Brandon Millett and Laura Law-Millett didn't like Hollywood's representation of the military. So the husband and wife set out to change it.
They have. Brandon has worked in communications and public relations for 20 years, while Laura - a former Girls State counselor and West Point graduate - spent 14 years in the Army and Army Reserve before moving onto a career in sales and marketing. They pooled their areas of expertise and founded the GI Film Festival - a venue for films that highlight the honorable nature of military service. Since 2007, the annual festival has honored works that exclusively celebrate the successes and sacrifices of the American military through the medium of film. The festival's films don't sugarcoat the facts; rather, they paint a true story, rather than paint one with bias. The fourth annual GI Film Festival is May 12-16 in Washington.
Honored with the Legion's National Commander's Public Relations Award during the Washington Conference this week, Brandon and Laura sat down to talk with The American Legion about their festival.
Q: Where did this idea come from?
Brandon: It grew out of a conversation we had about five years ago. Laura had just seen a film called "Buffalo Soldiers," where the GIs were portrayed as drug dealers. I had just read an article in the Los Angeles Times, and the opening line was, "I don't support the troops," and the writer went on to say that we need to begin blaming the men and the women pulling the triggers. We felt that was a slippery slope to start going down. And we also started reading stories about how all these films coming out of Hollywood were going to be anti-military. There were about seven or eight of them at the time. We figured this is not only unfair to men and women in uniform, it's also unwise. We're in a time of war, and the last thing we need to be doing is denigrating the warrior. I'd just been to a film festival, and we said, "Hey, why not try a film festival for the military?" We were shocked to find it had never been done before.
Q: So you throw the idea around, and it sounds like a good idea. But you've got to go from there to a practical plan. What was the next step?
Laura: The next step was I called everybody I knew in the military, and Brandon called everyone he knew in Hollywood, and then from there we asked, "Who else can we talk to?" We just uncovered every stone. Suddenly, we had a team together, friends and family, people that we just met who thought it was a good idea, and we were able to pull off our first year.
Brandon: When we started making those calls, we knew we'd struck a nerve. The response was overwhelming. We really didn't know what to expect when we started it. We thought it would be just a small little event with some close friends and family, but it ended up mushrooming into something much larger. And we've grown every year since.
Q: Every time someone starts a new project or program, the first time they do it they look back and say, "OK, we did this right, but we also do this wrong." What did you guys learn from the first festival that you were able to apply to the next three?
Brandon: We learned a tremendous amount from our first year. Probably the biggest lesson we learned was we needed to do a better job of communicating what we're trying to do. Getting more, for lack of a better term, butts in the seats for the event. We had a tremendous first-year event, as events go, but we knew we needed to do a better job of blasting out the message of what we're doing and communicating the importance of the GI Film Festival. That's probably the big lesson of year one.
Laura: I would also say have a sense of humor. Be flexible. Occasionally, there will be a film that for some reason the sound doesn't work when it's up on the big screen. Someone is supposed to be where they're supposed to be at a certain time, and they end up on the wrong side of town at the wrong venue.
Brandon: It's sort of like planning a wedding. You just have to roll with the punches. Nothing's going to be perfect even though you want it to be perfect.
Q: How many movies did you have at the first festival? And what was the attendance?
Brandon: In our first festival we screened 20 films. It was really hard to tell (attendance figures) the first year because we gave large blocks of tickets away to active-duty GIs and veterans, but I would say we probably had about 1,500 people come through the event. We've grown every year since, and this year we expect somewhere in the 3,000-4,000 range. And the great thing about the festival is that every year we've grown in terms of the number of films submitted to us. We've had over 500 films submitted in our first three years, which is a larger number than we ever could have anticipated.
Q: How many films will you be screening this year?
A: This year we're doing something a little different. We'll probably screen 24 films or so. We're doing a little bit with video gaming as well. We're incorporating a new element to attract a new audience.
Q: What has been the reaction to your festival?
Laura: It actually has been surprising in a very positive way. We never could conceive the impact it was going to have on people. Our first year, we had a film that depicted a unit in Vietnam that actual footage from their time in Vietnam and from where these guys are now. The unit had a mini-reunion, and some of them cried after seeing the film. It was the first time they'd seen their story on screen, and we've been hearing that from other veterans who have come in, not necessarily associating with the film, but they would see the film on screen and say, "This is the first time I've seen something get it right. The first time I've seen what we did being portrayed honorably. It just amazes me to see people cry and see that emotional outpouring from the event. It lets us know that we are onto something.
Brandon: We view the festival as an opportunity to educate people in Hollywood who may not have any familiarity with the military. We had a producer, big-time, from Hollywood come out to our event for our Wounded Warrior Appreciation Night, and he called us after the festival was over and said, "When I went to that event, I couldn't sleep for three nights, and I was consumed with finding a way to help our servicemen and women. They come to the festival expecting to see a movie, and they leave the festival realizing they've had a life-changing experience.
Q: What does it mean to you to receive this award from The American Legion?
Brandon: We started out the festival to honor men and women in uniform, and here we are receiving an award from the nation's most-respected veterans service organization. So it is an honor.