News & Notes

How to Succeed: DC’s Global Impact Film Festival Gains Momentum in the Festival Circuit

By Kathy Dismukes

You can’t just create a film festival and—presto change-o—impact! It takes time, dedicated leadership, teamwork, and a bit of luck. The Global Impact Film Festival is a success story we can all learn from, and I recently sat down with its founder and director, Emily Aguilar, at DC’s Renaissance Hotel to get the scoop. Established just four years ago, the Global Impact festival held each August showcases well crafted, diverse social-impact documentary and narrative shorts, complemented by valuable panels and workshops.

What’s Emily’s formula for success? First, she found a way to co-locate with an already popular draw, DCBX. This Latin-flavored extravaganza celebrated its 10th anniversary this year by hosting 7,000+ people at more than 200 musical and dance performances, master dance classes, and educational programs. By pairing with DCBX, which Emily’s sister (Katherine Aguilar-Smith) and brother-in-law (Lee Edward Smith) co-run, Emily has a built-in starter audience and marketing infrastructure. It was too cool to walk through the hotel with my host, filmmaker, producer, festival director of communications, and one-time WIFV board member, Faith DeVeaux. On our way to the screening rooms we came upon dance partners working on complex moves in the hallway and peeked into a ballroom where 80+ dancers were learning a difficult bachata spin. (To master the spin, do it like 150 times.)

Second, Emily decided to focus on short films (3 – 30 mins) with a social impact punch. There are enough festivals with short categories or that focus on shorts so that people are familiar with them, but not so many that the ground is saturated. Here comes the luck part: Through her network she was able to get Bill Butler, cinematographer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Grease, and Jaws, to headline the programming for the festival’s inaugural year. The first year had 20 films and a ton of publicity.

Third, she keeps the subject matter current by focusing on contemporary social justice issues. Last year a number of films addressed the international refugee crisis. This year there were a number on climate change and sexual assault, as well as refugees, gun control, racism, homelessness, and global health. Selections included 50 films from 23 countries—almost half of the 100+ entries this year, and more than half of the selections, were from outside the US. Clearly, promotional efforts are reaching the international community.

Fourth, Emily curates the schedule and programming for maximum impact. To create the screening schedule, she divides the films into docs and narratives, then applies a roller-coaster methodology that builds intense emotion in the audience with certain films then provides relief with lighter subject matter. For the festival’s workshops, she draws on her own experience as a filmmaker to develop supportive content. This year’s offerings included grant-writing for filmmakers and how to use a film to advance state and local policy. What’s more, Emily encourages filmmakers in each cohort to build relationships with the festival team, program presenters, and each other to enhance the effects of the festival.

What’s next? Emily has just finished directing her third feature film since graduating from Loyola Marymount University’s film school in 2015. Yes, she’s just now 25 and is currently writing her next feature film, which she will also direct. Her third feature, Brie’s Bake Off Challenge, a family comedy shot in Alexandria, is now headed into a year-long post production process; concurrently, Emily’s directing other creative and commercial productions. By the way, her second feature, Clara’s Ultimate Christmas, was picked up by the Dove Channel and will be airing this holiday season. She invites you to watch.

Emily and her team are already getting ready for the December 1st submission date for the 2019 Global Impact Film Festival (through FilmFreeway). In the next post, I’ll drill down into The Ripple Effect, one of the top documentary selections at this year’s festival, which is a great example how an artful film can catalyze the power of the arts. Written and directed by Grammy Award-winning Bunny Hall, the short shows the remarkable learning and emotional impact a music program has on kindergarteners and their families in East LA. In the meantime, you can follow Emily’s journey at or @themomentEM.

L-R: Tonia Saba, Tom Hyre, Emily Aguilar, Gabriella Colarusso, Paul Marengo, Faith DeVeaux Credit: Kristy Yang


Kathy Dismukes is the founder of Pintail Productions, a new Washington, DC area media production enterprise. Pintail Productions helps companies, associations, and nonprofits make strategic, effective use of both traditional video and new formats like 360 and AR. Kathy is also an impact producer and consultant specializing in fundraising, partnership building, and community outreach for films and nonprofits. A Women in Film & Video member since 2007, she served for two terms on the board of directors, including as VP of Development.

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