Vail Fest Offers a Few Stumbles, But More Successes, With Inaugural Event
by Wendy Mitchell
With apologies to Sergio Leone, it seems appropriate to judge the inaugural Vail Film Festival in terms of the good, the bad, and the ugly. We'll start with "the ugly" to get that out of the way. Anytime a new festival starts, there's always the question of why the world needs another one -- after all, there are more than 400 film festivals per year, and Colorado already has legendary festivals in Telluride and Aspen... so how is Vail differentiating itself in terms of programming? The Vail Film Institute founded the festival to "encourage artistic innovation, to promote new and creative filmmaking techniques" (among other goals), but there wasn't anything particularly innovative or creative about many of these films (that's not to say they weren't good films, just that they weren't groundbreaking). The festival had also promised to show a collection of unaired TV pilots -- a move that would set it apart from other festivals -- but they ended up only showing a few pilots, and those weren't promoted very well ("That's something we'll foster for next year," said festival co-founder Scott Cross). Also, the festival's awards were confusing... I asked several filmmakers if their films were in competition for awards, and if so, if there was a jury, and nobody really seemed to know. After the fest ended, co-founder Scott Cross told me that the festival's screening committee had picked the winners. To add to the confusion at the awards ceremony, the publicist for "LA DJ" got on stage to proclaim that the film had won the audience award; even if the festival didn't condone the "LA DJ" gang taking the stage, they should have at least clarified later that NO film had won an audience award (there was no audience voting... something else to think about for next year).
The "bad" parts of the equation were more logistical -- last-minute hotel mixups for guests, uninformed volunteers, lack of communication with the press and public (the film catalog didn't provide any info about a director's past films, and in some cases didn't indicate who the stars were or whether or not the film was a premiere), and problems staying on schedule. I won't dwell on those because you pretty much expect such problems at any kind of inaugural event. And in some cases, the schedule headaches turned out to be beneficial. For instance, when the festival oversold tickets to John Schultz's "When Zachary Beaver Came to Town," they decided to start the film about a half hour late so they could move to a larger screen -- a benefit for both the filmmaker and the audience. (Not so beneficial was the fact that an audience was seated for the doc "Bukowski: Born Into This" before the fest realized it had misplaced the film.) Another gripe I heard from the locals was that they wanted more films to screen more than once -- hard to accomplish if a fest only runs 3.5 days, but something to consider if the event gets stretched out to include more days.
And, finally, onto the "good" -- because there really were some impressive things that this first-year event pulled off. For starters, they scored the North American premiere of Richard Linklater's brilliant "Before Sunset" away from more established festivals. Also, the town of Vail seems like a very natural home for a festival -- there are plenty of resorts to host visitors, the public transportation is fabulous and free, and there seems to be plenty of sponsor money to support an event in Vail. (Oh yes, there are also the famed ski slopes). In addition, the festival welcomed a large and enthusiastic group of filmmakers and film industry experts to this first event. The panels in particular (mostly organized by noted critic and author Godfrey Cheshire) were some of the best I've seen lately -- just as good as what you'd find at Sundance or another festival of that caliber. Films were mostly well-attended, with quite a few screenings selling out; and parties (and the after-party bar scene) were particularly lively. And the festival organizers did live up to their goal of choosing films that were very independent -- aside from "Before Sunset," their selections were either from smaller, non-corporate-owned indie companies or were without distribution.
"We saw all these directors struggling in the indie film world, we thought there was a need for another a truly independent film festival where people could show their work," said Cross, who along with his brother is an actor and screenwriter. "We wanted to encourage truly independent filmmakers, to encourage that discovery."
Of all the films I saw during my long weekend in Vail (the festival ran April 1-4), my favorite was "Red Light Go," a stylish and energetic documentary about New York City bike messengers. This doc, which premiered in December at MoMA's Documentary Fortnight, enters the subculture of a tight-knit group of bike messengers in New York City as they discuss their livelihood and also compete in street "Alleycat" races. This well-done doc puts a human face on a group of folks that are usually ignored (or maligned). Frantic scenes of a Halloween Alleycat race were particularly thrilling.
"Seducing Doctor Lewis," which some people love (it won the audience prize at Sundance and Wellspring has nabbed theatrical rights), was a little too cutesy for me. It's a fish-out-of-water story about a city doctor recruited to work on a remote fishing island in Quebec, where the locals go through all sorts of steps to deceive him into loving the place -- sort of a "Waking Ned Devine" meets "Northern Exposure." Even when the humor was too easy, I thought the story's heart was in the right place.
Another crowd-pleaser with a lot of heart was John Schmidt's "When Zachary Beaver Came to Town," based on the award-winning kids novel of the same name. Jonathan Lipnicki turns in an impressive performance as a young Texas boy coping after his beloved neighbor and his mom leave him. He's distracted when the "world's fattest boy," the titular Beaver, shakes up the small town. There's nothing edgy about this film, but it's very solidly done (in terms of both directing and acting) and there's nothing to stop it from becoming the next successful feel-good family film.
Also stirring up buzz with its sold-out screening -- and especially with its series of local parties and events -- was "LA DJ," a feature film directed by Thomas Ian Nicholas of "American Pie" fame. Nicholas co-wrote the story with his brother Tim Scarne, about two brothers who leave their trailer park with dreams of becoming famous DJs in Los Angeles; they end up ruining some bar mitzvahs instead. The film dragged at times, and some of the humor was obvious, but still "LA DJ" offered quite a few laughs and strong performances from Nicholas, Scarne, and newcomer Caleb Moody as the lovable idiot Larry. The filmmakers also recruited the likes of Carl Cox, Jam Master Jay, and DMC for cameos. Nicholas says Vail seemed like the right festival to show the film for the first time. "This being the first year of the festival, we felt that it would have that independent feel that Sundance used to have. Since we are very indie, it was a good match," he told indieWIRE. "We had a great time... the people that work and live in Vail were so friendly and supportive of our efforts to promote our movie. Besides, our movie sold out. Who can complain about that?"
Award winners in Vail were Wally Wolodarsky's "Seeing Other People" (best narrative feature), Jon Gunn, Brian Herzlinger, and Brett Winn's "My Date With Drew" (best documentary feature), Bruno Coppola's "Stuff that Bear" (best short), Yimeng Jin's "The 17th Man" (best student film), and Devon Chiwis' "Dance with Me" (best student cinematography). The festival's unique Gershwin Showcase, sponsored by the Gershwin Estate, invited submissions of short films incorporating a George and Ira Gershwin song. The winner of that $5,000 prize was Peter Seiben and Dick Hovenga's "Bittersweet" from The Netherlands.
Among the panels, I attended the indie producing panel and the critics' panel, both of which were entertaining and enlightening. The producing panel, moderated by Gill Holland, dwelled on topics such as setting budgets, the digital revolution, the rise of docs, breaking into the biz, and the passion that can be more important than profits. Speaking of profits, Tim Williams, head of production for GreeneStreet Films, revealed that for one of that company's biggest hits, Oscar winner "In the Bedroom," Miramax only paid GreeneStreet about 75 percent of what the film had cost to make. "We did not get rich off of it," he said. He also took the opportunity to show some sneak peaks of current GreeneStreet projects, Sally Potter's artsy "Yes" starring Joan Allen -- which looked to have amazing cinematography and production design -- and the horror film "2001 Maniacs" (conceived as a sequel to Herschell Gordon Lewis' classic "2000 Maniacs"), which includes the not-so-subtle tagline "You are what they eat."
LM Kit Carson called filmmaking a "curious enterprise, which is art and commerce." "Part of the game is this deal you've got to make with the devil," he said of distribution companies. "You're trying to tell a story, they're trying to make money." Panelist Joel Ehrlich also spoke quite frankly about the economics of distribution deals, detailing P&A costs and all the recoupables against a filmmaker's potential profits. Ehrlich said that the new Denver-based production company New Deal Pictures is offering an alternative, a distribution model that would be a joint venture with a filmmaker. GreeneStreet's Williams also offered the idea of getting corporate sponsors for films -- which raised some eyebrows when he said GreeneStreet might work with sponsors on an upcoming documentary.
At the critics panel on Sunday morning, an assorted group of critics (all male) talked to moderator Anne Thompson about their inspirations (Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris), the rise of pop-culture entertainers rather than serious critics (Godfrey Cheshire called the New Yorker's quippy Anthony Lane "a very clever writer, but he represents the total degeneracy of film criticism"), "The Passion of The Christ" as a film and as a social phenomenon, spirituality in films, and the lack of young new critics and female critics. The panelists raved about some favorite recent films -- Cheshire pointed to the Andrey Zvyagintsev's masterful debut film "The Return," while Nathan Lee of the New York Sun pointed out three recent Hollywood genre films that had impressed him: David Mamet's "Spartan," Guillermo del Toro's "Hellboy," and Martha Coolidge's "The Prince and Me." NPR contributor Howie Moshovitz made a good point that critics and the public "wind up celebrating new films much too often," when the DVD format is offering up hundreds and hundreds of fabulous older films to new audiences. In other ways that technology is impacting criticism, they panelists pointed to the Internet opening up new voices "If we do get another Kael or Sarris, it will be online, it won't be in print," Lee said.
Attracting such top-notch panelists (as well as honorees including director Robert Young and producer Amy Robinson) to any new film festival was a big feat. Even with its shaky areas, this festival is definitely worth keeping an eye on. Co-founder Scott Cross told indieWIRE that this year's event attracted more than 5000 attendees, and that even though they had "a lot of learning to do this year, they felt it was a "phenomenal success" for a first outing. "Most of our sponsors are excited about coming back for the second year," he said. "The town of Vail and Vail Resorts and the local community are excited about what this festival can become. I think we can become a major film festival."