FESTIVALS: On the Industry Radar; Woodstock Rocks Music and Celebrities in Year Three
by Eugene Hernandez and Brian Brooks
Most third-year regional film festivals cannot count on an array of the film world's A-listers scurrying through local haunts, attending screenings, participating in panels or rockin' out at parties worthy of the Croisette, Yorkville, Park City, or Potsdamer Platz. To be fair, Woodstock, NY has some innate advantages. Its community unabashedly caters to creativity, and it has the money to indulge the vicinity's aesthetics and eccentricities. The lush mountainous terrain is a natural oasis for beleaguered New Yorkers eager for a weekend getaway. So the Woodstock Film Festival is quite a draw, and its solid line-up attracts a broad spectrum of the New York film community to the enclave that one participant called "the world's most famous small town."
(Still, there were some challenges. Important words to the wise for Woodstock fest attendees: bring a car!)
The Woodstock Film Festival's motto is "Fiercely Independent," so it was no surprise that one of indie film's icons, Parker Posey, was part of the initial parade of celebs in town for the opening night film, Sundance Film Festival grand jury prize winner "Personal Velocity." The film ushered in a mixture of high-profile work and hidden gems screening during the event's intimate, but sometimes slightly uncomfortable venues. Magnolia Pictures' Ryan Werner, who programmed this year's dramatic features and documentaries, had the savvy tastes of Woodstock's populace in mind when building this year's schedule. "(Our) approach to the programming was just to find intelligent films that we thought would go over well with the local audience," Werner told indieWIRE this week. "This is an incredibly artistic and intelligent community that is truly interested in film."
Question-and-answer sessions following the screenings were unusually lively and, at times, reflected the uniqueness of the Woodstock-ers personalities. During the Q&A following Adrian Grenier's fantastic directorial debut documentary, about his father-less upbringing, "Shot in the Dark," one audience member, quickly analyzed the situation by referring to Grenier's parents' astrological signs. The reading prompted the film's co-producer, John L. Davidson to laughingly respond, "Wow, this really is a Woodstock audience!" The audience was especially vocal during the screening of Jeff Blitz's emotionally captivating "Spellbound," a film about a diverse group of kids striving to win the National Spelling Bee.
Other favorites included Nina Gilden Seavey's "The Ballad of Bering Strait," a look at a group of seven Russian teens who emigrate to the U.S. on the quest for country-music fame, and "West 47th Street" by Bill Lichtenstein and June Peoples, which earned an honorable mention. Among the films that had Woodstock audiences rocking, included David C. Thomas' "MC5 * A True Testimonial," about a group of five working-class friends determined to change the world through rock 'n' roll, and Paul Justman's "Standing in the Shadows of Motown."
Focus Features' highly anticipated "Far From Heaven," by Todd Haynes, was a grand coup for the Woodstock festival. The 1950s story, inspired by the work of filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk, was a hit at the Tinker Street Cinema screening Sunday. "I was interested in film, and film language," explained Haynes during a post-screening chat. Legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, creator of the original music for the film, joined Haynes. Calling "Far From Heaven" an "honest" film, composer Bernstein offered his take by saying, "This film is about love, it is a film about people trying to fall in love -- for me what felt emotionally right (about this film) had nothing to do with the 1950s." An awards-season push will no doubt accompany the movie, and it will focus rightfully on Moore's stellar performance. Among those packing the small theater for Sunday's showing were numerous previous Oscar nominees (and a few winners), including Frances McDormand with husband Joel Coen, the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, filmmakers Leon Gast and Brett Morgen, as well as Killer Films' Christine Vachon, attorney and producer John Sloss, and others from the NYC film community, including critics and reporters.
A combination of elements led to this year's wider profile, according to Festival co-founder and chief Meira Blaustein. "The hiring of Ryan Werner (as programmer) brought the programming and industry connections to a higher level," said Blaustein, herself a tireless advocate of the event in meetings with the New York film community over the past year. "The first two years were successful, but it was just on a lower level," Blaustein told indieWIRE yesterday, indicating that the festival took on a more professional feel in year three. "More and more people from the industry were brought into our inner circle, which has been growing," she added.
Panel discussions in Woodstock offered some insightful nuggets. Saturday's alternative distribution discussion provided a necessary respite from the usual talk of theatrical exhibition as the primary venue for distributing work. In fact, panelist Dee Dee Halleck delivered a worthwhile overview of non-traditional outlets, including several that she has had a hand in, including Deep Dish TV. Deep Dish is a satellite network that delivers progressive programming to 300 cable systems and community stations as well as satellite-equipped homes. Other panelists included Cara Mertes, head of PBS' acclaimed weekly summer series of doc programming, P.O.V., and Paola Freccero, head of programming at Sundance Channel.
Among other topics during the weekend, digital production and exhibition were in the spotlight at two separate seminars. Producers John Sloss, Richard Hawley, Jason Kliot, and Lemore Syvan considered how to assure digital filmmaking's impact upon popular culture, while at Sunday's exhibition discussion, panelists Gary Bouchard from Kodak, Sarah Lash from IFC Films, and Emerging Pictures' Ira Deutchman discussed Deutchman's plan to create an alternative digital theatrical network for independent films.
Despite the fest's primarily casual, low-key tone, Woodstock organizers revved up a handful of high-energy parties, many of which were punctuated with solid musical elements. On Saturday, vans shuttled fest-goers up a steep, windy road for a rock star-studded party at the Allaire recording studios. It was a gathering that many hope will become an annual tradition. Phish founding members Mike Gordon and Trey Anastasio surprised the crowd with a late-night jam session that included Matt Abts and Dave Schools of Gov't Mule. It was all in celebration of the doc "Rising Low," which captures the meeting of 25 of the world's top bass players to honor Allen Woody, bassist for Gov't Mule, who died last year.
Meanwhile at a separate, unofficial soiree the prior evening, revelers continued the festivities into the wee hours at a local home for a little late-night skinny-dipping under the bright moon. More than one of the free-spirited hotties swimming on the warm night had a film screening at the festival. Voyeurs among the crowd gathered on the sidelines, crooning the tunes of the Beatles and other '60s favorites as many splashed in the pool.
Without a doubt, organizers will have to grapple with a lack of local lodging and public transportation as the festival continues to grow. Many attendees who made the trip to the fest were boarded in the homes of generous locals, but in order to shuttle those folks to and fro efficiently it will take a more significant investment into the transportation budget. "It all has to go together," Blaustein told indieWIRE, "One does not work well without the other, I want to double budget (next year) so that we can professionally grow -- without the proper funding it's a struggle." Technical problems to be addressed included sporadic sound and projection problems, which were mostly met with patience. Small, steamy screening venues, some of which were makeshift spaces, were made even more uncomfortable by the muggy, pre-fall weather. Blaustein has hopes for a larger, legitimate theater in the future.
"To bring 'Far from Heaven' was a dream come true," Blaustein told indieWIRE. "I just knew it was the right film. I think that people are recognizing that the Woodstock Film Festival is definitely something to be considered on the festival circuit -- at least that is what I am being told by other people. It just took me awhile to see that."