By Steve Greene | Indiewire May 10, 2012 at 8:10PM
The Catalina Film Festival is a celebration of film history, but the festival is still in its infancy. This year marked the weekend festival’s second incarnation, running from its opening gala Saturday night through its conclusion late Sunday afternoon.
Like most of humanity, festival attendees were treated to an opening night screening of “The Avengers” in the island’s historic Avalon Theater. However, as an added bonus, the guest of honor was Stan Lee, the man responsible for some of Marvel’s biggest properties, including a few of the ones that were onscreen that evening.
Partly by design and partly by coincidence, animation and comics became a weekend theme. Lee stayed in Catalina after opening night for a screening of the charming documentary “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story” and a panel discussion afterwards that covered, among other things, his latest venture into comics-related content, POW! Entertainment.
“All you people with nothing better to do!” quipped Lee as he took the stage, wearing his trademark sunglasses and wispy white mustache. Speaking on a subject pertinent to the opening weekend of “The Avengers,” Lee said, “I don’t mind if, in a movie, some of things change, as long as they keep the essence of the character and the mood of the stories.” Adaptation from illustration to screen was a topic broached at a panel devoted to the concept, featuring “Mars Needs Moms” author Berkeley Breathed.
Even as the island was celebrating the cinematic trends, festival director and creator Ron Truppa felt it equally important to pay tribute to the film history of decades past. “Why have another film festival? Because you have history you can’t buy. You have the first sound theater ever built in the world, so you have to pay homage to that,” Truppa said. “Marilyn Monroe lived on the island, Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille. D.W. Griffith came to screen his first talkie film.”
Another Griffith work, “Man’s Genesis,” was the first scripted film to be shot on Catalina. A screening honoring the 100-year anniversary of the 17-minute production also served as a historical centerpiece for the 2012 festival.
Aside from the panels and retrospectives, over 70 new features and shorts were screened over the three-day weekend, all accessible by either a 15-minute walk or the island’s preferred mode of vehicular transportation: golf carts. The main screening location (and perhaps the most popular destination on Catalina) is the Avalon Theater, a recently restored vestige of the Hollywood of the late 1920s and ‘30s. Capable of holding nearly 1,200 patrons, the 89-year-old venue is replete with wooden chairs, Botticelli-inspired ceiling murals and an organ that fills the room with live playing as moviegoers enter the main hall.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid any of the major weekend-long get-togethers, as Avalon truly is a hub, with many of the area’s prime attractions within walking distance. An audience member is far more likely to bump into a director or actor or producer just by walking around Avalon than he/she would at a festival with a wider geographical reach. The proximity generates a subtle sense of camaraderie that wouldn’t necessarily be found at a festival closer to a metropolis.
If there’s one thing working against the success of the Catalina Film Festival, it’s that intimacy. The festival can definitely grow while keeping that spirit, but it will need to offer more than just the island itself. Events held at the Avalon High School auditorium (the end of festival awards and some of the short film blocks) reached the amount of audience members that generated a familiarity and an atmosphere for discussion. But at the Avalon Theatre, even at half-capacity, the place can feel a bit cavernous.
With greater visibility and higher attendance, the festival organizers have an ambitious plan for expansion. “Right now, it’s very condensed. Once we start adding days to the program, we can expand the program,” said director of programming Ziggy Mrkich.
“Eventually, we want this to be one of those week-long, 10-day, 14-day type of festivals that people can literally escape to,” added Truppa.
If the Catalina Film Festival is going to grow (Truppa sees the parallels between the cities of Avalon and Telluride as a potential for future success), it will likely have to distinguish itself by further highlighting its cinematic historical offerings. The planned launch of the Catalina Film Institute in November will expand its reach and awareness, bringing in even more interested individuals to utilize the island’s resources and scenery. The high percentage of filmmaker attendance from the short film category also suggests that the festival may have a potential niche by focusing even more on the aspiring creators who are only a short ferry ride away.
With a dedicated crew, the allure of past legends and a community atmosphere, there are plenty of advantages that the Catalina Film Festival has in its quest to become a festival destination. At the very least, a 180-degree view of the ocean is a great place to start.