In a clean-cut city that saw its glory days during the dot-com boom, San Jose seems like an unlikely place for the thriving Cinequest Film Festival, which celebrated its 16th year from March 1 – 12. It isn’t exactly the cultural capital of the west coast, but call San Jose by its other name – Silicon Valley – and a festival famous for its innovation suddenly seems right at home among the technological heavyweights that have redefined life in the modern age. Hot on the heels of the digital revolution, Cinequest distinguishes itself as a festival looking to break new ground while connecting filmmakers with cutting edge forms of distribution.
Festival organizers like to describe Cinequest as “the anti-red carpet,” where many films are world premieres with no celebrity talent or big-name director attached. While this makes the scene refreshingly low-key, the lack of a media frenzy means filmmakers look to exploit the festival’s other strengths while trying to make the most of the experience: namely Cinequest’s new multi-tiered model of DVD, internet, media and mobile distribution.
Currently filmmakers have the option of putting their films for free secure download on Cinequest Online, which Associate Programming Director Michael Rabehl describes as primarily a promotional and marketing tool for distribution. But Cinequest is preparing to aggressively expand its online presence by offering films for pay-per-view internet screenings, as well as initiating a partnership with Jaman, an upcoming online film viewing community. This new strategy will work in conjunction with the Cinequest DVD label that launched in September (Netflix has agreed to buy every title) and Cinequest programming that will premiere on Intel‘s hyped Viiv media center and will also be available on mobile Palm devices.
“Some films will have theatrical releases and we definitely support that, but the majority of them won’t,” said Kathleen Powell, Cinequest President and Co-Founder. For those that do not get that coveted theatrical deal, the idea behind Cinequest’s non-traditional distribution strategy is to help a film recoup its money and reach as wide an audience as possible. Emphasizing the flexibility afforded by these new distribution channels, Cinequest Co-Founder Halfdan Hussey said “our objective is for the average doc to get $50,000, and the average dramatic feature hundreds of thousands. The goal is through these different capacities we could get the money back… this is the most exciting thing we’ve done.”
With the excitement surrounding Cinequest’s initiatives, some filmmakers are worried that this new wave of internet and mobile investment may be a second dot-com boom, where hype outpaces results. Only time will tell: the following year for Cinequest will be an important indicator of the broader market potential for their unorthodox approach. “I think the future of distribution is going to be through the Internet, whether we like it or not,” said “Milk and Opium” director Joel Palombo.
The Internet is already an integral component of festival programming through the “Viewers’ Voice” section, in which Cinequest Online users view submissions and vote for their favorite short and feature once every quarter. Their selections are subsequently shown at the Cinequest Film Festival. One such discovery was “Almost,” made for an astounding budget of only $9,000 by first time filmmakers Chris D’Elia and Ryan Davis. The movie unfolds as a leisurely story of 20-somethings suffering through a “quarter-life crisis,” and while the subject would be trite in less capable hands, its strikingly confident performances coupled with a restrained aesthetic resonated with audiences.
A bevy of premiere documentaries caused a stir among Cinequest festival goers and with local press. A Special Directors Award was given to Angeliki Giannakopoulos‘ “My Child: Mothers of War,” which showed a spectrum of mothers of American soldiers in Iraq, from former Vietnam protestors to staunch Republicans who believe their sons are patriots fighting for a noble cause. “God and Gays: Bridging the Gap,” directed by Luane Beck, graced the covers of local newspapers and played to sold-out audiences in conjunction with a conference held to discuss sexuality and Christianity. “I have no doubt they will find a distribution home,” said Jens Michael Hussey, Director of Public Relations, in response to the audiences who supported these documentaries. “There are 300,000 families in the US dealing with a family member overseas in Iraq and many more who are dealing with a gay family member in a Christian environment.”
“American Blackout,” Ian Inaba‘s sobering investigation of the disenfranchisement of African-American voters in the election that made George W. Bush the most powerful man in the world, won the Jury Award for Best Feature Documentary. The most radical, audience-splitting documentary was Lee Feigon‘s “The Passion of the Mao,” a frenetic and somewhat eccentric look at the deification of Mao Zedong.
Cinquest’s top prize, the Maverick Spirit Award, went to the Swiss/German co-production “KussKuss,” directed by Soeren Senn. In fact, the Germans swept Cinequest jury with the award for First Feature Film given to Jan Martin Scharf and Arne Nolting‘s “Truth or Dare” and a special award for Artistic Vision given to Helmut Dietl‘s “About the Looking for and Finding of Love.” A special award for Ensemble Acting was given to the British comedy “The West Wittering Affair,” directed by David Scheinmann.
Other Cinequest awards winners included Special Jury Prize for Narrative Short: “Before Dawn“; Best Short Animation: “John and Michael“; Best Short Documentary: “Radio Grito“; Best Short Narrative: “Lucky“; Global Vision Award: “Kissed By Winter“; New Visions Award: “Asylum” (Feature), “Dirty Mary” (Short); Best Student Short Film: “Son Up“; Audience Award winners were Best Short Film: “Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot“; Best Feature Documentary: “Andrew Jenks, Room 335“; Best Feature Comedy: “Chalk“; Best Feature Drama (tie): “A Colombia,” “The Gold Bracelet.”
While many filmmakers made the trip to San Jose to show their film for the first time, they also had a chance to meet insiders at a series of Filmmaking and Technology Forums, each dedicated to a different stage in the process of making a movie. The general feeling among several visiting filmmakers was that the chance to meet people on the sidelines was worth the tradeoff of the media frenzy of larger festivals. Noting that press attention comes and goes, “Rice Rhapsody” producer Rosa Li said that Cinequest is “doing a lot more than just showing your film.”