Dianna Costello, A Force In Film (a)
Costello’s imagination runs wild
To say Dianna Costello has had a full career would be an understatement. From Boston to Los Angeles to Atlanta, she’s lived across the country, doing everything in the film industry from producing an Oscar-nominated short film to teaching in the Entertainment Studies Division of UCLA Extension.
But after working as a film commissioner, producing commercials and production-managing an Emmy-nominated children’s TV special, she realized there was still one thing she’d always wanted to do — run a film festival. And that’s what brought her to New Hampshire.
“I just really like the whole vibe of a film festival,” said Costello, who took over as executive director of the Monadnock International Film Festival (MONIFF) last October. “Not only is it a chance to see great films, but it’s a chance to learn more about the filmmaking process because there are lots of great panels you can attend, and there are lots of great parties. What’s not to like?”
Having served on the board for the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and the International Documentary Association, the Lexington, Mass., native was ready to return to the Northeast after living elsewhere since 1982.
“New Hampshire is a beautiful state and (MONIFF) was a relatively young film festival. They had only put on three film festivals to date,” she said. “So it was a chance to come in and kind of mold it and help it grow and take it to the next level.”
For most people, a film festival consists of a weekend packed with screenings, panels and parties, to be enjoyed and wrapped up in a few days. But for those behind the scenes, it’s 12 months of careful planning and attention to detail on everything from membership and finance to marketing and film selection.
Though most of her time between festivals is spent attending committee meetings and researching grants, another of Costello’s big passions is photography.
“I’ve taken a lot of photography workshops in L.A. and even on the east coast at Maine Media Workshops,” she said.
In the past she’d even use her vacations as a chance to take photography workshops, making it an active learning vacation from daily work.
While you won’t find high-profile independent features at MONIFF like ones at The Colonial Theatre — those often get Oscar nods and are picked up by prominent independent distributors — there are second- and third-tier indie films that fly under the radar and are quite good.
“Those are the ones that we look for,” she said.
The festival is 100-percent curated by its board members. They carefully select which documentaries, narrative features, narrative shorts, documentary shorts and animated shorts make the cut from foreign, national and regional filmmakers.
The method for finding films varies. Sometimes Costello attends festivals, such as DOC NYC or the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, or she’ll see what’s popular on IndieWire.com.
“It’s like ‘Variety’ or ‘Hollywood Reporter’ but it’s just for independent films, so you find out what is hot on the film festival circuit,” she explained.
Though every film festival tries to have a couple of first-time screenings, the primary goal guiding MONIFF’s film selection is always the quality of storytelling.
“I like a film that at the end has been able to impact the viewer’s attitude in some way,” she explained. “I want to … expose them to things they haven’t been exposed to.”
Since taking over as executive director, Costello has worked to put her vision for MONIFF into action — to make the film festival a year-round cultural resource through monthly screenings and events.
Monday, Oct. 24, marks the first event kicking off a new screening series to be held throughout the year. Partnering with Franklin Pierce University’s Monadnock Institute to bring the documentary to the Peterborough Community Theatre, the film “From Hurricane to Climate Change” focuses on flooding in Peterborough and Alstead following the 1938 hurricane. The screening will feature a panel with a climate-change expert and people who lived through the hurricane.
In the future, Costello would like to bring screenings to the Putnam Theatre, Keene Public Library and the Park Theatre in Jaffrey and hopes next fall to launch a one or two-day environmental film fest, inspired by this area’s “environmental studies footprint.”
Carol Nelson, owner of the Peterborough theater, expressed excitement about the opportunities a partnership with MONIFF will bring.
“People that are used to seeing MONIFF in Keene hopefully get to … come to Peterborough to see what’s going on here,” she said. “We definitely benefit with people that are familiar with their festival and hopefully get to become familiar with our theater, and vice versa.”
Nelson hopes to partner with MONIFF for more screenings, and is happy that “a documentary that is really close to Peterborough’s heart” will be brought to the town for its premiere.
“It’s very easy working with Dianna,” Nelson said. “They are so lucky to have her. She is a top-notch professional.”
Costello landed her first job in the film industry after she completed her graduate degree at Syracuse University in television and radio. She moved to Boston to work as an account executive/producer for Century III Teleproductions, a new company. Within a couple of years, she’d risen to senior producer, putting out “industrials” — or corporate videos — and commercials.
But she yearned to work in a longer-narrative format so she applied to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and was accepted into the Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies as a producer in 1982.
Her project, “Graffiti,” was one of just six accepted to be produced. Based on a short story by Julio Cortazar, an Argentinian ex-pat living in Paris, the short film was nominated for an Academy Award.
Today, Costello looks back on her 22 cumulative years in L.A. — she moved back three separate times — and says she got it out of her system. The opportunities kept calling her back, she explained, not to mention the many friends she made over the years.
While in L.A. the first time, Costello said, she worked on a project for Paramount that was ultimately discarded after five years of work. She then produced and production-managed on a freelance basis, including a one-hour children’s TV special for Fox called “Smart Kids” that earned an Emmy nomination. She also taught at UCLA Extension, the continuing education division of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Much of Costello’s career is defined by her ability to seize the right opportunity at the right time.
When she was offered the chance to become a film commissioner, she packed her bags and moved to the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina, her first segue into marketing and business development. For four years in the ‘90s, she ran a nonprofit film office, recruiting feature film, TV production and commercials to shoot in the 12-county region.
“In three years my staff and I were able to quadruple the amount of production that came to our region. It went from $4 million spent in our region to $24 million,” she said.
In fact, that film office was one of the first beta test sites for Kodak in 1996. While the rest of the film offices were pasting photos in folders, Costello’s office had its entire library digitized by Kodak.
“We were a step ahead, and we created the first-ever location CD that we took to trade shows… (to) see hundreds of photos in 18 different categories, from farms to colleges and universities,” she said. “That was exciting to be on the cutting edge of that.”
A passion for innovation took Costello to her next post as director of business development-post production for Crawford Communications in Atlanta. She visited the company in 1999 and was taken aback by how progressive it was.
“They were on the cutting edge of HD,” she said. “I also spent a lot of trips going to L.A., trying to recruit clients because that was my job as director of business development — to bring clients into Crawford who were starting to produce their projects in high definition.”
Making contacts and seeking new opportunities, Costello experienced more aspects of the film business, serving on film festival boards and working for a title-design company, yU + co, before she decided she wanted to run a film festival and found the MONIFF position in New Hampshire.
A main reason Costello wanted to run a film festival is she knows how hard it is to make a film, having done it herself, and loves being able to connect audiences to indie filmmakers and their work.
“I think the best films being made hands down are independent films” she said. Film festivals “bring the community films they would not ordinarily see at the Cineplex — it brings the community together for events.”
(a)Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff. A Force In Film. Dianna Costello, executive director of the Monadnock International Film Festival, with posters for the annual event. Costello is shown here at Keene’s Hannah Grimes Center, which houses her office.