Film Fests

Documenting Social Justice and the Racial Divide

Right now I am particularly interested in the role of regional film fests in addressing greater social issues through both films and ancillary programming. I believe strongly in the role of regional fests to educate and inform as well as to entertain.
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Oxford Film Festival 2011 — The Wrap

I got swamped with fest activities and travel, so I’m just now getting around to writing a wrap up the Oxford Film Festival, which just completed its 8th year this past weekend. Now that the awards ceremony is over, I can talk a bit about the winners and other films I liked this year at Oxford — which, it must be said, has been steadily improving the overall quality of their programming slate every single year.
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OFF11 Dispatch

It’s been a busy-busy couple days here at the Oxford Film Festival, but taking a few minutes before getting ready for tonight’s big awards ceremony to catch up with some notes on how the fest is going this year. We got in Thursday night after a long day of no sleep and delayed travel, at some dinner with Jen Yamato, Todd Gilchrist and James Rocchi at Boure, one of the many Oxford restaurants owned by terrific chef — and even more terrific fest patron — John Currance.

And speaking of fest sponsors:

You cannot — and I mean CANNOT — operate a successful regional fest without the financial support of local patrons, both business and individual. I’m not saying the OFF folks don’t have to bust the proverbial hump to fund raise because I know they do. But you do not just build an awesome regional fest like Oxford off of wishes and good intentions, it takes money.

From the Malco Theater that hosts the screenings, to government support from the Oxford Convention and Visitors Bureau to indivdual Super Patrons like the lovely, charming Donna Ruth Roberts (my Oxford adoptive grandma, who is so lovely and charming and delightful that I come here every year, in part, just to be graced by her presence), chef John Currence, to Rock Star Taxi, this year’s transportation provider, to countless individuals and businesses who support this fest year after year, I want to say this: Sponsors are a huge part of the reason that Oxford Film Festival is not just a name in Oxford, but is getting nationally known in the indie film and indie journalism world. Your support makes that happen. This fest does not even have an airline partner, but they manage to fly filmmakers and other guests in, put them up in local hotels, feed us incredibly and non-stop with good Southern cooking, and generally make us all feel so welcome in their town.

Anyhow. So Friday morning we had the jury breakfast to determine winners in the various categories. I am jurying docs this year here along with Michael Rose and Skizz Cyzkyk, and our deliberations were interesting and energetic and Arik, our jury wrangler, did not have to intervene to prevent bloodshed this year, and no mud wrestling was involved in determining the winner of the docs competition.

I also had the privilege yesterday of moderating the Q&A at the sneak preview of Where I Begin, a film directed by Thomas L. Philips, whose underseen Rattle Basket I greatly enjoyed a couple years ago. The script was co-written by my good friend Melanie Addington (who’s one of the co-directors of the fest), and Thomas and Melanie asked me (along with a few other industry folks) to look over their script in earlier iterations and provide feedback.

This was my first time seeing the finished result, and while I can’t say much in the way of reviewing the film because I am too close to the project, I will say that the audience was completely packed, and response was overwhelmingly positive, which made me incredibly happy for al involved. It’s a stellar, truly indie film made for a very small budget, but the writing was strong enough to attract folks like Lance E. Nichols (THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON and much, much more) and Johnny McPhail (BALLAST) to the project. I was so pleased for all involved that response to the film was so very positive.

Friday night was all about the social side of the fest, which here at Oxford is an important component. Dinner at my beloved Ajax Diner, which would totally be my secret boyfriend if it was a person and not a diner, was procured, and so many Oxford Fest guests where on-hand there that I barely sat down long enough to eat my scrumptious meatloaf (stuffed with CHEESE, people) served with obligatorily Southern sides of squash casserole and turnip greens. Heaven on a plate, mmmmm.

Then we headed a couple doors down to attend the Friday night party at Roosters, which featured — and I am not making this up — blues legend T Model Ford. Much dancing ensued at the front of the stage, and the more alcohol people consumed, the looser folks got about getting out on the dance floor to get down. T Model Ford’s catchphrase is, “It’s Jack Daniels time!” and he does not mean that metaphorically. It was one of those “once in a lifetime” things that tends to happen at this fest, which is partly what makes Oxford great.

Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime action, the late-late night event Friday night was a trip to Graceland Too, which 10 of us bravely embarked upon. Too much for this post, but look for a whole separate post and a photo gallery coming on this.
Also coming: The fest awards. Woo-hoo! But first, the farewell breakfast at John Currence’s City Grocery, catered, I hear, by John Currences Big Bad Breakfast. No doubt, there will be cheese grits and biscuits involved. More yum. I don’t leave Oxford until tomorrow, so more later today to wrap things up.

These Are the Random Things You Think About When Your Flight is Delayed and You’re Stuck at the Phoenix Airport.

I am slowly wending my way from Seattle to Oxford, Mississippi, home of Faulkner and Ole Miss University, for what has become over the years an annual pilgrimage to the Oxford Film Festival, one of my favorite regional fests. And this year, for the first time, I’m not traveling alone to Oxford, because I’m bringing my husband Mike along for the fun.

I say “slowly wending” because our travel day started at the ass-crack of dawn so we could catch a 5:15AM flight out of Seattle. Which would have been great, except for the part where they waited until everyone was on the plane to figure out there was some (apparently serious) mechanical problem with the plane. Whatever. So they deplaned us all in a grumbling group (90% of the people on the flight had connections to catch, including us) and then we waited another half hour to board the new, hopefully not broken plane.

It was about this time that I decided to check our connection window and realized there was no way in hell, barring the flight to Memphis getting delayed, that we were going to make it. So I checked at the counter and they informed me cheerily, “Great news! You aren’t going to make your connection, heh, but we already bumped you to the next flight to Memphis.” Why, that’s nice of you, I said. And when does that leave? “It leaves Phoenix at (unintelligible mumbling) and gets you into Memphis at (more unintelligible mumbling).” Er, what was that? “ItleavesPhoenixat7PMandyougetintoMemphisjustaftermidnight … NEXT!”

Well, bloody hell.

I do not like sunny places, and have you ever been to Phoenix? They have sun there. A lot of sun. And many, many windows through which this bright, annoying sunlight is allowed to come through unfettered by clouds or dark blinds. And I hate, really hate being stuck at airports, unless it’s Denver and I’m smoking because they have a smoking lounge. But it’s not Denver, it’s Phoenix, and I quit smoking. So that leaves scrounging up something edible and then sitting around forever with other grumpy people and maybe falling asleep and missing my next flight too. Bah.

However! My Catholic grandmother always said to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst (my inner Jewish grandmother, OTOH, always counters with, “Eh. It can always get worse.”). Fortunately for me, we were not flying on either American or United, because many unpleasant experiences with those airlines have convinced me they are owned by the Devil, who has set a corporate policy of “let’s piss off more customers than any other airline.”

We, however, were on US Airways. And by the time we landed in Phoenix and were directed to the counter to find out how bad our new delay would be, they had already figured out ALL ON THEIR OWN that I did not want to wait until 7-freaking-PM for a flight out of there, and they had transferred us to a much earlier Delta flight, and we had two seats together on that flight. Holy crap! I would like to take credit for this myself — maybe the evil raised eyebrow I shot the US Airways chick back in Seattle paid off and they were terrified of me.

But I must say, it appeared they were doing their level best to get every single person who’d missed a connection on their way, and they were SUPER nice about it, and so were the Delta people. So now we are set to board a plane in an hour and then a few hours after that we will be in Oxford, which has become a bit like coming home for me every year at this point.

Mike’s beloved Sketchers boot fell apart, literally, here at the Phoenix airport, but fortunately for him, he had his Converse in his carry-on and so the boots went buh-bye, into the trash. I will kinda take credit for that because I loathed those shoes and had been thinking mean thoughts about them and muttering obscene words at them under my breath, and deliberately polishing my Docs with special leather preservative right in front of them without giving them a single swipe of the polish and giving them the stink-eye regularly for the last year, so clearly those efforts to destroy the hated boots by sheer force of will finally paid off. And now I can perhaps persuade him to upgrade to some sexy black Docs if we can find them on sale, because we have adopted a “cheapskate” mentality and we aren’t allowed to buy expensive shoes for full retail anymore. Unless there’s a really good reason like I NEED them.

We ate a couple of very meh burritos (but hey, it was something resembling food). And the wifi at this airport kinda blows, but we are keeping our chins up about the lousy wifi and refusing to fall into mood pockets over that.

Why? Because we are grown-ups, that’s why! And so we have back-up plans for when the wifi sucks — two of them, actually. I have my corporate wifi card courtesy of MCN, which is on Verizon, AND my handy-dandy AT&T-connected iPhone, through which I can tether to the Internets in case of wifi emergencies. And in a pinch, I have my very own mood pocket, hand-knitted for me by Oxford Film Fest co-director Michelle Emmanuel, in which to keep my mood safe and cozy-warm should I feel it slipping.

More from Oxford, and stuff about the actual festival, when we finally make it there. Expect to get there in time for most of the opening party proper, and all of the late night after party. And I heard a very sad rumor that there is no karaoke this year, which is a bummer because I am pretty sure everyone last year universally agreed that the karaoke party ROCKED and that Jen Yamato and I, who regaled the appreciative crowd with our stunning rendition of the Backstreet Boys “I Want it That Way” (complete with back-up dancers!), rocked particularly impressively. So I guess we will have to find a way to karaoke on regardless.

For now, though, I need to watch one last screener for the docs I’m jurying, so I will be responsible and sign off until later.

See you from the Oxford Film Festival ….

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Step in the Right Direction

Now here’s an example of someone in film who has an idea and is taking active steps to implement it.

There’s a piece in the New York Times on Ava DuVernay, filmmaker and publicist, who wants to see black-theme films thrive (the story is behind the wall, but you can register for free if you don’t already have a NYT account).

Her idea? Target those cities which already have existing audiences for black-theme films. Take advantage of the independent film program announced by AMC theaters, which has chains everywhere, to get those films in there for two-week runs. Support those films with grass-roots efforts from the cities’ ethnic-themed film festivals, using social marketing tools. Aim for 50 cities, but start with five to show it’s a workable model.

These are the kind of innovative ideas we need more of from the independent film community in general. We need to be thinking outside the model that says the only way to achieve “success” with your film is to make that elusive high-6 to-7 figure distrib deal at Sundance or Toronto.

I love the idea of targeting a specific niche and finding ways to market to that niche. I don’t necessarily agree with her that the only market for black-theme films is African Americans … that to me is just the reverse of asserting that African Americans can’t or won’t see indie films, which, while it may be true in terms of actual ticket sales at the moment, is not necessarily a truth that’s etched in stone. Get black audiences seeing some smart, indie black-theme films, and maybe you can expand their interest into other niches as well. Encourage white audiences, or Latino audiences, or Asian audiences, to explore black cinema, and you open minds to new ideas. Draw on the commonalities that unite us, not just the differences that divide.

I know, I know. Kum-ba-ya and all that, but I’m a touchy-feely liberal who believes, truly, that there are commonalities across cultures: love, death, happiness, fear, grief, celebration … things that tie us together. And for me, a big part of the role of independent cinema of all stripes is to make the world a smaller place, to bridge those cultural divides.

Still, I applaud this effort as a model. For me, the money quote from the article was this bit:

“Chris McGurk, who was then vice chairman of MGM, even tried to position the studio as a gathering point for black filmmakers.

But the strategy faltered, Mr. McGurk said, as costs rose, and black-theme films, which generally underperform in foreign markets, outgrew their niche. “The economics of that business really only work if you’re able to produce them for $10 million or less,” he explained.”

Well, yes. That’s true across indie film, folks. And really, you can produce a hell of a movie for under $10 million. That’s a LOT of money in the indie film world, and I can think of many, many superior films made on much smaller budgets than that. Really, the economics of the business, whether you’re making black-theme films or any kind of indie film is this: How much can you raise to make your film without going substantially into debt? How much can you get financial or in-kind support to help finance it? And, most importantly, what is your realistic plan for selling your film enough that you can make that money back, plus enough extra to live on and make the next film?

But still, this is an interesting idea, and it’s a start. We need more smart people thinking outside the box like this about how to promote indie film.

Wish List for the Future of Indie Film

Out of the blue, I woke up this morning thinking about Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc . Maybe I was pondering on this whole AOL/HuffPo thing, and even more about The AOL Way and how it tries to reduce into Powerpoint slides geared toward traffic and keywords how writers should write, and how editors should assign stories.
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Another View of Sundance Sales

I started to comment on David’s Hot Blog post on Sundance sales over there, but it got too long. So moving my thoughts over here, with apologies if it’s confusing to have to go back-and-forth.

Most of what I heard in lines and at a couple social gatherings later in the fest with regard to Sundance sales among press and publicity folks this year was not so much a theme of “indie is saved!” as it was just a deep breath of relief that some sales were actually happening this year at the fest … and that, for the most part, the films didn’t suck. No, there weren’t any really spectacularly huge sales ala Little Miss Sunshine, but smaller sales that actually generate some profit for their investment might overall be a good direction for Sundance sales to head, n’est-ce pas?

And I’m not even convinced that the idea of sales — especially “big” sales — happening at Sundance or any other fest even should be the measure of a festival’s success. Of course it’s great for filmmakers to get their films picked up, and of course everyone is hoping for a theatrical release.

But my sense overall is that there is a shift coming that’s been brewing for a while in what we mean when we say a film has succeeded financially. I’m reminded of animator Bill Plympton, who did this great presentation at Ann Arbor a few years back about exactly how he makes a living making the animated films he wants to make. He talked about DVD, about marketing, about controlling costs and knowing how much he had to make back on a given film to be able to both make a living and make the next film. This, IMO, is where the conversation about indie film needs to head, because if you are making an indie film with the sole goal of making a 7-figure sale at Sundance, you are delusional and in the wrong business. And I feel strongly about the importance of regional fests and the role they can play in the future of indie film, but that is a longer discussion for another time.

Back to the Sundance sales, or at least, those I am most interested in:

Perfect Sense is more of an artsier, better take on a global pandemic ala Blindness than “arty sex.” Not really much of that in the story at all, for all that we see Ewan MacGregor full frontal and Eva Green’s boobs. I’d liken it tonally more to Never Let Me Go than anything … but yeah, that didn’t do so well theatrically, did it? A shame, because I really loved that film. Perfect Sense is a solid, smart movie, but maybe a little to smart for mainstream audiences. Time will tell on that one.

As for Pariah, Christ almighty, this is my biggest beef of the fest. I’m glad it sold at least, but can we stop with the Precious comparisons already? It’s a better film — much better, structurally, than Precious, but will likely get overlooked because everyone keeps comparing it to Precious.

I guess we can’t have more than one film with a strong lead performance by an unknown, young black actress, and a surprisingly strong supporting turn by an older black actress in a decade or so, though, right? Too bad for Dee Rees and Pariah, I guess, that there was already an artsy black film out of Sundance. Timing just sucks, right?

And too bad for Adepero Oduye that she wasn’t blond enough or white enough to qualify as a Sundance “It Girl.”

It might help both of them to remember, though, that coming out of Sundance a couple years ago hardly anyone was taking realistic Oscar buzz for Push (aka Precious) because it was too black/urban/depressing, so if we MUST compare the two because they’re both “black films” then perhaps we can look at the positive side, too.

As for the rest, what will be interesting is to revisit all these sales a year from now, and see which films did well by their buyers — and which buyers did well by the films.

Banksy Was Here

It completely made my fest to find that Park City didn’t remove this after last year’s fest, and that it’s largely undamaged by the weather. I was so bummed to miss this last year, and when I stumbled upon this out of the blue this morning I cried out in surprise and excitement, then teared up a bit over how much life has changed since this time last year. Just lovely. Thank you, Park City, for leaving it alone.

Sundance Dispatch: Good News, Bad News

The good news was, I flew Southwest, where Bags Fly Free!(tm) So I was able to bring two bags. Major bonus, because that meant I could bring more boots! And a stash of food cheaper than it would cost me at The Market Formerly Known As Albertsons. The bad news was, my flight was delayed 90 minutes. The good news was, my ticket was Section B, so I scored a window seat. The bad news was, I was dozing as we landed, we had a rough landing, and I whacked the hell out of my head. It woke me right up, though. Memo to self: bring your travel pillow next time. And, we landed safely, also good news.
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How to Grow a Small-Town Film Festival

Yesterday I received the press release announcing the lineup of the 2011 Oxford Film Festival, and a couple of things struck me about the fest and this year’s lineup that I wanted to jot down. If you have zero interest in smaller film festivals or conversation about how small fests can grow and thrive, you can stop here and move along to something more interesting. If you are interested in small town film festivals in any capacity, you might find it a conversation you’d like to engage in.
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Indie Film from Coast to Coast

I’ve been experimenting more lately with using Facebook as a place to engage in conversations about film … sometimes as the sole site for discussion, but often as a starting point that leads me somewhere else, such as now …

In a conversation about my Top Ten list, one of my friends commented that it can be hard to find indie films in theaters. And I certainly can’t argue with this. It’s easier to see an indie in an actual theater if you live in NYC, LA, Seattle, San Fran, Chicago, certainly. Or if you’re independently wealthy and can travel around to film festivals just because you love watching movies.

Oklahoma City, for example, is probably not the first place that comes to mind when you think “hotbed of indie film.” But the OKC Museum of Art has been showcasing indie films for years now in a great space, under the direction of curator Brian Hearn. He’s been a force of nature for bringing indie films to my hometown for a long time now. While people like me abandoned Oklahoma City in search of greener, hipper, or more liberal pastures, Brian and a good many other smart, artsy people have held down the fort there, bringing culture to the people.

In part because of Brian, Oklahoma City has a thriving film festival, deadCENTER, which I hope to see keep growing and growing and growing. I missed it last year because it overlaps with SIFF, and since Seattle’s my hometown now and SIFF is the bigger fest, it demands my attention and my coverage. But it’s also important to draw attention to smaller fests doing the hard work of making indie film accessible to the masses who don’t live on either coasts, so I do hope to get out to OKC to cover deadCENTER again sometime.

The folks at the Dallas International Film Festival bring quality film to the Big D year after year, and they’ve done their job there so effectively that when their partnership with AFI ended, they took up the banner without AFI’s name and have worked their tails off to make their fest bigger and better than ever on their own steam. James Faust and Sarah Harris at DIFF are two of the smartest, most passionate people I know when it comes to film, and they work hard to bring Dallas awesome films every year for their fest.

One of the things I most love about DIFF is how people in Dallas see their fest as a real event. They get dressed up to go to screenings (here in Seattle, we tend to view “dressing up” as meaning “putting on my jeans/leggings/tights without holes, and breaking out that prized vintage shirt from Value Village,” so I’m easily impressed by people actually wearing high heels and ties and jewelry anywhere, much less a movie screening, but still. It’s pretty cool. Plus, you can drink alcohol in the theaters in Dallas, which is the best idea ever. I bet a lot of experimental films at Sundance would benefit from the audience being about to bring their Stella or Cosmo into the theater.

In Oxford, Mississippi, my friends at the Oxford Film Fest have been very smart in turning a “little fest that could” into a cinematic event and growing steadily every year while still retaining that Southern charm and hometown feel. Michelle Emmanuel, Molly Fergusson, Micah Ginn and Melanie Addington do a phenomenal job running that fest… now if only they could find the funding and the venue to do bring cinema to Oxford year-round, like SIFF does here in Seattle …

In Champaign-Urbana, Roger Ebert has been bringing the best of the best “overlooked” films to his hometown for years with the annual Ebertfest … a prestigious event for a filmmaker to be invited to, and always a great opportunity for everyone there to relax and enjoy being at the movies with Roger, Chaz and the legion of passionate film fans who’ve been turned onto many great films at Ebertfest and come back year after year. And that fest happens in large part thanks to Nate Kohn and Mary Susan Britt, who pull it all together year after year.

From coast to coast, smaller film fests bring indie films to places that aren’t NYC or LA. Hamptons. Sidewalk in Birmingham. Memphis. Sarasota. Santa Barbara. Palm Springs. Denver. Outfest in LA. True/False. And, of course, Seattle. And many other fests I know I’m overlooking.

Change like indie films coming to places that aren’t big cities happens because one or two or several people who live there and are passionate about film MAKE it happen. They start a festival. They open an arthouse cinema/coffehouse. They get a job at a museum and create a film venue where none existed, and infect the people around them with their enthusiasm.

If you live in a place where there’s not enough access to indie film in theaters, you have a few options. You can move to a city that has better access to indie film. You can become independently wealthy and travel the world going to film fests large and small. You can start a film festival in your town, or figure out how to raise the funds to restore that old, awesome theater that’s been shut down for years and turn it into a showplace for arthouse films.

You can invest in equipment to make a state-of-the-art home theater in your house, program regular mini film fests at your house, and invite people to them (I know a guy who beefed up his resume doing this who is now a programmer for a major fest, so don’t laugh!).

Point being: YOU can change things. Top ten lists from critics and awards from critics groups exist, in part, to spread the word about great films and thereby create more people who love cinema and will support it. So if you love independent film and there’s not enough of it where you live, find your own way of supporting it and be the change.


A Peek at the Sundance US and World Dramatic Competition Slates

It’s beginning to look a lot like Sundance … well, maybe not quite yet, let’s get through Christmas first before we start packing for Park City. But Sundance has announced its competition entries for 2011, and there are some things that immediately caught my eye:

US Dramatic Competition

The American dramatic competition films offer up an interesting mix of films that look (on the surface at least) to fit the mold of the “Sundance film” and some more diverse storyline options, with both new and familiar names. Inevitably, no matter which films I pick from the narrative feature competitions, I end up missing something that pops at the fest as really great, and then scrambling to find a late screening so I can catch it before the fest ends. But you have to narrow down your screening list one way or another, so here are some films from this slate that look promising:

William Mapother, who was so excellent as the bad guy in In the Bedroom way back in 2001, is in U.S. Dramatic Competition entry Another Earth, which is about a duplicate Earth, a horrible tragedy and a love affair. Mapother’s presence makes this one infinitely more interesting.

Vera Farmiga makes her directorial debut with Higher Ground, about a woman’s struggle with her faith. Farmiga also stars in the film, and cast also includes John Hawkes (who played Teardrop in Winter’s Bone) and Josh Leonard (Humpday). Hawkes’ presence alone would put this one on my want-to-see list.

Little Birds, about two teenage girls who run away to Los Angeles and get into trouble, caught my attention because it stars Juno Temple, who was fantastic as Dani in Dirty Girl (she’s also set to star in the long-awaited teen-lesbian-werewolf film Jack and Diane, which according to IMDb is actually filming at long last, but I won’t believe that until I see it). This one also stars Kate Bosworth, who I think has been a bit underrated; she strikes me as an actress who could actually go “serious” ala Charlize Theron if she could get the right roles. Maybe this is one of them.

Another film with John Hawkes (what, is he aiming to be this Sundance’s Zooey Deschanel?), Martha Marcy May Marlene (say that four times fast) is about a woman trying to re-assimilate with her family after leaving a cult. See above for the John Hawkes Factor being enough to make this one worth catching.

Azazel Jacobs, who wrote and directed the excellent Momma’s Man, which played Sundance in 2008, is back in 2011 with Terri, a comedy about a teenage boy in a small town and the high school VP who takes him under his wing. Stars John C. Reilly, which would make me want to see it even if I wasn’t already intrigued to see what kind of film Jacobs made after the moody, darkly funny Momma’s Man.

Lastly for this section, I’m curious about the film listed as Untitled Sam Levinson Project on the Sundance schedule and The Reasonable Bunch on IMDb. Whatever its real title is, it’s a comedy about a chaotic family wedding. That alone doesn’t make it particularly interesting — chaotic weddings/funerals/holidays are pretty overdone — but the cast does: Demi Moore, Kate Bosworth (that’s two for her, she’s keeping pace with Hawkes), Ellen Barkin, Ellen Burstyn, and Thomas Haden Church.

World Cinema Dramatic Competition

The World Cinema Dramatic Competition slate tends to be one of my favorite categories at Sundance … one of these years, I might just front-load my schedule with every single film in this competition and work everything else around them, because I always seem to miss one or two films that I’m kicking myself later for not seeing. This year, these are some of the films that I’d like to find room for on my sched:

Abraxas (Japan) is about a depressed Zen Buddhist monk with a “heavy metal past” who latches onto music as a means of reviving his spirit. Okay, okay … they had me at “monk” and “heavy metal.”

It’s been a while since I saw a Columbian film, but All Your Dead Ones (Todos Tus Muertos) looks like a good possibility. It’s about a peasant who finds a pile of dead bodies in his crops, and then finds the authorities want nothing to do with them. Dark comedy? Drama? Thriller? Not sure, but I want to check it out.

Heading over to Algeria, we have A Few Days of Respite (Quelque Jours de Repit), about a couple of gay men from Iran who find safe harbor in a village in France. Not familiar with the cast, but the director won a couple of awards for his 2008 film, The Yellow House.

Apart from the presence of Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson on the cast list, the Sundance description of The Guard (Ireland) got me to read it three times:

A small-town cop in Ireland has a confrontational personality, a subversive sense of humor, a fondness for prostitutes and absolutely no interest whatsoever in the international drug-smuggling ring that has brought a straight-laced FBI agent to his door.

Both Cheadle and Gleeson are proven performers, and I’m hoping they chose well when they signed onto this project.

Kinyarwanda (Rwanda) is about Rwandans during the 1994 genocide who made refuges of mosques without regard for tribe or religion. I realize that some folks are about as tired of “genocide in Africa” films as I am of anything to do with the war in Iraq/Afghanistan, but I have not yet hit my saturation point for this topic.

You gotta love the Australians, especially when the entry from Down Under in the world competition category is titled Mad Bastards, is about an “urban street warrior” facing off with a local cop, and features the Pigram Brothers, a country/folk rock Aussie band. If you’ve never heard them, take the time to check them out before Sundance. I’m curious to see how well their music is used in this film.

From Israel we have a film I’m really interested in seeing,
Restoration (Boker Tov Adon Fidelman). This one’s about an antique furniture restorer, his mysterious apprentice, and the estranged son who’s trying to shut his father’s business down. An unhappy family film that appears not to involve either a holiday or a road trip? Worth catching to me.

Lastly, I definitely want to make room on my schedule for UK entry
Tyrannosaur, just because it stars Eddie Marsan, who was a riot as the uptight, nutty driving instructor in Happy-Go-Lucky. That’s pretty much all I need to make it worth seeing.

I said lastly, but then the final film on the world cinema list caught my eye: Vampire, which stars Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider). The description on this one says it’s about a seemingly nice guy who teaches and cares for his ailing mother, who trolls message boards seeking “the perfect girl who will ensure his own survival.” A movie presumably about a vampire, but it’s showing in world cinema, not midnight? Interesting. Okay, I’ll bite (sorry, sorry).

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How Do You Fix What’s Broken with Film Fests

Is the film festival model as it stands now broken, from the standpoint of filmmakers? And is there a way to fix that such that filmmakers can use fests to their advantage while still ensuring that fests also serve the needs of their audience?

I was reading this piece over on indieWIRE today about the distribution model of indie film October Country (good film), which reminded me that the other day I was pondering film festivals (yes, again).

Film Threat ran a piece on Monday about the New Mexico International Film Festival, which filmmaker Justin Eugene Evans is attempting to build as a way of breaking the film fest mold — or at least, challenging certain assumptions of the film fest model — by experimenting with ways to create a business model that monetizes fests for the filmmakers.

Which isn’t to say anyone’s ever going to get rich off their film showing in a festival, even with the things the fledgling New Mexico fest is proposing, like reimbursing travel expenses for certain filmmakers, providing free hotel rooms, letting filmmakers set up and sell merchandise (an idea the Oxford Film Fest tried out last year), even sharing the box office gross with “selected filmmakers.”

But as of right now, with 13 days left to go on the fest’s Kickstarter page, the fest has only received pledges of just over $1200 toward an $8000 goal. Which, frankly, doesn’t really surprise me … I know all kinds of indie filmmakers, and for the most part they are not independently wealthy people and what money they do have goes to pay the rent and fund their next film.

And while they might be glad to submit their film to a fest that actually offers them the opportunity to make money back on their film rather than costing them just to have the film in the fest at all, they are unlikely to support the kickoff of any fest by funding it to begin with. If you build it, they will come … but they aren’t going to pay to build it.

Now, a couple things came to mind as I was reading both these pieces today. One is that one of the challenges for any fest is to build credibility — if you are a new fest, how do you interest filmmakers in showing their film at your fest when you don’t have any sort of “prestige” factor around your fest’s name yet? And how do you build a reputation for showing quality films, thereby encouraging audiences to turn out for your fest, when you’re still building just having some name recognition for your fest at all?

The folks at smaller fests like Oxford and DeadCenter (in my hometown of OKC) and countless other smaller regional fests can tell you what a challenge that can be, even if you have good fundraisers and solid local support for the arts. And without money, how do you afford to do things like give filmmakers back their submission fees, and give them half the box office take, and pay for travel? And etc … fests are not cheap.

And while on the one hand Evans has a kind of cool idea about having the New Mexico fest “travel” around the state and be in a different location each year, on the other hand … WOW. Logistically, and from a fund-raising standpoint, that seems to me to just be making it exponentially harder to get the idea off the ground. Wouldn’t you lose a lot of what could be ongoing momentum gained by having your fest in one city where you can get embedded with the arts community, build awareness in one town with cinema fans, and generate fund-raising to support your fest?

By moving around every year, it seems like you’d be starting over every year, and from a branding standpoint, it might be harder to build an identity for the fest by not being associated with one location. But then again, I don’t know that another fest has ever tried to do it this way, so maybe Evans will surprise the hell out of everyone.

I do agree that the fest model as it stands is largely broken, and that the veritable explosion of smaller fests makes it harder and more expensive for filmmakers to promote their films that way, even if it’s also a Good Thing in that more fests = more people exposed to indie film. And I applaud Evans for being bold in not just bitching about what’s broken, but leading the way by trying to fix it.

I’m going to get in touch with Evans to chat him up a bit about his ideas and his fest; in the meantime, though, I would love to hear from some indie filmmakers about your thoughts on the value of film festivals generally, how much it costs you to attend fests with your film, whether what the New Mexico fest is attempting interests you, and what kinds of things you want and need in a festival to best promote your film and make it worth your while.


TIFF Review: Hereafter

After a pretty spectacular opening scene, I was hopeful that Clint Eastwood‘s highly anticipated film, Hereafter, with a script by Peter Morgan, was going to be something special. Then it became evident that the setup is a triptych, which is really hard to weave together into a coherant story without it feeling enormously contrived.

Unfortunately, the conceit of the film just never pays off in a satisfying way.

Our trio of tales kicks off with Marie (Cécile De France), a French television personality on vacation with her boyfriend when she’s caught in a devastating tsunami, nearly dies, and is brought back to life. Marie’s near-death experience has a profound effect on her, and when she returns home she finds she can’t focus on anything but researching and writing about her experience; her obsession with death and the afterlife quickly isolates her from her friends and colleagues and threatens her career.

The second parallel tale concerns George (Matt Damon), a blue-collar warehouse worker who’s hiding out from a gift — an ability to touch a person and connect with their dead family members. After previously making money off his talent at the encouragement of his brother, who seeks to profit from his talent, George has retreated from the world, a lonely, isolated man whose gift has become a curse that keeps him from having relationships with others.

He signs up for a cooking class, desperate for companionship, and there meets a charming woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) with whom he feels he might be able to connect for the first time in his adult life. But when she learns of his gift, it threatens the tentative connection they’re building.

The third of our three stories concerns Marcus (Frankie McLaren) and Jason (George McLaren), twin brothers in England whose mum is addicted to heroin. When tragedy strikes, Jason seeks desperately to find answers about what happens after death, a path that ultimately leads him to George’s old website, which was never taken down.

The thing is, each of these stories on their own — or even George’s story in sync with just one of the others, would probably have made for a much tighter story. Individually as meditations on both the affect on the living when they lose someone they love, and the questions raised when a person is technically dead (or at least, very near death), and then brought back to life, are certainly something many of us ponder when we’re not too busy running around in our lives to pause and consider that every day we run full speed ahead is just bringing us another day closer to the end.

George’s part of the story, in particular, is quite well-written and Damon, as a man gifted with a rare talent that nonetheless serves to isolate him from the world around him, turns in a strong performance. Howard, in the brief time she’s a part of his story, is a powerful and emotional force. De France is also very good, and her journey fairly engaging.

The trouble is that after being fairly interesting for its first 2/3 or so as we catch up with the individual tales, the necessity to bring everything together causes a serious nosedive into the realm of unwieldy contrivance that forces the characters to converge for the inevitable sappy ending. I stayed with it for quite a while … until a moment that smacks you upside the head with exactly where the film is going. Then I hoped against hope that Eastwood and Morgan really weren’t going to be as obvious as all that – surely they weren’t! But they were.

The thing is, I don’t have an issue with Eastwood exploring ideas of what happens after death; as a spiritual person I find those kinds of meditations interesting, and after all, most religion is built around the need for humans to derive some sense of comfort in thinking we have an answer to what happens to us once we depart this life. The need to believe we don’t just cease to exist, like the flame of a candle blown out, is very strong, and with a bit less contrivance this could have been a better meditation on the subject.

Unfortunately, while there are interesting ideas here, and some solid performances in the film, the sum of the parts just never adds up to a deeply satisfying whole. Bummer.

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TIFF Review: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

I had mixed feelings about It’s Kind of a Funny Story, directed by Half Nelson and Sugar directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. They were so mixed, in fact, that I ended up doing something I’ve never done at a fest before — I saw the film twice, once at a P&I screening and once at its public premiere.
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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon