Though Florida’s vibrant surf communities are collectively known more for the ridiculous number of surf stars the state’s produced—Frieda Zamba, Lisa Andersen, a couple Hobgoods, some Lopezes and Geiselmans, King Kelly and more—it’s rare that the Sunshine State gets its proper due for the equally impressive number of native-born creative types behind the lenses. From Sterling Spencer to Warren Smith, to Jimmy Wilson and Mikey DeTemple—hell, even Tin Ojeda’s from Cocoa—an absurd number of contemporary surf auteurs, lensmen, and aesthetes were cultivated by the same fickle, gutless waves, incessant heat, and irreproachably core surf culture that nurtured those who’ve ended up in front of the lens.

It’s precisely that disparity of recognition that Florida surfers Kevin Miller and John Brooks sought to rectify when they launched The Florida Surf Film Festival in 2013.

“The high-performance athletes get the lion’s share of the recognition in surfing and we wanted to put the filmmakers and creative folks up on the pedestal for a change,” says FSFF co-founder Brooks, who has had a long career in the surf industry as both a Rip Curl team rider and rep for a litany of brands. “More than ever there is a growing delineation between the sport aspect of competitive surfing and the lifestyle of just being a surfer/traveller. The WSL has the contests covered, so we want to showcase the other side that folks can identify with.”

Florida Surf Film Festival founders Kevin Miller (left) and John Brooks (right) will bring a quarterly screening on the road to Jax Beach’s Surfer the Bar on Saturday, June 16. Photo: Patrick Ruddy

Held each year at the gorgeous Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna, with juries composed of some of the most celebrated and influential minds in surf media, FSFF has become more than an important showcase for the most poignant documentary and feature films. The annual festival is also a creative incubator, of sorts, with workshops in journalism, photography, and filmmaking run by featured artists and special guests such as writer/director, Sam George and former Surfer Magazine editor and author of “The History of Surfing,” Matt Warshaw.  

The festival has also expanded to include quarterly screenings, the next of which will be held at ACFA on June 15. In addition, Miller and Brooks will also be bringing FSFF on the road, presenting a night of programming at Jacksonville Beach’s Surfer The Bar on June 16, an event that will include a showing of the new and compelling Florida-centric documentary by gonzo surf journalist Chas Smith “Trouble: The Lisa Anderson Story.” (Smith will be in attendance.)

In anticipation of the Jax event, we caught up with Brooks to talk about the history of the festival, entertaining surf-world heavyweights in Florida, and giving the auteurs their due.

How’d the Florida Surf Film Festival come about? Why was it important for you to put on something like this?

Kevin hatched the idea after attending the New York Surf Film Festival and meeting Taylor Steele at a showing of “This Time Tomorrow.” He came back to Florida and screened Taylor’s film with nothing more than a few posters around town and word of mouth. I was in attendance and met with Kevin later that week to pen an article for a local rag and we realized that we both shared a passion for films and bringing the community together, so we joined forces and dove in head first.  

For me the festival is an important cultural event for our local surf community. As a grom, going to see the latest surf movie at the theater was a rite of passage that has been overlooked in today’s web-based presentation of surf media. Getting a head nod from the local heavies when you’re a 12-year old kid is akin to being knighted into this illustrious and super cool club. It helped shape me as a young surfer and I just wanted to pass that on to the next generation. My favorite thing is to see two people that I know don’t really get along in the lineup bury the hatchet and tell a story about the last swell or maybe even learn each other’s name after 10-plus years of surfing the same lineup.

Can you talk about the first iteration of FSFF? Anything surprise you?

I think the biggest surprise that first screening was that with a few posters and word of mouth we had 125 people show up as stoked as ever. We knew then that the community was craving this and we are stoked to try and fill that void.

FSFF co-founder Brooks had a long career in the surf industry as both a Rip Curl team rider and rep for a litany of brands. “More than ever there is a growing delineation between the sport aspect of competitive surfing and the lifestyle of just being a surfer/traveller. The WSL has the contests covered, so we want to showcase the other side that folks can identify with.” Photo: Kevin Miller

How has the festival grown since then?

From that first one-night, one-movie show we now have three quarterly screening nights in February, June and August, featuring multiple cities—Orlando, Cocoa Beach and Jacksonville—and a two-night fest in November at our home location, The Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach.

You’ve had some big names come through? What’s the response been like from people like Matt Warshaw or Taylor Steele both when reaching out to them and when they come to the event?

One of my favorite things about surfing in general is the accessibility we have to our heroes and it holds true with the filmmakers and journalists, too. Nearly everyone we reach out to is excited and quick to respond and much to our delight they are stoked to come to Florida and check out what we are doing. Many of our featured filmmakers have requested to come back and they are always highly appreciative of our endeavor to showcase their work.

The juries judging the films now are stacked with surf-media heavyweights, Lewis Samuels, Warshaw, Scott Hulet, Lauren Hill. Have you been surprised at their willingness to participate?

We are the most proud of our jury and feel like it separates us from many of the other festivals out there. The filmmakers are especially excited to know their work is being critiqued by the best in the biz. We reach out to potential jurors many times with an intro from a former juror such as Jamie Brisick, who has been instrumental since day one with advice and encouragement.  After promising them lavish accommodations and hefty honorariums, we plead for their voluntary support in accomplishing our mission of invigorating our surf culture through their expert lens.

Gonzo Surf Journalist Chas Smith will be in town to premiere his new doc “Trouble: The Lisa Andersen Story,” on June 16 at Surfer the Bar

The big shindig happens each November in NSB at the Atlantic Center for the Arts—an amazing space, I must say! Talk about that venue and what you have in the works for this year’s event.

The ACA is a truly remarkable venue and we can’t imagine doing it anywhere else. With a 13-acre campus including a black box theater and outdoor amphitheater along with housing, commercial kitchen, and multiple studios, it is the ideal space to host and pamper our filmmakers and athletes who come to present their work. We are still finalizing the lineup for this year’s fest in November, but folks can expect to see the latest and greatest in surf documentaries with filmmakers and jury members in attendance. Couple that with great food from Clancy’s Cantina, full bar, and tons of giveaways from our sponsors and it’s not to be missed.

The next quarterly event is in June. Then you’re planning on bringing the festival to Northeast Florida. What do you have planned for the Jacksonville iteration of the film festival?

We will be coming to Jax with the same movies for the June quarterly including the Lisa Andersen biopic and other short movies. Lisa and filmmaker Chas Smith will be in attendance and we are stoked to partner up with Surfer The Bar in Jax Beach to showcase their work. Folks can check out the full lineup for that night at our website www.floridasurffilmfestival.com.