I would be lying if I said that Marcie Goodman, the Executive Director of the Cleveland International Film Festival, didn’t intimidate me. Not the “eggshell walking” kind of intimidation, just the milder, “God, don’t let me say anything stupid around her” kind.

Like any other self respecting writer, I use my irrational fears as a source of hyperbolic humor.
“I want to interview Marcie, but I’m pretty sure she’s going to laugh in my face,” I told CIFF office assistant Mindy Roth. She stared at me.

“Do you want me to hold your hand while you ask?”

“No,” I say, half-pretending to muster up courage.

I think I come by my fear honestly. Goodman would never come right out and say it, but the correlation between her presence and the success of the Cleveland International Film Festival is clear. The CIFF has exploded in attendance since 2003, a 179% growth to be exact. This would be two years after Goodman became the executive director of The Cleveland Film Society, the CIFF’s parent organization. According to Cleveland.com’s 2008 article, Goodman is chiefly responsible for bringing the festival back from the financial precipice, partly by making some tough calls. This included cutting their workforce in half, as well as long-standing programs that did not align with the festival’s missions. She also replaced a board of ‘well-meaning film fans’ with ‘donators and doers’, leading to a significant rise in sponsors and community involvement.

All of this growth caught the attention of the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences (commonly known as The Oscars), which awarded the Cleveland Film Society a three-year long grant to fund a program called “Focus on Filmmakers”. The program was specifically created to showcase films by LGBT filmmakers of African and Latino descent. For a city still trying to escape the decades old nickname “the mistake of the lake”, The Cleveland International Film Festival embodies the promise of what this city has to offer. And Marcie Goodman is the woman at the head of it all.

Thus why I practice what I want to say. Every time I have to talk to her.

In conversations with her staff, most everyone has at least understood my intimidation. When I mention this to Debbie Marshall, the Office Manager, she nods enthusiastically.

“Oh yeah, I totally get it. When you get to know her, you realize it’s totally uncalled for. But at first? Yeah, I get it”. The Associate Director, Patrick Shepherd smiles as if he’s heard this before. “She’s really normal, I promise. She actually hates having to give speeches and stuff. She’s just really laid back most of the time.”

Her laid back nature is apparent as soon as you step in her office. The space is neat without being immaculate; you can relax in this space and not worry about putting a paper clip out of place. Photos of two Weimaraner dogs, her beloved pets, adorn her desk. Dog toys, a heart-shaped pin cushion and a book called “Women Know Everything” sit proudly on a desk.

Marcie Goodman, 59, was born and raised in the greater Cleveland area. She has worked with the Cleveland Film Society since 1987, taking a brief departure in 1994 to work as the Development Director of MOCA Cleveland, a modern art museum. She was asked to come back to the Cleveland Film Society in 1998 and has worked magic ever since.

Personality wise, she is quiet, her demeanor inviting. Her voice is always low, sweet and calm. She is nothing like the very specific image a woman in power tends to conjure; no taunt ponytails, tailored business suits, or red bottom heels. Instead, her relaxed, pastel-colored style conveys warmth and dare I say it, a level of unabashed femininity. Certainly quiet humility.

MG talking

“I don’t take credit for anything,” she said when asked about the marked success of the film festival in recent years. “I don’t believe it’s any one individual who accomplishes anything, especially around here where we operate as one big, amazing family.”
That would be the first of many times where Goodman would refer to the CIFF staff as a family, possibly the only thing she took any direct credit for throughout our conversation.

“It’s really developed since I became Executive Director in 2001. Everyone who works here full time came from our seasonal staff,” Goodman explains. “I love hiring from seasonal staff because we know each other. They know the festival, they know the drill, they know the organizational culture, which is highly unique – it’s not for everybody. If you are very rigid or quiet, this is not the place for you.”

She could not be more right. The Cleveland Film Society office has only three walled-off office spaces, one of which is hers, and those doors are rarely closed. Everyone else works in an open area with low patricians and large windows that face a busy street. Friends of the festival stop by frequently as a welcome distraction. There is a large jar of treats by the front door for any guest that happens to bring their dog along. The six other staff members regularly go to lunch together, ribbing each other with the same kind of in-jokes and sarcasm as loving siblings. There are no job performance reviews, no sick or vacation days. It is the personification of a relaxed workspace.


The biggest source of my Marcie Goodman intimidation is simple: I look up to her. Since I was a kid I always tried to model myself after women in power. I proudly accepted my nickname of “Oprah” in high school. As I got older, it became less about powerful women and more about effective women, and leaders in general. The scope of a leader’s reach can change radically from one organization to another, but its effectiveness is always a reliable scale.

Last year the Cleveland International Film Festival held their first ever Community Day, a completely free day of films sponsored by the Cleveland Foundation. The weeks before this event were understandably tense; the Community Days held at other locations had resulted in lines a mile long, power outages and increased police presence. Every staff member and volunteer was on edge; extra meetings were held, screening schedules were changed, policies reviewed with a fine-toothed comb. The festival-wide requirement for all hands on deck was understood completely.

Then Community Day happened and it was like any other Monday. CIFF is such a well-oiled machine that the day was smooth, calm and controlled.

I asked Goodman about it and she laughed saying “I describe that day as a transition from terrified to triumphant. It’s a great example of how we do things. We’d never done a free day before and we will probably never do one again, so there is no do-over. We had to get it right the first time.”

“So,” she continued, “you have to go into it and not worry about how other people do it. You have to be really creative to figure out what works for your organization – maybe that means involving as many people as possible in the process. We embrace everyone and anyone. I don’t see any downside to that.”

“We argue a lot, especially the full timers,” Goodman admits. “But I love that process too. And half the time I will say things I don’t mean just to be a devil’s advocate and see where it goes.”

Openness and creativity reign supreme within the CIFF family. Pair that with a fair amount of trust and you’ll get one of fastest growing film festivals in the world.

On the main page of the Cleveland International Film Festival website are the facts and figures of another record-breaking year. Featured is not a picture of Marcie Goodman, looking fearlessly into a bright tomorrow as you may expect, but a black and white photo of her two dogs curled up together. It’s a quiet, humble statement. Anybody who would rather let their dogs be the face of their success is a strong leader indeed, and I think she’s earned my awe.