On Tuesday, the CineVegas Film Festival will begin its eleventh edition — although it has technically been 15 years since it started. After a six year hiatus, few thought the festival would ever return. Now that has changed, and a celebrated gathering that was once on the rise has the opportunity to restart its momentum.
With only three features and a single 120-seat venue, CineVegas won’t immediately return to its flashy roots, but the latest edition nevertheless provides a reminder of that legacy.
A Tough Decision
It was a dark day for the staff of the CineVegas Film Festival in the fall 2009, when representatives for the summer gathering at the Palms Casino announced that they would not be returning the following year.
“Given the current economic climate and the pressures it has created, we made the difficult decision to put CineVegas on hiatus for the coming year,” festival president Robin Greenspun said in a statement. “CineVegas has become such a well respected film festival, and rather than allow the economy to affect its level of quality we have opted to put the event on hold.”
Such claims of reverence for the festival weren’t pure hyperbole meant to mollify a tough situation. For a decade, CineVegas steadily built a reputation for showcasing funky movies in a lively environment. It may have been the only American festival where obsessive cinephiles could gamble between screenings, lavish poolside soirees counted everyone from Britney Spears to the Kuchar brothers among their guests and late night gatherings took place in hotel suites equipped with bowling alleys. Dennis Hopper loved the vibe so much after he attended for a lifetime achievement award that he signed on as its chairman and remained in that capacity until his death in 2009.
Then there were the films: Directors such as Alex Ross Perry (“IMPOLEX”) premiered their first features for audiences receptive to challenging new work with an outlaw spirit, along with showcasing outrageous genre fare including “Bubba Ho-tep” and unclassifiable projects like Cory McAbee’s episodic space opera “Stingray Sam.” Under the guidance of artistic director Trevor Groth — a longtime Sundance programmer who would eventually become that festival’s director of programming — and CineVegas programming director Mike Plante, the event was starting to carve out a uniquely edgy niche on the circuit.
But the costly endeavor was hardly an easy feat, especially in the midst of a recession-era economy. “None of my racing bets hit,” Plante joked in an interview with Indiewire, recalling the announcement in 2009. But then he got around to “the boring real answer” to questions surrounding CineVegas’ abrupt cessation, which was that the festival faced budget cuts that would have marred the experience as a whole.
“Festivals exist on sponsors, and the financial crisis that year made sponsorship very difficult,” he said. “We could have kept going with no budget, but then we couldn’t have paid for filmmakers’ flights and rooms or paid the staff and those are two crucial things to us.”
The filmmaker experience at CineVegas was one area that had yet to disappoint. Sibling directors David and Nathan Zellner came to the festival every year between 2004 and 2009, when they screened their surreal comedy “Goliath” to the 2008 edition. “In 24 hours, they showed their film to a sold out audience, raced go-karts, shot machine guns, met Sigfried and Roy, watched Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper do a live discussion, visited museums dedicated to pinball and Liberace and ran from a party to the airport in the morning,” Plante recalled. For David, “It was as crazy and fun as most any festival you could imagine,” he said. “There was an intimate quality in that it was located mostly in one place and a casual social atmosphere that made it easy for filmmakers to meet one another, which doesn’t always happen at a festival.”
For Plante — who also programs Sundance shorts — the abrupt end to CineVegas stung especially hard, since he had just been promoted to the director of programming months earlier. At the time, he insisted that the festival would return at a manageable size. “It would absolutely come back somehow,” he said. “We want to treat films and filmmakers and audiences well with the resources possible. We don’t want to replicate what larger fests do.” In an ideal situation, he added, the festival would thrive within the confines of a single arthouse cinema, which still doesn’t exist in Las Vegas. However, that didn’t stop Greenspun from keeping the idea alive.
In discussions with Milo Kostelecky, the owner of the Las Vegas Film Festival, which was launched a few years after CineVegas ceased activity, Greenspun discussed the possibility of a “Thursday Throwback” series featuring a film from previous CineVegas lineups paired with a party. A few months ago, Plante met with Kostelecky in Las Vegas along with head programmer West McDowell for further discussions and scoped out the remodeled downtown area. “Milo and West are great, they really get what a festival could be, and always came to CineVegas,” Plante said. “They treat filmmakers and crowds well, and are both locals too. We all want to bring exciting movies and art to town.”
During his trip, Plante discovered that the formerly dusty, hostile downtown area had transformed into a lively cultural scene. “It used to have the world’s scariest 7-11,” he said. “Now, you’ll find tons of local bars, restaurants and places you actually want to spend time in.” The area now hosts a record store, a park and several comfortable hotels, all within walking distance. “I was sold right away,” Plante added.
Above all else, however, the potential for a CineVegas return clicked into place when Plante visited the newly opened Inspire Theater, a one-screen venue that included a coffee shop, a bar and rooftop lounge — not to mention another secret bar hidden behind a bookshelf. “It was classic Vegas,” Plante said. Suddenly, CineVegas had a future.
A New Hope
For this year’s program, Plante and Groth reunited to assemble a handful of movies that reflect the mixture of provocative energy and underground style that gave the original event its unique identity. The program’s highlights include Sean Baker’s transgender prostitute comedy “Tangerine,” the Evel Knievel documentary “Being Evil,” “Call Me Lucky,” Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary about the iconoclastic comedian Barry Crimmins, and “Hollywood,” the first feature from filmmaker Davidson Cole since his 2002 debut “Design,” which premiered at Sundance.
“We picked these few films this year because we want to showcase wild ideas,” Plante said. “Sure, it’s an easy gambling metaphor, but the independent film industry can get very stale and not take risks. We want to support artists pushing the limits in story and style.”
For Groth, the partnership between the existing Las Vegas Film Festival and CineVegas fulfilled a potential he’d hoped would arrive. “For me, it was never dead, but rather lying dormant waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike to bring it back to life,” he said. “It will never be the same, but it will be fun to celebrate what it was, and what its new incarnation will be.”
Plante, for one, sees potential in the community already in town for the festival. “The local Vegas community actually loves culture, movies and risky ideas in art,” he said. “They are open to creativity — and are not all that interested in bachelor parties.”