GVSU alum, Thriller! Chiller! film festival director manages to mix business with pleasure

Anya Zentmeyer

Every morning, Grand Valley State University alumnus Anthony Griffin has a shower thought – what he describes an “over-arching theme” that he just can’t get out of his head.

Lately, he’s been thinking about towing the line between business and art, which makes sense for someone who, while maintaining a day job, started his own production company, and then his own film festival.

“This is what it comes down to: there’s no shortcut for hard work,” Griffin said. “If you’re willing to put in the work over a sustained period of time, you’ll find success.”

Griffin and fellow GVSU alumnus Chris Randall co-founded the local film festival Thriller! Chiller! – a sideline to his production company, UnSAFE Film Offices, and his day job as an IT manager at a Grand Rapids financial company.

“Strangely enough, we didn’t get into (Thriller! Chiller!) to make money – that’s not our primary goal,” said Griffin, who, along with other festival faithfuls, had to pay out of pocket to make the first year of the festival a reality.

At first, Griffin and his team struggled with publicizing the festival, but now Thriller! Chiller! is in its seventh year, has seen a 15-20 percent growth in its core audience in the past few years, and has received submissions from filmmakers all over the world. This year’s lineup includes 62 movies from 17 countries; including 10 Michigan-made movies, and two Hollywood cult classics.

Thriller! Chiller! organizers look at the festival as a marketing platform – a way to get those indie, underground genre films out to a larger audience. Griffin wants the film festival to not only grow in its scope, but in it’s reputation and mission of bringing credibility and recognition to genre movies.

“Several times in the past when Tony has talked about the festival as a passion project, people have misinterpreted that to mean that he and Chris aren’t business-savvy, but that’s not true at all,” said Shirley Clemens, Griffin’s wife and Thriller! Chiller!’s marketing director. “They have turned a hobby into a legitimate business, they just choose to do it because they love it.”

Griffin calls that fine line between art and business the “vein of gold,” a necessary series of compromises, which make your passions sustainable enough to pursue.

But through trial and error, he has.

“As a filmmaker, if all I’ve ever done is challenge myself to become a better person from it, great,” he said. “But if I can create opportunity, and or even pay them something because I have the ability to do that from my day job, I will…There’s a way to do that. It’s so thin, and it’s so narrow that you can skip right over it without even realizing. It takes experience and it takes time and it takes mistakes – hundreds of mistakes – to figure out where that line is as a person.”

Personal accountability is key for Griffin, who thinks it’s important to be a good example – even if it’s just as “a horrible warning.” Being accountable, he said, is a greater vehicle for self-improvement and fulfillment than just simply being the best.

“What’s real is what you have inside yourself,” he said. “Don’t waste your energy trying to compete with others, just compete with yourself and you will find wells and reserves of passion and talent you never thought was possible because you’re trying to be better than what you were yesterday. You’re going to fail more often than not, but when you do succeed, it’s pure joy.”

He wants to keep Thriller! Chiller! local, whether it lasts for one, or 10 more years, he hopes it becomes a focal point of West Michigan that lives up to its regions reputation.

Griffin, alongside his wife and the rest of the Thriller! Chiller! followers and faithfuls, have built something sustainable for not only themselves, but also for their community.

“That would be the take-away here because a lot of people I’ve noticed – particularly younger people – will get into something, or perhaps not consider something if they can’t figure out a way to make money from it,” he said. “And really, if you’re passionate about it and you enjoy doing it, that will carry you between the moments where you clearly are not going to make any money or even recognition. You do it because you love it. If you do what you love, and you’re fortunate to find those who will help you along the way, you can create a business from it – and that is something that we have done.”

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