When 62-year-old Fred Andrews died on Feb. 24 after a five-year battle with cancer, he left behind more than the nationally recognized film festival he created from scratch.
He also passed on to those who knew him a lesson in perseverance. “Can’t” was not part of his vocabulary.
In 1997, Andrews founded the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee, which since has merged with the Kansas City International Film Festival.
You’d expect a guy who founded a film festival to be some sort of cineaste. A film professor, perhaps, or a filmmaker.
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Andrews was neither (though in the weeks before his death he completed a documentary about Kansas City barbecue and music). He was a big, bearded guy in jeans and plaid shirt who did tech work for Sprint.
Andrews was a film lover, but not in an academic or intellectual sense. He knew next to nothing about film theory, film production or film criticism.
He was just a guy who got a thrill from going to the movies, which is why he volunteered to work with the Kansas City Film Society.
There Andrews met local filmmakers, an underground army of aspiring moviemakers toiling in obscurity, working day jobs and devoting their weekends to capturing their dreams on film. They relied on volunteer casts and crews and financed their low-budget efforts by hook or by crook, all in the hope that someone would see their work.
“They all told me that their biggest need, other than money, is an audience,” Andrews would say. “I thought that was something we could help them with.’’
So he got to work organizing the first Jubilee, which ran for one weekend and featured 23 entries from local film and video artists.
By the second year the number of films exhibited had tripled, and Andrews had enlisted partners like the Film Society, the Independent Filmmakers Coalition, UMKC Continuing Education Arts & Sciences and the Kansas City Art Institute
By the fourth year the fest had ballooned into a nine-day extravaganza. Not only did filmmakers from all over the globe fly into town to show their movies, but the Jubilee offered seminars on cinema technology and financing geared to the needs of struggling filmmakers.
The Jubilee became a competitive event offering as prizes not only cash but film equipment and services, things a moviemaker could really use.
From the beginning the Jubilee was different. It was less about the audience than about the filmmakers themselves, and it quickly earned a reputation for hospitality.
“The Jubilee is unpretentious, straightforward and has no aspirations to attract Hollywood’s elite, but that does not mean that founder Fred Andrews isn’t serious about programming,” MovieMaker magazine publisher Timothy Rhys wrote in 2000.
“The schedule is limited but inspired, and all visiting artists are treated like royalty. With the attention on individual moviemakers, the Jubilee is in many ways a model for how these events should work.”
Almost from the beginning Andrews, who was never paid for his Jubilee work, recruited volunteers to help put on the show. But no one was as motivated as he was, nobody had their fingers in so many festival pies, nobody had his single-minded dedication to the cause. Nobody saw the big picture like he did.
He engaged in endless fundraising. He made friends in city government and in local movie exhibition.
It was the equivalent of a full-time job, but Andrews forged ahead tirelessly.
I recall visiting him at his Prairie Village home in the late ’90s and finding his living room stacked practically floor to ceiling with VHS tapes in black plastic cases. These were literally hundreds of independent movies from around the world mailed to the Jubilee by their hopeful creators.
Andrews made it a point to watch every one before passing them on to his colleagues for the Jubilee’s formal admissions process. I remember wondering when and if Fred Andrews slept.
And though the Jubilee happened just once a year, Andrews made sure it had a monthly presence in the special programs he developed. The Indy Film Showcase each month brought in regional filmmakers to screen and discuss their work. During the summer months the Jubilee celebrated First Fridays with the Off-the-Wall series that projected locally made films on the outside walls of buildings in the Crossroads Arts District.
How did he do it all? How did he surmount the obstacles, his own lack of formal film training, the money and logistical problems, and still come through?
I’ll never understand it, except to recognize that when he set his mind to something, Fred Andrews didn’t cave.
And that applies as well to his own mortality. In 2011 his doctors gave him less than a year to live. He lasted five times longer than the experts predicted.
Just another way in which Fred Andrews happily defied the odds.
▪ Film Society KC joins other film organizations of Kansas City for a memorial for Fred Andrews. Selected local films will be screened from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Thursday, March 10, at Screenland Armour. A reception follows. The event is free. RSVP via the Tribute to Fred Andrews page on Facebook.
Read more of freelance writer Robert W. Butler’s reviews and features on ButlersCinemaScene.com.