FESTIVALS: Gen Art Actually Screens Some Good Films
by Andrea Meyer
When producer Annie Sundberg attended the Gen Art opening night screening of "Dropping Out," she got a bit nervous. "People were on their cell phones through the whole film," she says, recalling her fear that the audience would chat their way through her own feature "What Happened to Tully" two nights later. "I joked with [festival director] Dominick [Balletta] about it, and he assured me that cell phones didn't work at the venue where we were screening."
The criticisms most often launched at Gen Art are that the parties are more important than the films and that the target audience -- twenty-something, not necessarily film savvy Manhattanites -- do, in fact, care more about the parties than the films. While mid-movie cell phone calls would seem to support this claim, Balletta insists that the event -- parties included -- is all about the films. "The parties are an integral part of the experience," he says. "I've seen films have their premiere screening at 11:30PM on a Tuesday night in a school auditorium in the middle of a very cold state in late January (no festivals will be named here). Is that the way a film should first see the light of day? I don't think so."
From that central idea was born the concept of "seven films, seven parties," the catchy, clever, and very successful propeller of the Gen Art Film Festival. For five years now, Gen Art has screened seven films, one on every night of a week in May, each followed by a swingin' party, to celebrate the film and its makers. "The filmmakers get a night where they truly rule the festival," says Balletta. "The work is shown in a great theater (thank you, Loews Cineplex). And the filmmakers get a great premiere party afterwards." Sponsors, like Loews, love Gen Art, because the audience they court -- young, urban, and able to swing 25 bucks for a screening and after-party -- is an advertiser's dream. This love affair between the organization and their supporters (others include Bass, Skyy Vodka, Nokia) means some stylish events, hefty prizes (the $25,000 Cyclops/Cataland Audience Award and the $50,000 Film Connection Award) and really great party favors (hair dye from L'Oreal; cool, top-of-the-line cell phones for filmmakers).
For all the preparation and good cheer, most of the parties were too crowded, too hot, and too hip for their own good. Closing night at the Emporio Armani store on Fifth Avenue, for example, and Monday night at True, were packed and impossible to navigate. There were exceptions, though. The Saturday night bash, for example, in celebration of Kevin Jordon's sweet, unremarkable "Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish," was at a small, crowded bar called Fun, located under the Manhattan Bridge. Presumably because the event was sponsored by Winter Films, fake snow was shooting through the air all night, mainly blinding guests and getting stuck in their hair. "What's with the dandruff shit flying all over the place?" one annoyed partier shouted over the bad, loud house music. But ultimately, the festival generates such good energy, that the majority didn't seem to mind.
Parties that are incredibly hip but not much fun are par for the course at Gen Art. What was surprising this year was a remarkably good film program. In past years, it often seemed like the program was generated as much by the fabulous personae of the filmmakers as the quality of the films. This year, one film after another was actually well-crafted with something to say.
The strong seven-film line-up wasn't short on predictable indie bitchathons about stylish young urbanites and their witticisms. The one film that does fit that bill -- Matthew Huffman's "Playing Mona Lisa" about a San Francisco pianist whose life falls apart when her boyfriend dumps her -- is a well-made, great-looking crowd-pleaser that features impressive comic performances from Alicia Witt, Elliott Gould, Marlo Thomas, and Harvey Fierstein. Marni Freedman and Carlos de los Rios' script, while sometimes uneven, is surprisingly solid and offers some truly hilarious moments.
Other highlights included Adrienne Shelley's twisted romantic comedy "I'll Take You There," which is more conventional but also more accessible than her tragically underrated and misunderstood first feature "Suddenly Manhattan." "I'll Take You There" stars Reg Rogers as a despondent jilted husband who gets more or less kidnapped by an off-beat manic depressive played by Ally Sheedy.
Jon Dichter's festival circuit favorite "The Operato," is a smart thriller about a telephone operator who wreaks karmic retribution upon a sleazy, two-timing lawyer. Jon Shear's stunning film "Urbania," which had its premiere at Sundance this year, goes deep inside the meandering mind of Charlie (Dan Futterman), a man obsessed with the boyfriend he's lost. Shear cleverly and artfully incorporates the urban folk tales that get stuck inside the folds of our brain, which in Charlie's distraught state blur with his present, his past, and his fantasies. The result is an intricate meditation on the overwhelming, mind-numbing power of grief. The strong cast also includes Alan Cumming, Matt Keeslar, Josh Hamilton, Lothaire Bluteau, and Samuel Ball.
"The highlight for me," says Fest Director Balletta, "was watching 'What Happened to Tully,' which didn't even have a print until just before LAIFF, catch everyone off guard." Written and directed by Hilary Birmingham and produced by Birmingham and Sundberg, the winner of the $25,000 Audience Award is the kind of film that's often underrepresented at most film festivals: a rural love story about a small-town playboy (Anson Mount) who learns to love when his past pops up to bite him in his fun-loving, non-committal young ass. "It's a fantastic film," Balletta continues, "magnificent in its simplicity. How many films focus on the lives of men who WANT to stay on their father's farms? It's just a phenomenally well-told story, and now that it's won audience awards in both LA and NY, I don't see how the distributors can ignore it for much longer."
Freshman theatrical distributor Unapix picked up "Urbania" and "Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish" is scheduled for a fall release with Stratosphere. Neither deal was made at the Gen Art Film Festival. "It's a great place to show your film," says "Tully's" Sundberg, "but not necessarily to sell it." Sundberg says that while there were representatives from distribution companies at her screening (namely, those who were already representing other films in the festival), other companies, like Sony and Miramax, didn't show.
And getting a distribution deal is partially what it's all about, especially to the likes of Sundberg and Birmingham who spent over $100,000 of their investors' money. But there are other things that matter at a film festival, like an enormous Loews Cinemas screening packed with enthusiastic New Yorkers and an after-party thrown in your honor that rocks until the wee hours of a Friday night. "A slab of brie and a glass of Chardonnay just don't equate to the Herculean efforts that indie filmmakers make in getting their vision onto the screen," says Balletta. "I like to think of the evening as Gen Art's small attempt to repay them, in part, for their effort."
[Andrea Meyer is the Associate Editor of ifcRANT, and a New York contributor to indieWIRE.]