Florida Film Festival Lauds "Down to the Bone" and "Happy Hour" during 10-day Film-filled Event
by Brian Brooks
Debra Granik's "Down to the Bone" and Mike Bencivenga's "Happy Hour" were awarded top prizes at the Florida Film Festival in Orlando (March 5-14), taking the grand jury prize for best narrative feature and the audience award for best narrative feature respectively at the festival. The event, which was founded in 1992 by the Enzian Theater, Central Florida's only nonprofit cinema, welcomed a mix of locals and out-of-towners alike, opening with director Campbell Scott's "Off the Map" on a mildly warm, humid Friday evening.
The charming Enzian Theater, a truly unique venue that even impressed visiting jaded New Yorkers with its cozy seating, broad food menu and full bar -- which is served tableside during screenings -- had a packed audience that lingered afterward for Qamp;A with Scott, who along with his directing credits, starred in "Roger Dodger," "Secret Lives of Dentists" as well as the upcoming "The Dying Gaul." Outside the Enzian, surrounded by grounds and a grove of trees covered in moss, the eclectic crowd of opening night attendees feasted on a buffet and oodles of wine, as hosts Philip and Sigrid Tiedtke (whose family founded the Enzian 18 years ago) mingled. Also socializing well into the evening was Scott himself who chatted with the crowd, much to their delight.
"I thought it was a great year for us," Shannon Lacek, marketing and media director for FFF and the Enzian told indieWIRE. "We had a lot of industry names here and a lot of community interest that turned out for that, which [shows] this community is not just all about glitz and glamour." Lacek was referring to the slew of Indiewood execs who traveled down to attend the event as well as to participate in the fest's distribution panel. Panelists included Newmarket prez, Bob Berney, Sony Classics VP Tom Prassis, Fox Searchlight VP of domestic distribution, Richard Shamban as well as TC Rice from Manhattan Pictures International, who also served as a narrative features juror along with indieWIRE's Wendy Mitchell and filmmaker Joel Hopkins. "The distributor's panel went over well," added Lacek who continued to say that the Enzian was filled with a standing room only crowd. "Orlando has a ton of film schools and filmmakers, so they were interested in finding out what the next step was in getting their films out there, and to hear it from those guys was extra important."
"Madness and Genius" director Ryan Eslinger was one of the filmmakers who tapped into the resources of film students at the University of Central Florida to promote his film locally. The film, which won the $25,000 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Film Prize in Science and Technology at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October (in addition to a Spirit Award nomination), is also set in a University. As part of a class project, a group of UCF students were assigned to particular festival films to help promote the screenings and the students are being graded on their ablity to pack the house.
"The best part of the FFF had to be working with the UCF students," Eslinger commented to iW. "They showed me around the town and helped get people in to see the film." Eslinger continued to say that both his screenings were a sell-out and the festival was 'fun.' "It's a laid-back, fun festival from start to finish."
Director Allan Mindel heaped major praise on FFF audiences. The "Milwaukee, Minnesota" director has become a veteran festgoer in the last year, attending 17 film festivals with his project beginning with Slamdance in '03 and later Cannes. "My screening was Saturday night (March 6th) and the audience was incredible, with a great Qamp;A afterward, one of the best I have ever had," he said. After FFF, Mindel took his Midwest-set dark comedy to the Sophia film fest in Bulgaria. "[FFF is] a rarified location where people love to see filmsm" concluded Mindel, adding that he managed to take in a few screenings, giving kudos to Bryan Poyser's competition film "Dear Pillow." Mindel is off to Istanbul in April for "Milwaukee, Minnesota"'s next festival engagement.
Documentary competition director Gregg Brown ("Words") found himself recreating parts of his film for the local CBS affiliate in downtown Orlando while at the fest. "Words" is a doc that unfolds like a 'word association game' (or a game of 'telephone'), evolving from one interconnected segment to the next through the actions and words of subjects in the film. "[Co director] Jason [Holzman] and I were very interested in the common humanity that connects all people, places, and experiences and I believe that 'Words' does shed some light into how we're all connected."
Brown went on to describe some of the more amusing antics that went down during filming of the TV show in Orlando. "Some of the funnier parts of [it] included dancing with people on the streets of downtown Orlando, posing Orlandonians as Hindu deities, and even having them reach inside our 'mysterious box' to share a common experience." Brown went on to praise the festival staff for "[staying] with us for the entire time we filmed -- about four hours," and for even managing to get a local council member to guarantee their shoot went uninterrupted.
In addition to top prizes for "Down to the Bone" and "Happy Hour," the Florida Film Festival presented its grand jury prize for best documentary feature to Robert Stone's look at Patty Hearst's infamous 1970s kidnapping in, "Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army." Incidentally, indieWIRE had taken Ms. Hearst's pic for iPOP one week prior at the Los Angeles Independent Spirit Awards with John Waters (who hosted the event), and I couldn't help but be mildly amazed at the contrasting figures of Hearst portrayed in the film and last month socializing at the Awards party.
"The Fight" by Barak Goodman, meanwhile won the audience award for best documentary feature, while a special jury award for "extraordinary courage in filmmaking went to Celesta Davis' "Awful Normal." The film recently won the best doc award at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, CA. Tony Spiridakis' "Noise" took the special jury award for narrative filmmaking, while Florida State University student Todd Schulman was the recipient of the special jury award for best student film for his project, "The Plunge."
In a conversation after the festival ended, Lacek said attendance had increased by 10% over last year, and cited a significant increase in online ticket sales. This year's larger crowds did seem enthusiastic, which is certainly not a surprise with such a wonderful venue as the Enzian Theater. One frequenter of the festival this year told me that she had nothing to do with film, but said her interest had been kindled by the festival. That by any measure is a terrific success.