REGIONAL REPORT: Seattle's Love Affair With Local Films
by Adam Hart
[EDITOR'S NOTE: indieWIRE introduces the first in a series of regional reports about cinematic activities across the country.]
(indieWIRE: 12.05.02) -- Seattle loves film, and -- naturally enough -- film loves Seattle back. While national recognition of an intensely cinematic environment, full of all sorts of grays and greens and blues, has been a slow but steady process, Northwesterners have been plugging away, on a smaller scale, with a rapidly-growing film production community of their own. Home to the nation's largest audience-based international film festival (the Seattle International Film Festival plays literally hundreds of films, including dozens of world-premieres, each and every June) and famous for some of the nation's smartest, most supportive audiences for art-house fare, the Pacific Northwest embraces its own at every opportunity. Sold-out crowds pack themselves into SIFF's largest venues to see views of their own mountain backdrops in local-film programs. Any mid-budget completed feature is likely to premiere at the newly-renovated Cinerama, which features the city's largest screen. After decades of near non-existence (in any consistent form, at least), and frustration for both filmmakers and audiences, the Seattle film community has for the past few years, though largely unobserved by the rest of the world, been giving people plenty of chances to get excited.
Each frustrated young filmmaker lost to New York or Los Angeles in search of funding (of which there are fewer and fewer every year) is sent off with the community's sincerest, most heartfelt blessings and welcomed home with open arms each time he or she passes through. The result is an atmosphere of loyalty and dedication that perfectly embodies the current wave of locally-based independent productions around the country, in which a growing number of filmmakers are making the choice to stay home, avoiding the traps of larger, more aggressive markets in favor of more personal films set in a familiar, comfortable environment.
Seattle's Northwest Film Forum deserves a lion's share of the credit for turning things around in the Emerald City. Less than a decade old, the Forum and its production wing, Wigglyworld Studios, run the city's only two not-for-profit movie theaters and offer the region's best (and cheapest) production and post-production facilities for film. All together, the organization gives local filmmakers the equipment, the training, the community, the venues and (sometimes) the funding needed to put together a low-budget independent film.
Writer/producer Kathleen McInnis, who also serves as a leading programmer for SIFF, points out the genetic-level difference between the NWFF and previous local groups that popped up every few years before its founding in 1995. "When Wigglyworld first arrived, it had to build its reputation among the filmmakers who were here -- many of whom had grown tired of groups that would spring up and purport to be an indie filmmakers friend," she says. "Quickly, Wigglyworld proved they were serious, not only by buying the Grand Illusion Theater and continuing one of the only independent venues in Seattle, but also by putting their equipment and services where their mouth was. Films started getting made using WigglyWorld's resources, and that proved their viability better than anything else could have."
The first thing to strike anyone about the NWFF is the utterly easygoing, open-minded staff of devoted filmlovers and filmmakers, the kind of staff that comes up with ideas for "Found Footage Festivals" (in which editors put together movies from old educational and industrial films) and something called the "Super-8 VS. Video Deathmatch," in which the polemically film-oriented Wigglyworld teamed up with the downtown's video production facility, 911 Media Arts.
Grudgingly, the NWFF has gotten with the times and now has a state of the art non-linear editing station -- although they quickly explain that it's mostly for celluloid that's been transferred to digital video. They've adapted to the digital shift with a clever shift of their own towards the more affordable Super-8: installing a projector at the Little Theatre and adding a few more cameras to the rental roster. While first-time and low-budget filmmakers looking to put together a feature-length movie are getting more and more reluctant to shell out the bucks for 16mm film (although there are more loyal film-users out there than you might think) when high-quality digital options are available at a lower cost, everyone still wants to work with film in some form or another. Several nights of locally-made Super-8 shorts dot the calendar of the NWFF's Little Theatre, and those events have grown into one of the theater's most popular series.
"There are other organizations and schools that offer video equipment and instruction," NWFF studio director Dave Hanagan explains. "Because we offer film resources instead of video, we draw a crowd that works out of a desire for creativity and expression. People (generally) don't come to us to learn job skills, or develop a career in film/video production."
With about 60 films being made through WigglyWorld studios annually (20-25 through grants of various sizes), 130 local shorts get shown, along with three to six features (including the occasional screening of a work-in-progress).
"Of course we offer our membership and services to anyone," Hanagan says. "However, the tendency has been for more experimental and narrative work. Lots of Super-8 films. Lots of hand-processing and direct-animation. Lots of artist from different mediums making films in collaboration with performance and visual artists. A few installation pieces."
"It could almost be called self-indulgent," he adds, "in that WigglyWorld filmmakers make work to fulfill personal visions."
With six feature film productions through grants having begun production in the past six years, the NWFF is expanding as well. They boast the ambitious Start-To-Finish grant, in which the organization throws its entire weight behind a local artist's feature-length production, from the developmental/conceptual stages to funding to free use of facilities and equipment to, ultimately, help with distribution. The NWFF provides up to $20,000, and locates potential investors for the filmmaker. Yet with carte blanche regarding equipment, the only real costs are the actual film and the crew. Since both are available at very low costs through NWFF, a little money can go a long, long way.
Currently in post-production are two such projects: Matt Wilkins' pungently-titled short story collection "Buffalo Bill's Defunct"(including a very loose adaptation of a Raymond Carver story) and Paul Willis' contemporary version of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler." Willis, a prominent figure in the Seattle theater community, developed his film version alongside his own experimental stage production, set in an air hangar, which played to rave reviews in 2000. "The grant is artist-based, not project-based," NWFF executive director Michael Seiwerath explains. "We hand it out based on a desire to work with people in the artistic community."
The first Start-To-Finish grant went to Gregg Lachow, one of the NWFF's founding members, to produce "Money Buys Happiness," which has found national distribution and is available in video stores across the country. Lachow, the first NWFF alumnus to achieve real national recognition, has been the subject of well-received retros ves at the Pioneer Theatre in New York and the Egyptian in L.A.
Both "Buffalo Bill's Defunct" and "Hedda Gabler" are expected to be completed in the spring, and will hopefully start making the festival circuit immediately.
The Northwest Film Forum is online at www.wigglyworld.org