From amputee rock climbers to high-altitude hula-hoopers to cave unicyclists, the Lookout Wild Film Festival offers attendees the opportunity to see more of the outdoors in the Southeast and around the world, experience a sense of awe and exhilaration and witness the extraordinary stories of extraordinary people, all without having to leave the Scenic City. Here, learn more about Chattanooga's very own outdoor-adventure film festival.
Festival Director Andy Johns says that when his son was born, the baby didn't seem to sleep for his first two years. Johns would be up at odd hours of the night to look after the baby, and during those times, he wanted to watch something that wasn't an explosive action movie. This brought about his discovery of adventure films focused on surfing, skiing and other outdoor activities. Finding these kinds of films was eye-opening for Johns and led him to encounter outdoor-adventure film festivals and consider starting one of his own with his friends.
Chattanooga, with its reputation as a destination city for outdoor enthusiasts, was the perfect place for this kind of film festival, Johns says. He jokes that there was a sense of urgency to establish the festival before Asheville had the chance to do it first.
At the inaugural Lookout Wild Film Festival in 2012, there were about 300 people for the whole weekend of the festival's run, according to Johns. The attendance numbers were disappointing and sowed the seeds of doubt within the founders of the fledgling festival. However, the next year's festival showed more promise.
"The next year we did it, we had about 1,400 people," he says, "and it was all of a sudden like, 'Wow, there are people here; people care. Maybe we're onto something here.'"
Walk on the Wild Side
When you go to the festival, you're going to see stories from a wide variety of outdoor disciplines, Johns explains, and you'll see an audience filled with outdoor enthusiasts who have come together to witness each other's stories on the big screen.
He says that what people are often surprised by is the emotion the films evoke and the characters the films follow. For example, one year, the festival screened "Paul's Boots," about a man, Paul, who died of cancer before he could realize his dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Paul's wife then asked different hikers to take his boots with them on their trail hikes so that, in a way, Paul's dream would become a reality.
The festival screens films from national and international filmmakers each year, but there is an emphasis on regional and local stories, from the swamps of Florida to the waterfalls of North Carolina to right here in the Chattanooga area. According to Johns, the Southeast is often overlooked by other outdoor-adventure film festivals, so by screening regional and local films, the festival is able to showcase all the potential that the region, including Chattanooga, has to offer.
Making the Cut
Steve Rogers, the festival's programming director since 2018, works with a team of screeners each year to sift through film submissions and whittle them down from around 300 to about 80 to create the festival's core program. Films vary in length from a couple of minutes to two hours and are evaluated by the screening team to determine if they fit the festival's style. Films that make the cut, Rogers says, tend to be ones that feature inspirational stories, action, beautiful scenery and/or the local area. Quoting Johns, Rogers says that the festival's films are more than just action highlight reels.
"Andy always says, 'This [festival] is not a bunch of 20-year-old white kids doing backflips on BMX bikes to dubstep music,'" Rogers says. "We want to emphasize that these [films] are about stories that inspire, stories that will amaze people."
In the past few years, Rogers and his team have had 20 hours' worth of films that are selected for the festival, but the festival's core program is typically 15 hours. To showcase the five hours of films that were eliminated, the festival worked with its sponsors, Wanderlinger Brewing Company and Rock Creek, to host pop-up screenings throughout the year to show the films. Through raffles and beer sales, Rogers says that the screenings helped raise money to support local nonprofits.
The story of the festival is a story of change. File formats have changed from DVD to digital. Venues have changed from the Choo Choo Centennial Theatre (which itself has changed into The Signal) to the Walker Theatre. Attendance has changed from a few hundred to several thousand. And as with all change, there are some difficulties.
The festival is a completely volunteer-operated, nonprofit organization; even festival organizers like Johns and Rogers are volunteers, they say. There have been years when the festival failed to break even, Johns says, and in the years it has made a profit, those funds are used to help finance the next year's festival.
After the 2023 event, Johns says that there was talk of ending Lookout Wild due to the amount of work it requires. While it isn't anyone's main job to work on this festival, planning and programming often require what feels like full-time hours, Johns and Rogers say. However, while Johns was depositing checks for the festival at the bank, he says that the teller saw the Lookout Wild name and said that she had attended the festival; she told Johns that she and her husband were deeply inspired by the film "Paul's Boots."
"[This festival] is something bigger than we ever expected it to be," Johns says, reflecting on the interaction. "And maybe we've got a few more years left in us to keep it going."