Cucalorus Film Festival Turns 20

09 Nov 2014

Local independent film festival has big plans for its birthday bash


Cucalorus Film Festival Wilmington NC

In 1984, Dino DeLaurentiis came to Wilmington, NC to scout locations for Stephen King’s “Firestarter.” He decided to stick around, founding DEG Studios, which would later become EUE/Screengems, the largest film studio east of California. Wilmington natives are, of course, familiar with our subsequent nickname, Wilmywood. Since that fateful day DeLaurentiis rode into town, hundreds of movies and television series have used this picturesque town to capture images of everything from beautiful beaches to abandoned factories. 

But one of the best film events in town comes straight from Wilmington natives. This year, Wilmington’s legendary independent film festival Cucalorus turns 20 years old. Film nerds in this town know the festival is the highlight of the year, giving aficionados a chance to spend days ingesting some of the best films from around the country, and meeting fellow cinephiles at the surrounding parties and partner events. Despite its reputation as a film town, there is a surprising lack of places to actually see independent films when they come out, and Cucalorus works hard to make up that deficit. From crazy, avant garde shorts to touching, full length dramas, the festival provides a little bit of everything for everybody. 

Cucalorus began as the brainchild of Twinkle Doon, a collective of 12 Wilmington filmmakers. In 1994, the very first festival was a one-day event at Water Street Restaurant, and screened 16 films. Now, the festival spans four days and multiple venues across downtown: Thalian Hall, City Stage, Jengo’s Playhouse, and Theatre Now. A tentative schedule for this year includes 70 feature films, over 100 short films, and 35 music videos. But that barely captures the scope of the full event, which includes innovative projects like Dance-A-Lorus, where choreographers, dancers, and filmmakers partner to create a unique audience experience. 

Dan Brawley is one of the very distinct personalities behind Cucalorus. He has been Executive Director of the festival for the past 15 years, and is devoted to bringing the Wilmington arts scene to the world, and vice versa. 

“The scene that pops up around big film production is pretty powerful. You pay a bunch of creative people really well, you give them some free time, and whoa, some cool things happen,” Brawley said. This year’s Cucalorus will feature a retrospective of DeLaurentiis’ work, and a talk by his widow Martha to celebrate the early days of film here. But Brawley is looking forward, as well. The festival is growing exponentially, and programming is expanding to try and serve all demographics. This year, they are launching an entire program of family-friendly movies, appropriate for kids seven and up. 

“One of my favorite films this year is this Spanish adventure-comedy called Zip and Zap and the Marble Gang. It’s like a mix between Harry Potter and Indiana Jones,” Brawley says. This year will also feature two free outdoor screenings of family-friendly movies at Riverfront Park. “Families can bring some snacks and some chairs, and come watch a movie down by the river.”

But not to worry, adults, the kind of edgy, emerging art that Cucalorus has a reputation for is still around. The popular Midnight Madness programming, known for pushing the boundaries of horror, sex, and snark, has been reborn as the appropriately named Convulsions. Films at Cucalorus are categorized by program, so a newcomer can search their schedule by several filters. There’s Magnolia, the more mainstream programming; Vanguard, which includes more innovative selections; Voices, focused on social justice films; and the ever-popular Shorts program, which includes selections from multiple countries. 

This year, Cucalorus had a record number of submissions, nearly 1,700 of them, a 25 percent increase from 2013. The entries came from over 60 nations. Forty-five programmers from all over the country helped sift through and choose the films. Ultimately, only about 220 of them will be selected for screening. 

Attendance is growing, too. In 2012, 11,654 people came to Wilmington to see films at the festival. Last year, that number reached nearly 15,000. It’s easy to imagine Brawley, with his big smile and curly, red hair, as some sort of Willy Wonka figure, making this all magically happen. 

“The sense we have is that something really significant is getting ready to happen,” he says. “Wilmington’s infrastructure has changed for the first time in the 20-year history of Cucalorus. We can just handle more people downtown than we could in 1994, and so the options are starting to expand, which is exciting for us.”

In the end though, quality matters more than quantity. 

“We’re doing a lot for Southern artists that nobody else is able to do,” Brawley noted. “Funding for the arts in the South is miserable, it’s pennies on the dollar compared to the Northeast or the West coast. So we’re able to put money in the hands of artists in the South through the festival, and through some of our other programs, which I think is vital. It feels like the South is healing some of its wounds, and at the same time redefining itself. Cities like New Orleans are having a rebirth, places like Birmingham, and Wilmington’s on that list. Wilmington has a chance to be a destination for the new world.” 

The 20th Cucalorus Festival will take place in downtown Wilmington, November 12th through the 16th. More information and passes are available at

Fun Facts about the Festival

A cucalorus is any kind of object or cut-grid used to soften light and create a patterned illumination on the subject.

Over 320 locals and visitors volunteered at the 2013 Cucalorus.

The 2013 festival screened 33 movies from Wilmington filmmakers.

Programmers for the 2014 Cucalorus come from 14 different cities across the country.

2014 is the first year of the Cucalorus Resident Artist program, which brings artists in from all over the world. The artists live in Wilmington, and spend three to four months working on their own art, as well as projects to share at the festival.

While many of the films at past Cucaloruses have gone on to win critical acclaim, Cucalorus 15 remains notable because four films screened at that festival went on to receive a total of 10 Academy Award nominations.

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