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Cinequest at 25, from ‘Batkid Begins’ to Lady Gaga in Barco Escape

Cinequest at 25, from 'Batkid Begins' to Lady Gaga in Barco Escape

Lead programmer Michael Rabehl, who has been with the fest since 1995, and his team of five have learned how to please this motley crew with such festival hits as Michael Fassbender western “Slow West” and “Madmen” writer Victor Levin’s “5 to 7” as well as movies likely to please the large Asian and Hispanic contingents (“Traces of Sandlewood,” ”For Here or To Go”). But he also likes to push them with 2014 films like the elegant black-and-white Polish Oscar submission “Ida,” which went on to win the Academy Award, and its main rival, Argentinian comedy “Wild Tales,” which I suggested as the movie to play before my acceptance Wednesday of the fest’s Media Legacy Award. Audiences adored them both.

This year the festival is screening 90 out of 800 feature and doc submissions and 120 out of 1600 shorts, which will qualify, as did 2014’s “The Damkeeper,” for Academy consideration. The fest takes advantage of its post-Sundance timing (as does SXSW) to scoop up rejected fest titles.

This year’s opening nighter was a slamdunk: Slamdance doc “Batkid Begins,” a true life Capracorn tale that pleased Julia Roberts so much that she wants to play in a remake the movie’s charismatic heroine, Make-A-Wish executive director Patricia Wilson, a woman to whom few dare say no. She masterminded the astonishing San Francisco 2013 collaboration, attended by hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country, to give 5-year-old leukemia patient Miles Scott a chance to save Gotham with Batman at his side. Well over a billion tuned in around the world, including President Obama. 

Documentarian Dana Nachman’s movie is as fun as it is heart-tugging, and should do well in theaters. It’s a crowdpleaser well-edited by Kurt Kuenne, a local filmmaker of “Dear Zachary” fame, who understood that the dynamic duo at the center of the film were the kid and the actor playing Batman.

The movie had been seen by a few hundred people at Slamdance in January in Park City, where most of the media attention was focused on Sundance, so the filmmakers were giddy at how well their movie played with a full 1100-seat house. “Miles is six, just lost his first tooth, is in first grade and is in remission,” Nachman told the crowd after the movie. “He has no idea how big this became and there’s something beautiful about that.” 

“It’s a day the internet was nice,” said Wilson. “We’re looking at that engagement piece, where people want to be involved.” (Submarine is weighing several distribution offers.) 

I had fun wandering around San Jose’s downtown and hanging with some of its smart denizens, including a tech couple at the “Batkid Begins” afterparty who turned out to have a Make-A-Wish son of their own who had fought off leukemia and is now in college at age 20; they reunited with Wilson with genuine affection.

The film festival is also honoring—with the rebooted “Star Wars” in mind—the veteran writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, who will enjoy a Maverick tribute Saturday, as well as British director John Boorman, who is currently on finishing up a promo tour with “Queen and Country,” his companion piece to “Hope and Glory.” Boorman, age 82, has been voting for the Academy Awards for 30 years, he told me: “None of my choices have ever won Best Picture!” He confirmed that “Excalibur” was Helen Mirren’s first movie, which also broke out Liam Neeson and Ciaran Hinds.

 Cinequest prides itself on looking forward—it launched an early distribution option for festival entrants, before Sundance and TriBeca, which still services titles but isn’t adding new ones—and pioneered Quicktime film programming when people thought it was crazy. This year only one 35 mm film will be shown: King Vidor’s silent “The Crowd,” accompanied on the 1927 California Theatre Wurlitzer organ by master Dennis James.

While Intel, HP and Adobe have been loyal sponsors over the years, Netflix and Amazon skew their promotion budgets toward Hollywood visibility. This year Belgium-based Barco is demonstrating its new 3-screen projection initiative Barco Escape which it will also promote at April’s CinemaCon exhibitor convention in Las Vegas. (The enhancement costs from $200,000 for projectors, screens and special servers, says Barco CinemaVangelist Ted Schilowitz.) Twentieth Century Fox has already played “Maze Runner” on seven screens built out with two extra sides, as the main film was projected at the center and digitally enhanced game-based imagery widened the immersion on both sides. The maze-running action centerpiece worked well to enhance the intensity. (It’s exciting to think about 3D and IMAX expansions.) “This is a deployable alternative high-end cinema experience,” said Schilowitz. “We’re pushing the format, experimenting and learning, but it’s not our primary goal to dictate what people do creatively.” (They also have footage shot with GoPro cameras.)

Also looking great was footage from the upcoming Barco-produced “Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett In Concert,” which was shot at the Grand Palace in Brussels on September 22, 2014 with 15 Red Epic Dragon cameras feeding three separate panels, including panning 270 degree panorama shots. At one moment, the left panel was an over-the-shoulder from Gaga’s POV of greeting Bennett, while the right panel went the opposite way.

Barco also sponsored three local San Jose filmmakers chosen by the festival who made new shorts to screen with the new Barco system, including intense father-daughter heroin drama “Withdrawal,” from multi-tasker Vijay Rajan (who moderated my Q & A). I suspect he will be a Cinequest future filmmaker who will make his way to L.A. in due time. 

For next year the festival is launching a filmmaker contest for the new format. 

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