You might say Michael Samstag knows a little something about film. The founder of the not-for-profit production company Rescue Doc Films with business partner Josh Gildrie, he’s focused on making movies with a strong social message.
The description on the Rescue Doc Films website describes the company’s goals: “Through the creation of media focused on the discovery and sharing of life-experiences that educate, inspire and entertain, our mission is to present — via documentaries and other forms of video — methods and practices aimed toward mitigating human and animal suffering. The result is an expanding series of films and videos of people making a difference and being the exemplars for a healthier world. In addition to documentary films, Rescue Docs also specializes in putting film to work for non-profits.”
Samstag is also a primary mover and shaker in the Scruffy City Film and Music Festival, an event which is now in its 8th year. It was the outgrowth of an organization called Knoxville Films, an organization which initially challenged filmmakers to make a movie in 9 hours which would then be screened immediately after. The concept was intriguing, but in 2010, the festival opted for a different approach in 2010, lessening the stress by opting for 24 hour filmmaking projects instead of the 9.
Samstag says it was a way to keep the initiative going. Making a film in 9 hours was brutal,” he admits. “But we didn’t want the festival idea to die. We loved doing it. There was a Knoxville Film Festival which was mainly for local East Tennessee filmmakers. I wanted to do something on an international level and get top composers involved. We decided to focus on music in films and films that had music as the central theme.”
The gambit paid off. In 2014, the festivals invited participation from professional filmmakers, and now, a mere 4 years later, Samstag says that the festival has become one of the world’s top film festivals for music composers. “It’s in the top 5,” he says. “I don’t know what that really means and I don’t even know how that’s determined, but I love the distinction. You call yourself something long enough it becomes true.”
Samstag should know. A former music major, he switched his focus to theater after one semester and made his first film. After graduation, he began to see the potential payoff if he applied those skills in the world of big business. “I wanted to get a job as a creative director in the advertising world,” he recalls. “So I decided I would work my way up from the mail room.”
Initially that involved working for Ruby Tuesday, where he opted to start as a server before eventually working his way up to management and getting a job in the company’s corporate office in Maryville. He left in 2000 and for 3 months, operated his own production company until he was hired by IPIX, an imaging technology company headquartered in Oak Ridge. There he helped develop the visual technology that allows the adaption of panoramic images into a 360°x 180° field of view.
The concept piqued Samstag’s interest and he pitched Warner Bros. and George Lucas Films on the concept on behalf of his company. He was did it so successfully in fact that Warner Bros. hired him to apply the technology to specially created bonus features for the Harry Potter films released on DVD. He went on to apply the same technique to Warners’ home release of “Van Helsing,” efforts that generated a featured article in American Cinematographer Magazine. Other kudos awaited as well. His documentary “War & Truth” was accorded honors from the Annapolis Film Festival in 2005 and his film “Just Got Back,” which chronicled Darryl Worley’s last journey to Iraq, was accorded an Excellence in Media Award from the Daughters of theAmerican Revolution. More recently, his film “A Southern Fix” won top prize at this year’s Animal Film Festival.
Nevertheless, Samstag’s dedication to the Scruffy City Film Festival continues unabated. This year’s event, which takes place July 26 – 29, will feature over 40 films, scheduled to be screened at the Central Cinema. In addition, live music will be found at several venues throughout the city, including Scruffy City Hall, Preservation Pub, Pretentious Beer Company, Market Square rooftops, Central Filling Station, Boyd’s Jig & Reel, Uncorked, The Market House Cafe, Knoxville Ale Trail, Central Flats & Taps, and the Knoxville Visitor Center (as part of the WDVX daily live music series “Blue Plate Special”). Films will be screened daily at 7 pm and 9 pm and all day throughout the weekend.
Samstag says this year’s festival marks the first time the event will include an animated feature. In addition, Snuffy Walden, a legendary musician and composer, will make a special appearance to celebrate the showing of “Up To Snuff,” a documentary that chronicles his career.
Not surprisingly, Samstag couldn’t be more pleased to participate. “When we receive submissions for the festival, it’s like unwrapping a Christmas gift,” he suggests. “The may not all be great, but when you can discover a great one, its really a thrill. I can’t imagine a time when I would not want to be involved with this festival.”