FAIRFIELD — Saturday was the Iowa Motion Picture Association’s first big event in Fairfield. There’s a very good chance it won’t be the last.

The IMPA held its annual awards gala and dinner at the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center. The evening is the highlight of the association’s calendar, where it honors Iowa filmmakers’ work. It builds up to the evening with screenings of nominated films throughout the day.

In prior years the screenings have drawn a handful of people. Not a large number and certainly not enough to fill a theater. This year was different. The center’s theater wasn’t quite packed, but you definitely had to remember where you sat if you got up during the screenings. There weren’t many empty seats to quietly slide into.

“It’s the biggest turnout we’ve ever had for screenings,” said Michael Helgens.

Helgens is the vice president of the IMPA. He said the organization’s goal is to educate Iowa filmmakers and provide opportunities for them to improve their craft. Preparations for the annual gala begin literally the day after the previous event. There are speakers to line up and locations to secure.

This time they had a partner.

“In this case, fortunately, we had the board of the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center working with us,” Helgens said.

The move to Fairfield for 2019 was a matter of opportunity, according to Helgens. “Erika Richards came to us and said ‘We have this lovely facility and a community that supports the arts.’”

Her promise proved true. And Richards was on hand Saturday to see it. Her eyes lit up when asked about the turnout.

“I’m very pleased. This is great publicity,” she said. “The quality of entries here is the best I’ve ever seen.”

A steady stream of people arrived and departed during the day. The screenings were not interrupted by speakers or introductions. Films ran back-to-back, which meant people could drop in or out at any time.

Among those in attendance was Terry June Harnish, a native Canadian who said she plans to attend the MUM film program later this year. Harnish loves storytelling, and hopes to learn a new medium for it.

“The only avenue for me as I approach my 74th year is to become a film director,” she said.

The idea of picking up new skills and developing new film voices in Iowa appealed to both Richards and Helgens. Richards said a key element of the IMPA and the annual awards dinner is the chance for young filmmakers to meet and learn from those who have decades of experience. Shared passion for film will bridge the years, and there is always something new to learn.

And Helgens said the interest is growing. IMPA numbers are up. The films are of better quality. That shows up with the awards themselves. Nine awards of excellence, the IMPA’s highest award, were given this year. That’s a record. Fifty-six other entries brought awards of achievement.

That was all to come with the evening, though. First, there were movies to watch.

If you could remember how to find your seat in the darkened theater, anyway.

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Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.