When Tony Mark first envisioned creating an international film festival in the Cayman Islands, he never thought his dream would come to fruition in three short years, and with such a feverish-pitch from his old Hollywood friends.

The former Emmy-winning video editor, writer and director worked on major feature films and hit television shows for 20 years before moving to Cayman five years ago with his wife Jennifer, with whom he is part-owner at Cathy Church’s Photo Centre.

Although he is now a local photographer and videographer by day, Mark’s strong personal relationships with many Hollywood heavy hitters combined with his unique skills and stints serving as a board of director for several film festivals in the U.S. have now enabled him to create a world-class festival with a roster of A-list talent ready to showcase their films. (Mark is keeping this A-list under wraps for now.)

From Left: Jon M. Chu, Kristin Hodge, Jason Felts, Rene Rigal, Tony Mark, Jenn Mark, Mira Howard, Terrence Howard, Roberta Bostock, and Robyn Larkin

The inaugural Cayman International Film Festival, otherwise known as CayFilm, will make its debut June 18 through 21. Various venues have already been secured to host daily film screenings, including at least one exclusive world premiere screening, question and answer sessions with filmmakers, panel discussions, workshops and a celebrity gala event.

Hannah Howe and Dylan Bostock.

With a team of volunteers and the help of his wife, acting as the festival’s logistics coordinator, Mark has received tremendous support right from the beginning.

“My goal is to build this film festival into a big yearly event, similar to Pirates Week. I like to refer to it as ‘Cannes in the Caribbean,’” says Mark. “My original intention was to start with one or two venues and grow it each year, but Hollywood is getting excited as the word is really getting out.”

Although he is still securing corporate sponsorships, Mark already has a team of local partners in place, including the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, Cayman National Cultural Foundation, and The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman; the latter hosted a glitzy launch party in June 2014 that saw special guests such as Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard (lead actor in the new TV series “Empire”) and Jon Murray Chu, one of Hollywood’s hottest young film directors, join a crowd of about 250 people at the red carpet soiree.

Actor Terrence Howard putting on a show!

A press conference was also held there outlining the plans and hopes for the upcoming film festival which included a few Hollywood heavy hitters as well as George Town MLA and Tourism Ministry Councilor Joey Hew, who has given his full backing to the project from the outset.

Hew said during the launch event that the festival would allow the Cayman Islands to tap into local talent that currently did not have a platform for expression and that it was his desire to start promoting the Cayman Islands to shoot small films and to become a major player in the world of film.

Mark, who is festival director, believes Cayman has a strong infrastructure to support an event of this caliber. He also notes its safety compared to other islands, and elsewhere internationally.

“There are quite a few film festivals that I personally know of where celebrities won’t go to because they don’t feel safe there. We do have the infrastructure to provide security, cars, rooms overlooking the sea, etc. In my initial calls to Hollywood friends, nobody said no to the idea of a festival here or that it was a bad idea,” Mark says.

Jason Felts, CEO of Virgin Produced and producer of such films as “Limitless,” “Immortal” and “21 & Over” (and a long-time visitor to Cayman) was also on hand at last year’s event and is an official member of the board of advisors and a partner in the festival.

Other board advisors include Loren Carpenter, chief co-founder of Pixar and a pioneer innovator in computer animation; Michael Black, famed talent manager who helped launch the careers of such legends as Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn; and Robert Watts, who produced such films as “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “James Bond,” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” to name a few.

Submissions & Categories

More than 400 movies from 50 countries have already been submitted to the festival since January 31, and Mark says they will keep accepting submissions until April 17.

Film categories include The Young Image Makers, which is co-sponsored by the CNCF and open to any child between the ages of 10 and 17 who has been a resident in Cayman for one year; and the CITA-sponsored Cayman Underwater Film Festival, which is now part of the CayFilm umbrella. Films must be under 40 minutes in length and shot predominately under water.

Other categories include: First Film, Animation, Environmental Focus, Narrative Full-length Features, Narrative Short Film, Documentaries, Extreme Sports, and a Screenplay Competition.

A panel of six international judges who are all industry professionals (including two Oscar-winning judges and one Emmy-winning judge), and three local judges have already begun viewing submissions, giving their opinions and rating the movies as they come in.

Mark points out that all of the local submissions have no entry fees and go to international judges so there are no biases. He received many of the international submissions through his network of contacts and by just reaching out to filmmakers.

Mark anticipates about 2,000-2,500 people will attend the festival and he plans on creating one pass for a set fee that will allow the festival patrons into all of the screenings. He is also working with the Cayman Drama Society to incorporate theater pieces in between screenings and workshops to give people breaks, among other live entertainment.

“I’ve been at film festivals where I’m out watching movies straight from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and you get burned out. I want to have other events for breathers,” he says.

Mark says the festival will soon be part of the Caribbean Island Film Festival organization, and he is excited about working with local Caribbean films so that “people can come see films made by Caymanians, Jamaicans, as well as other Caribbean islands, plus Asia, Europe – all of the international films.”

Tools of the Trade

Growing up in a showbiz family (Mark’s mother worked for Francis Ford Coppola and Lukasfilm), he spent his formative years in San Francisco, where he attended the School of Performing Arts, graduating high school with well-known actor Sam Rockwell and comedians Margaret Cho and Aisha Tyler. He went on to attend New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, graduating with a film degree.

One of his passions has always been teaching film to students and educating them about the different disciplines within the industry. Since arriving in Cayman, he started an afterschool program with students from John Gray High School and has also volunteered his time with students from the University College of the Cayman Islands, introducing them to the craft of movie making. Many of those students have recently submitted films to the festival.

In addition to CayFilm, plans are also in motion to build the Cayman Media Academy, which would be the island’s first film school. Mark hopes it will provide a solid platform for local artists in the form of classes and qualifications to students wishing to further their education in various film-related studies, with the eventual goal of offering a full-time associate’s degree program.

At the moment he is trying to secure a partnership between UCCI and California’s esteemed UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

UCLA Dean Teri Schwartz will be flying down for the festival to continue discussions with government officials. The producer of such Hollywood hits as “Beaches,” “Nuts” and “Sister Act” is eager to work together to create the Academy, according to Mark.

In addition to training young Caymanians to be able to make their own movies, Mark envisions them as support workers for big Hollywood movies that might be shot in Cayman. Having a school here will help generate work for locals with the required skill-sets as well.

“UCLA is one of top five film schools in the world and if they partner up with UCCI it will bring the industry here. If I’m a producer, for example, and I am looking for locations, I may want to bring 30 people and hire the rest of the crew when I’m here,” he says.

Another one of his goals is to secure a big workshop space to create a fictitious movie set and bring Hollywood professionals down to run it, giving students a better idea of how a Hollywood set works, and even assigning students “jobs.”

“It’s one thing a class can’t teach you, and reading a book can’t teach you. Actually being on set and standing in the wrong place and being yelled at by the assistant director because you are in the light, or having to be so quiet on the set you can hear a pin drop when they yell ‘action.’

“Everyone has a story to tell and the ability to make a movie,” says Mark. “When I started out I had a Super 8 camera and had to buy film, but now you can buy $3,000 high-definition cameras that produce stunning quality.”

As for the festival submissions he has already viewed, he says that although the quality may be there, it still comes down to good storytelling.

“I tell people there are three P’s: pre-production, production, and post-production. You have to spend equal time with all three components. Make sure the script is good, the shot list is ready, and that you’ve done your prep work.

“So many people say ‘I have an idea’ and then pick up a camera and start shooting, but first you have to write a good script. The students I worked with wanted to make movies, and I had to make them take a step back, but by the fourth week of learning, they could start making a movie.”

Mark has had big plans for the festival from the very start, and all of his hard work is finally beginning to take hold, with his three- five- and 10-year plans suddenly blending into one.

“I see the end result and it’s just now taking the steps to get there. I’ve had my up and down moments [organizing the festival], and in Hollywood, too, which has prepared me. If you just tell me no, I see my eye on the prize and don’t let anything distract me.”

Said with true Hollywood grit! Get ready, Cayman, for the “lights, cameras, and action”!