If you have any interest at all in film, you know there are independent film festivals popping up all over the world. Some of the most touching and technically superior film shorts I've ever seen came from Australia . Good old Robert Redford is probably the most visible pioneer of this type of event in the United States . You may have heard of his humble little gathering that happens every year. It's called The Sundance Film Festival.
It does help to have a big name associated with your festival. Certainly the New York Tribeca Film Festival, now in its 6 th year, would not be nearly as notable without a powerhouse like Robert DeNiro behind it. DeNiro had a great idea and wanted poor city folk to enjoy the experience as much as the outdoorsy well-to-do folk.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that there has been an explosion of film festivals, especially in certain parts of the United States . The largest geographic areas of growth in film festivals are the East Coast, especially the Northeast, and the West Coast. It may be easy to guess why the West Coast has experienced exponential growth in independent film – duh– but why the Northeast?
The 5 th Annual Boston International Film Festival was held June 6 through the 13 th this year right in the middle of downtown Boston . It was nestled in the set of buildings next to Emerson College and the Theater District, directly across from the bustle of the Boston Commons. The festival scored a coup this year screening all films at the mega-multiplex, Lowe's AMC Theater. For a festival only in its 5 th year - it is doing extremely well. Some of the names its films boasted were Ryan O'Neil, Joe Montegna, Louis Gossett, Jr. and that guy from the HBO mob series. What's his name? Oh yeah – James Gandolfini.
It is obvious that the success of this particular festival is due to the hard work, laser focus and solid organizational skills of festival founder and director, Patrick Jerome. In a few short years Jerome and his core group have managed to grow the festival impressively. When I asked Jerome why he took on such a huge event he answered simply “I thought Boston needed to do this kind of event”.
It helps to have a dedicated and savvy staff. The BIFF's Program Director, Jean Desire, or “JD” put together an amazing roster of feature films with two shorts in each viewing “session”. He made sure people got their money's worth. Their PR Director, under whose auspices I attended the fest, Tacuma Vanderpool got the word out about the event using every contact possible. Although humble, Vanderpool has been organizing and promoting public events since he was a young child living with his family.
Of course, the importance of location cannot be overlooked. Next to New York City , Boston is probably the most populated and accessible big city in the Northeast. Interestingly, the city of Boston itself figured prominently in many of the short films I saw.
I love attending film festivals. Where else can you get such an eclectic mix of genres – documentaries, sword-fighting epics, elite foreign films, political viewpoints, a mixture of great talent both known and unknown, and possibly some “star” sightings. You also get workshops, advice, networking, the latest “word on the street”, parties, plenty of food, down to earth discussions a bit of glitz.
It's also a bit like being at college again – an experience I still hold warmly in my heart – many, many years later. It's the camaraderie of being in a place where lots of other people share your passion and sense of fun about film. No one is going to think you odd for attending a film that may make no sense at all to the “average” person. You can talk for hours about the same genre, actor, film, or director and not see the other person's eyes glaze over. You are with the largest group of people who actually seek out the subtitled films instead of avoiding them.
The gang at the BIFF managed to keep the crazy to a minimum. But there's something very appealing about an event that feels more like someone said, “hey kids, let's put on a show!” and they did.
There are plenty of other factors besides population and mass-transit accessibility that make the Northeast a “natural” for independent film fests. We are known in the marketing world as “first testers”. That is, people who live in the Northeast part of the United States are statistically far more likely to try something new than people who live anywhere else. Whether you know it or not, we are often the “Test Market” for many products that big companies want to try out.
We are particularly dependable first responders to anything artistic or technical. Honest. It's a fact. The transitions to both CDs from vinyl and DVD from videotape were most fast and furious here in the Northeast. Even the original oversized Laser Discs sold like crazy here.
Now add to that the picture postcard charm of Nantucket, Woods Hole, Plymouth , Maine , Vermont , Provincetown , heck just about anywhere here in the spring, summer or fall, and you've got a natural draw. I spoke to a friend out in Wisconsin who lives in the biggest city in that state. “How many film fests are there our there this year?” I asked enthusiastically. “I think one or two” came the sad response.
Of course the digital revolution has also been one huge reason for everyone and their cousin to host a film festival. So many more people have the technology, at a reasonable price; to realize their filmmaking dreams. It's also the perfect venue for those Hollywood actors who want to direct, but no one in a studio will let them. So they pull together their famous friends, bankroll it themselves, and get a sold out premier just about anywhere they choose. And even a “minor” Hollywood star will receive a superstar reception at an independent festival. Why, they might even win an award.
In Rhode Island the two largest fests are the Rhode Island International Film Festival and the Newport Film Festival. Both cater to local artists to varying degrees. The RIIFF tends to be a bit less “star” obsessed, screening a dizzying number of films by unknowns. But they do hold the distinction of being one of a very few qualifying festivals for the Academy Awards for Short Films. Newport boasts more stars and hosted the premier of a “made in Rhode Island ” film this year, “Evening”. “Evening” is in theaters now. It stars Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer (Streep's real-life daughter), Glen Close, Vanessa Redgrave, Toni Collette and Claire Danes.
Here is a small sampling of the films I saw at the Boston International Film Festival: an animated piece about political conspiracies called “Saul Goodman” that was funny and scary at the same time. A Bollywood-type musical, “Bombay Skies”, done as a senior thesis by Rita Rani about a young girl trying to follow her dream. A documentary about the lagging interest of youth in the space program intrigued me. Titled “What's Going On Up There”, it explains that most of today's youth were born well after the nation-wide excitement of the US landing on the moon in 1969. Many of them think our landing on the moon is a myth! Then there was the high gloss, occult-filled, scary short erotic thriller called “ Waste Land ”. Watch for that as a feature some day soon folks.
So let's add history as a reason for the popularity of film fests. They reveal history, analyze history and create history. So that makes it a Northeast natural as well. The new land of Liberty was born here in the east not the west, young man.
If there is a way to sum up, I guess it's to say: location, location, and location. And all the elements contained therein. Scenic beauty, first testers, savvy attendees, accessibility, passionate, dedicated and organized staffers, a broad spectrum of freedom of expression, and plenty more don't exist exclusively in the Northeast. But it seems we have more of all that than anywhere else.
Anyway – if you haven't yet been to an independent film festival – you simply must go, no matter where you live. If you are reading this you have online access. Simply Google the name of any of the festivals I've mentioned in this article, or go to: http://gonewengland.about.com/cs/eventscalendars/l/aa051602a.htm or www.newenglandfilm.com for New England listings. Or Google “(Your State or Region) film festivals”. Then do what I do. Have a blast. .