It may not have the indie cred of Sundance or the glitter and glam of Cannes, but according to founder Franci Neely, the Houston Cinema Arts Festival is the place to be for cinephiles. The art of film has the magical ability to inspire and transform lives, and Neely recognized the potential in Houston’s cinema scene early on. Now in its 15th year, the festival is set for Nov. 9 through 19 with the theme “Bring It on Home” — a motif that resonates with the Houston philanthropist. She’s traveled the world extensively but knows, like Dorothy, there’s no place like home.

“Year after year, The Houston Cinema Arts Festival invigorates and inspires the film community in Houston,” says Franci Neely, who has provided grants for the festival. “I love watching the city come together to enjoy such a fascinating selection of films.”

Festival Highlights

The Houston Cinema Arts Festival will offer a 25th-anniversary screening of Rushmore, the iconic 1998 Wes Anderson film starring Jason Schwartzman. More than 20 other movies will be screened, including Going Varsity in Mariachi. Directed by Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn, this documentary examines the world of high school mariachi musicians as they compete in a state championship.

Breaking The News, another riveting documentary that will be screened in the festival explores how 70% of policy and politics editors are men — almost all of them white — and how that’s affecting the national narrative in journalism. It further examines how the Austin, Texas-based digital media startup The 19th* came to be.

Executive director of Houston Cinema Arts Society Jamie Townsend says for the second year, they’ve reached out to Texas-based film curator Jazmyne Moreno to oversee the festival’s programming, which in the past has attracted an A-list guest list including Tilda Swinton, Shirley MacLaine, Isabella Rossellini, John Turturro, and Ethan Hawke.

“Many of the films and programs will focus on the concept of coming home — an appropriate theme for a city so rich in talent, energy, and diversity,” Townsend explains. “We find that our audiences are most enthusiastic when they see Houstonians reflected on the big screen, sharing the stories that matter to our community.”

In a statement, the organization said, “Home is where you feel safe, secure, and most importantly, it’s where you can grow. As HCAF moves forward, know that our organization is taking care of ‘home’ — yours and ours. This festival is our home just as much as it is for filmmakers, for patrons, and all others working to make this happen — let’s grow together.”

Townsend stresses HCAF isn’t attempting to be a pared-down version of Sundance or Cannes. Instead, it’s on a unique mission to represent the Houston community and all it has to offer.

Franci Neely has shared that she loves seeing the Houston Cinema Arts Festival bring together the community year after year. Townsend acknowledges that Neely has played a paramount part in growing the event. The festival began after former Mayor Bill White created a task force of cultural leaders led by Neely to stimulate film culture in Houston.

Franci Neely’s Vision

“Franci has always understood that the arts are vital to the soul of this great city,” Townsend says. “Although we have world-class institutions in the performing and visual arts, cinema art was underrepresented for too long. Fifteen years ago, Franci assembled a team to help fill that gap, and the Houston Cinema Arts Festival was born. With Franci’s continued support and guidance over the last few years, the festival has evolved, becoming more accessible, more inclusive, and more reflective of Houston’s diversity.”

Additionally, Townsend says an enthusiastic network of local and regional filmmakers, arts advocates, nonprofit organizations, sponsors, and cinephiles have aided in the festival’s burgeoning popularity.

“We have used the Houston Cinema Arts Festival and our year-round activities to make Houston a better place to create and enjoy great movies,” Townsend comments. “We’re still bringing some of the greatest films and artists from around the world to Houston, but we’re also doing everything we can to amplify the work of talented Texans and creating innovative networking and educational opportunities for emerging filmmakers of all ages and backgrounds.”

Short Films Get Ample Air Time

One of the highlights Townsend says she’s looking forward to is the short film competitions. For the ninth year, HCAF will be showcasing CineSpace, a short film contest in collaboration with NASA that receives hundreds of submissions from across the globe. It’s also the fourth year of Borders | No Borders, featuring short narrative and documentary films by emerging regional filmmakers from Texas, the states surrounding Texas, and Mexico.

“The artists discovered in these short film competitions have gone on to great things, and this year’s entries are more exciting than ever,” Townsend reveals. “We are also proud to launch the first Next Gen short film competition for area high school students. With the educational components of CineSpace, our teen short film competition, and annual student field trips, we hope to use the power of film to educate kids while also giving the next generation of Houston filmmakers a powerful boost.”

Some of the films HCAF will highlight this year include emerging voices such as Lost Soulz, which is inspired by the life of aspiring young Texas rapper Sauve Sidle as he attempts to reach stardom, and Family Portrait, a feature-length debut by director-writer Lucy Kerr, which focuses on a family getting together for a portrait during the start of the pandemic.

With 15 years of memories to reflect upon, Townsend says despite the challenges of the Hollywood strikes, she and the HCAF team are excited about the multidisciplinary entertainment and great filmmakers they continue to put in the limelight.

“While it is incredible getting a sneak peek at some of the year’s coolest movies with some of the industry’s coolest guests, it has been even more gratifying to me personally to create great opportunities for Texas-based filmmakers at the beginning of their careers coming together to share ideas and resources,” Townsend says. “Great stories can come from this city, and when we have the opportunity to celebrate our great hometown storytellers, we are making the future of this city a little brighter.”

For the complete lineup of festival activities and events, visit


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