A Ducky 15th Anniversary for Cinequest
by Skip Ferderber
Sometimes things just go...right. Despite the uneasiness that comes naturally to every Californian when threatened with a little rain ("Be careful! My god, the freeways can grow slick as ice with just a little sprinkle..."), the 15th annual Cinequest Film Festival managed to party on. Its setting in San Jose, the aorta of Silicon Valley, was as usual a mélange of the excessively well fed (rows and rows of Beemers and Lexii in the quaint Montgomery Hotel parking lot, headquarters for the festival) standing in lines outside the Cinema 12 or the San Jose Rep Theater cheek to jowl with San Jose State University funk and the usual parade of film heads.
In year #15, Cinequest screened sharp-edged films such as Estonia's "Set Point" (more on that later). Its several venues playing to packed houses. Cinequest's "Maverick" tribute to Sir Ben Kingsley, was held at the California Theater, magnificently refurbished to the tune of a mere reported $100 million... and on and on... with roughly 60,000 people attending this year's get-together.
A good deal of what was interesting about this year's festival, however, happened not in San Jose but in cyberspace -- and took place in the year preceding the fest itself. Cinequest tinkered with some of the basic DNA of what comprises a festival and may have begun charting a new path for what actually constitutes a film festival.
The usual working hypothesis among festivals is that a festival depends on the BIS factor, otherwise known as "butts in seats." After all, what's a festival without people in all those venues actually viewing the films. But a year ago, Cinequest opened its doors, partially, at any rate, to the public having access to at least some of its films on the Internet. And we don't mean trailers: we mean full 120-minute features, downloadable in DVD quality and absolutely free.
Last March marked the debut of Cinequest Online (www.cinequestonline.org), which enabled some of the films selected for inclusion at Cinequest to be made available for download. Through February 1 , Cinequest spokesmen said the site delivered over 29,000 secure feature film downloads, selected from 21 feature-length films and 44 shorts. In February, over 25 more features and 100 shorts came on line, along with additional film scenes, trailers, forums and celeb interviews.
The additional film selection supported Cinequest's second innovation: the "Viewers Voice" competition, a selection of new films that the public was asked to download, rate, review and select for a few rare slots in the bricks-and-mortar Cinequest 15 schedule.
An in-house Cinequest survey of more than 1,000 competing film festivals claimed that it was the only festival downloading full-length independent feature films to the public, all of them free of charge.
The technology works this way: Films are downloaded from Cinequest Online (warning: it only works with PC Internet Explorer) to a computer; software from a company called Kontiki provides the infrastructure enabling the festival website to deliver DVD/HD-quality video-on-demand to PCs. Filmmakers' intellectual property rights are protected via proprietary encryption and digital licensing management technologies. Even sexier, the downloaded file expire after a specific amount of time and can be blocked from transfer to other media. No harm, no foul.
Similar technology is working its way into the general 'mindmeld' through services such as CinemaNow and MovieLink Manager, which enable general release films to be seen on computers, compete with theatrical sales and/or DVDs, the whole enchilada. But the impact of this concept on the world of independent filmmaking could be enormous: the ability for non-mainstream filmmakers to have their films seen by hundreds of thousands of people, millions potentially: a vast showcase for film fans, producers, studios, agents, angels, theater owners to see their work -- without cajoling, in-person visits, nervously watching for the next FedEx to see if your film or video arrived on time, the begging...
It was that thought process that fired up Halfdan Hussey, Cinequest's long-time festival chief and co-founder, and led to last year's debut of Cinequest Online. He's pleased with its first year of operation, and looks forward to this year, and the next, and the next. "While it's technology that's making this happen," he said in an interview, "this isn't about the technology per se. It's about the broadest possible definition of 'film community' that Internet technology makes possible. We're not just the film festival of San Jose, or the California festival. We're pioneering another way for independent filmmakers to get their work seen."
"A distributor eventually will be able to hear about a film that got the buzz at Cinequest and jump to his computer and download it. No more hours looking for the filmmaker, seeing if a DVD or a tape is available, waiting for the delivery truck to deliver the goods. We're the first living and breathing festival without walls, the pioneers of an ongoing easy-to-use, high quality and secure Internet site can distribute films to the world. Now that's something else."
The first concrete results of the Cinequest Online concept came in February  from the Viewer's Voice competition. Competing films were chosen from 1,777 film submissions that achieved qualifying scores from the Cinequest programming team.
Productions winning the Viewer's Voice face-off were: "Mission Movie/Una Película de la Misión," (USA) directed by Lise Swenson, Adriana Montenegro; "Freedom From Despair," (Croatia) produced, directed and edited by Brenda Brkusic (with U.S. actors including, of all people, former Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich); "Guy in Row Five," (USA) directed by Jonathon E. Stewart and Phil Thurman, and "Vanilla," (USA) directed by Joseph Graham. Four shorts were also selected.
The festival's top prize, winner of the Maverick Spirit Award, went to "Villa Paranoia," directed by Erik Clausen and produced by Peter Ingemann, while the best "First Feature" prize went to "Uno," directed by Askel Hennie and produced by Jørgen Rosenberg. Two films tied in the Best Feature Documentary category: "We Are Dad," directed/produced by Michael Horvat; and "Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary," directed by Arturo Presz Torrez, and produced by Torres and Heather Haynes.
A Special Jury Award, for Remarkable Achievement in Narrative, went to "Our Own," directed by Dmitri Meskhiyev, and produced by Victor Glukhov, Sergei Melkumov and Yelena Yatsura. The Special Jury Award for Best Cinematograpy went to "From the Land of Silence," directed and produced by Samur Salur. For the Audience Choice Awards, "Our Own" came in for a second round of recognition, as did "Duck," directed by Nic Bettauer, and produced by Bettauer and Domini Hofmann. ("Duck" will come back a little later in this review.) Other Audience Choice winners included: Documentary - "Emmanuel's Gift," directed and produced by Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern; Comedy - "Terrorists," directed by Jay Martel and produced by Jim Paul; and Short Subject: - "Lift," directed and produced by Jeff Garton and Hugh Dalton.
Aside from the top award winners, the talk of the festival was "Set Point," directed by Ilmar Taska, whose film career has taken him from Estonia, with its small film production (perhaps four films a year) to the wilds of Hollywood. Beautifully shot, film noir-ish in texture, the crime drama was set in the cobblestone streets of Tallinn, Estonia's capital. Equally important, its filmmakers, Taska and his partner Ava "B" captured the attention of fest goers through their charm -- somewhat of an amazing feat in the personality-soaked parties of Cinequest, which attract both the Silicon Valley techno-stars -- and even a few demigods from Hollywood. They were joined by the film's stars: supermodel Carmen Kass and Finnish celebrity Peter Franzen -- sexy, stylish and something out of the ordinary...
"My Big Fat Independent Movie," produced and written by Chris Gore and directed by Philip Zlotorynski had a SRO crowd at their world premiere during the first weekend of the festival. The film was so popular that a repeat screening was added due to popular demand.
"Crossing," Roger Larry's drama about an organized crime boss's secret desire to cross dress while making love to his girlfriend had its fair share of buzz for its mix of romance, crime-thriller and genre-bending. "Victor/Victoria": look out.
Then there was "Duck" -- Yes, "that" duck, star of the countless AFLAC insurance commercials, the one who sounds uncannily like comedian Gilbert Gottfried. The duck tried to make the world premiere of the film but was tied up shooting a new AFLAC spot in L.A. (true -- who could make up such a take). Star Philip Baker Hall WAS able to make it to Cinequest: a ducky substitute.
The big buzz however came from endless filmmakers and distributors about the overall vibe of Cinequest. This is not the mean-spirited, desperate for-a-deal-at-any-cost zoo atmosphere that has taken over so many of the larger fests. That being said - business was still getting done, just in a quieter, less in-your-face manner -- and lit, in some ineffable way, by the welcome glow of the computer pointing the way to the future.