Suicide Prevention that uses art to connect, express, and heal.

Bag&Baggage’s other asset was the ever-ebullient Whitcomb himself. “Nik is such a ‘Yes! Let’s do it’ guy,” Dodge says. “He’s such an optimist, so enthusiastic. Working with him was a breeze. Whatever questions came up, he would have an answer. Any obstacle — he moved it.”

Whitcomb had already built relationships with city arts and development officials, who couldn’t do much on such a short timeline this year, yet wound up finding some grant funding and lending promotional support. 

And as it turned out, they didn’t even have to pay for the popcorn. Hillsboro Bar & Grill, across the street from The Vault, lent the festival its popcorn machine — and paid for the popcorn and oil as in-kind contributions. 

Judgment Days

Over the ensuing weeks, Dodge put out a call for screenplays on popular filmmaking sites, and chose judges, who included, along with Whitcomb, professors from local universities, a development producer for LAIKA Studios, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and a former Production Manager at DreamWorks and Pixar. 

They also snagged veteran award-winning filmmaker Mark A. Burley, who’d produced and directed numerous movies and TV series, including GLOW, Orange Is The New Black, Weeds, Murder, She Wrote and more. That came about through a local connection, too — a Bag&Baggage production designer who happened to be a hiking buddy of Burley’s. He also participated in a public discussion session, gave them permission to screen his newest film, the 30-minute comedy Moon Blood, and paid his own way to the festival. 

Then they waited for the entries to come in.


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They were astonished to receive 57 submissions from around the world, including the United Arab Emirates, Italy, Canada, and Malaysia. But the majority came from Portland and the surrounding area; most came from Washington County, including quite a few from Hillsboro. The stylistic range was also impressive: five animated, four experimental, 19 docu/mockumentaries, even a couple of music videos.

As elated as she was about the quality, variety, and big locavore response, Dodge also shuddered at the magnitude — because it meant that she’d have to watch all those films, cull the number to 12 for the other judges to consider — and deliver a lot of bad news to a lot of filmmakers. She prioritized films that looked professional and exceeded in traditional filmmaking values: good story, cinematography, acting quality.

“As a filmmaker, I know how hard it is to do pre-production, planning, writing a script, production, editing and perfecting your film,” she says. “I was glad I had therapy scheduled” on the day she sent the rejection notices. 

My own favorites from the second night (the only one I could attend) included local singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Malderine’s fun Little Army music video, Jason Rosenblatt’s poignant Bronze medal winner For Dad (a teenage girl’s months-long sequence of brief video messages to her comatose father), Kyle Nelson’s Grizzly Business, Rachel Taggart’s charming Hold My Hair, Rollin Stafford’s Snow Day (showing an encounter between two strangers at the Oregon Holocaust Memorial), and Katie Prentiss’s ingenious Gamer. Julia Morizawa’s Dragonfly, set during the notorious firebombing of Tokyo in World War II, won the Gold award for shorts. 

Whitcomb was also happily shocked by the strong local showing. “That so many films came from locals was incredible. I didn’t think that would happen. I thought we’d get a lot of folks from out of town but it felt a little more homegrown. I’m so happy it all came together.”


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It also boosted the audience, as local filmmakers’ friends and family could attend the screenings. The single night screening sold out even before the winners were announced, and Whitcomb eagerly added a second night — which also filled up to near capacity. That allowed Dodge to screen a few more short films from local makers. The two-night run raised more than $7,000 for Bag&Baggage. 

“The community of Hillsboro was so excited this was coming,” Whitcomb says, noting that many weren’t necessarily film fans, but just wanted to support a new local artistic initiative. “It speaks to the fact that Christi was on to something. I cannot overstate how much she did to make this thing happen. She knew this is something people would want.” 

Many of those people were new to the theater.

“Raise your hand if you’ve never been to this theater before,” Whitcomb announced at the outset of the second screening. At least two-thirds of the audience members complied. The festival continued Whitcomb’s audience diversification efforts, which he says has brought “over 700 brand new patrons to Bag&Baggage, not just to our plays but because we’ve hosted different things, a partnership with Unite Oregon, a lot of intention put into getting new folks in here. People responded!” 

That’s because the festival was really a community effort. “I was the gas in the engine,” Dodge says, “but it was a whole car. I have such huge gratitude to Nik and Bag&Baggage and the city, the patrons, filmmakers, sponsors — everybody came together. Without any of them, we couldn’t have done it.”

Expansion Ahead

While the inaugural HFF proved an unexpected success that happened unexpectedly quickly, the perpetrators are looking ahead to future fests, and applying lessons learned this time.

“It’s just a different experience watching a series of short films rather than a play. Even a two-hour play feels right somehow. But two hours of multiple films….”


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Future shows will definitely be shorter. You might think seeing a bunch of short pieces would feel somehow brisker than immersing yourself in a single, long film, because you get a boost from a new story every few minutes. Didn’t feel that way to Whitcomb and some other audience members.

Dodge agrees. “It went too long, especially the first night,” when the half-hour Moonblood screening and a half-hour Q&A session preceded two-plus hours of short films. She still wants to maximize opportunities for indie artists to get their work seen, but next year, she’d like to spread the love out over a larger canvas, or maybe a metaphorically wider screen, with more films distributed over more and shorter screenings. 

HFF’s awards were created by a local Hillsboro artist, Kalib Bybee. Photo: Lee Gochenour Photography.

“One day I want this to be a full weekend event and have screenings, with people with weekend passes, drop-in screenings, family-centric screenings so kids could come,” she says. “Have it at the Walters and HART and The Venetian,” all just a couple blocks away, and maybe even do an outdoor screening or series of them on Main Street’s Civic Center plaza, where Bag&Baggage stages an annual summer production. She aspires to the national significance of Bend and McMinnville’s film festivals.

“You don’t have to be Sundance or Cannes to be a successful film festival,” says ArtsWatch film writer Marc Mohan. “Many communities in Oregon and elsewhere have taken the initiative to create homegrown events like this one, both as a way for locals to celebrate their creative side and to encourage visitors and the tourism dollars they spend.” 

Dodge also looks forward to sharing the workload, by bringing in co-curators for at least the first round of judging and other planning. “To do it all by myself was just too much,” she says. “So next year I’m accepting offers for people to help me on the planning committee, to watch the films and give me feedback. I would like it to be democratized. I want a committee that’s socioeconomically diverse by race, age and gender, maybe 10-12 people who can be our mini test audience so they can choose the films that go to the judges,” with Dodge and Whitcomb retaining final approval. (Maybe community curation similar to the Ashland New Plays Festival?) 

Dodge also imagines HFF hosting workshop screenings for focus groups at The Vault, maybe even a series of classic film screenings. She’d like to get LAIKA Studios more involved, maybe offering talks or workshops in stop motion animation. And “I would love to incorporate other local artists and our rich agriculture of the area.”

Excerpt from “Follow the Water,” a film about Oregonians’ connection to nature, selected for this year’s Hillsboro Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Dodge continues to make her own films and help with others, with one (her husband’s feature Around To It) already making the festival circuit, another in post-production, and a full feature aimed to come out next year.


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As for HFF, Whitcomb shares Dodge’s ambitions. “Major film festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, and South by Southwest all started out as ideas that led to small convenings – and now bring some of the top talent around the globe to local areas in a small window of time that provides a major economic boost to all of the businesses in the area,” Whitcomb says. “This is our eventual goal with the Hillsboro Film Festival.” 

Although she’s just now recovering from the frenzy of that first HFF, Dodge enjoyed working with Whitcomb so much that by the end of the second night, as she leaned, exhausted, on the wall outside The Vault, accepting Whitcomb’s congratulations, she told him, “I’m sad. It’s been so much fun working on this with you, and now it’s over.”

“What are you talking about?!” Whitcomb replied. “We need to get together and start working on 2025!”

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Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.


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