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How to Grow a Film Festival, Despite a Hurricane

How to Grow a Film Festival, Despite a Hurricane

In its third go-round, despite the September 14 ravages of Hurricane Odile, Los Cabos International Film Festival is on track to become a functional festival, getaway and market for Latin American co-productions with partners in Mexico, Canada and Hollywood. Actually, while there were tarps on battered rooftops, pitted streets, twisted trees and constant banging construction, Cabo San Lucas seemed to be up and running–with fewer tourists, which meant easy access to less crowded beaches and excellent seafood restaurants.  

Here’s what this festival did right.

1. Get backing from a real estate mogul who owns hotels in a tourist destination.

In this case, Los Cabos (Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo), considered among Mexico’s top five tourist spots, sit at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California Sur peninsula. Most of the tourists on the plane were going fishing, snorkeling or scuba-diving in the still-rich Baja waters. A well-stocked bar sits curbside at the airport. My pal Sydney Levine and I rented a glass-bottom boat on the public beach for $13, did a quick tour of the bay and stopped a few times while the boatman threw tortillas overboard so the fish would swim beneath the boat’s murky green rectangular porthole. More dramatic was a sunset Festival boat party out to the famed Cabo rocks.

Los Cabos International Film Fest founders Scott and Sean Cross, who run Colorado’s Vail Film Festival, brought in the festival’s president, Grupo Casa mogul Eduardo Sanchez Navarro Redo, who supplies free rooms in Cabo for the festival guests. But because of the hurricane, the festival had to cut back guests by half. But the fest was a surprise success with nearly 17,000 attendees, up 23%.

2. Be just a couple of hours away from a major entertainment hub, and get a major talent agency to invite industry players, and book them into swanky beach hotels, offering free transportation to screenings and meals and parties. Also give them some swag.

There was still a sizable media presence, mostly from Mexico and Latin America. The small American contingent included The Wrap’s Sharon Waxman, The Christian Science-Monitor’s Peter Rainer, and New York critic Godfrey Cheshire. Many industryites such as filmmakers Atom Egoyan and Randa Haines, Columbia film professor Ira Deutchman, Creative Coalition CEO and new author Robin Bronk, Participant Media production chief Jonathan King (who participated in John Hopewell’s financing panel with agents Bec Smith and Micah Green), stayed at the Playa Grande on the Pacific. Did they go to screenings? Not so much.

2. Get backing from the government and the film industry.

The Mexican tourist board and film studios are behind the Los Cabos festival, because it promotes tourism as well as healthy financing for Mexican movies. Everyone pulled together to make the festival happen–it looked like it might be canceled after the hurricane, but they pushed ahead. 

On closing night, the Los Cabos Competition winner (worth $15,000) presented by juror Diego Luna was Alonso Ruizpalacios’ French New wave-influenced black-and-white “Güeros” (Kino Lorber 2015), which also picked up prizes at festivals in Berlin, San Sebastian and AFI Fest. A road movie set in sprawling Mexico City, the film is also timely, as it shows student disaffection and strikes. At the closing ceremony, documentary filmmaker Arturo Gonzalez Villasenor (winner of the Mexico Prize for “All of Me”) asked the audience to honor the 43 murdered Mexican students by counting aloud from 1 to 43. 

3. Provide a marketing launch for new movies in a geographical area, and spend heavily to lure talent.

Energetic festival director Alonso Aguilar-Castillo programmed a solid mix of North American films celebrating the output of Canada, the United States and Mexico. That focus worked well.

The Mexican premieres included Fox Searchlight’s “Wild,” with Reese Witherspoon on hand to launch the film in Latin America, and closing night film “Boyhood,” with star Eller Coltrane on hand. (He has gained considerable poise since Sundance.) Rosario Dawson, star of Cannes entry “The Captive,” presented Canadian tributee Atom Egoyan with his award.

3. Provide a market for financing movies. 

The industry side of the festival was designed to support emerging filmmakers with grants and partnerships. On the sunset cruise to the famed Arc of Los Cabos, many of the filmmakers were looking for financing. CAA’s Green and Roeg Sutherland have been instrumental in bringing Hollywood players to check out opportunities as well, including “Lone Survivor” producer Spencer Silna, Basil Iwanyk and Trent Luckinbill and Thad Luckinbill, partners at Molly Smith’s Black Label (Denis Villenuve’s Mexican tale “Sicario”), Fox Searchlight acquisitions exec Ray Strache, and foreign sales reps from FilmNation and IM Global. (More details at Variety.)

The winners of funding prizes were Arturo Gonzalez’s “Llevate mis amores,” about the generosity of women who feed the immigrants who ride La Bestia. He won $15,000. The second Work in Progress Mexico prize was awarded to “Los Herederos,” by Jorge Hernandez, which describes adolescent effervescence and idleness via friends who seek the adrenaline rush of parties, sex and alcohol. He won $10,000.

The winner of the first Mexico-USA-Canada Co-production Forum was “Afronauts” by Frances Bodom, based on the real life story of the Academia Nacional de Ciencias, Investigación Espacial e Investigación Astronómica of Zambia. She won $8,000.

The festival announced various deals and co-productions that closed during the Los Cabos 3. For sure, the 4th iteration will be even bigger and better. 

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