In the spirit of those quick-cutting Hollywood movie trailers, let's start with an ever-so-brief assessment of the 2011 Cincinnati Film Festival, which opens on Sept. 29.
Smaller. Shorter. Smarter, but still in transition.
Last year's Cincinnati Film Festival lasted nine days and sprawled across 11 venues in three states. The enormity made for great audience outreach. But with a tiny volunteer force and no full-time employees, festival organizers found it nearly impossible to keep on top of all the logistics.
This year, festival executive director Kat Steele re-evaluated the festival's strengths and re-shaped the event to match its assets.
"We were trying to be too many things in too many places," says Steele, a Hamilton filmmaker who is in her second season as executive director. "So this year, we decided to concentrate our efforts."
FOUR DAYS, ONE LOCATION
The result? A four-day festival with three venues in a single building — the Cincinnati Club.
"It makes much more sense this way," Steele says. "We can visit all of our venues without even leaving the building."
Former film critic and writer Margaret McGurk agrees.
"I think it was smart of them to settle on a central location. It makes it feel like one event instead of nearly a dozen. It's more sociable," says McGurk, who is also a former board member of the Southern Ohio Filmmakers Association (SOFA).
And that's part of the fun for the audience — sharing experiences with like-minded people. It's easy to imagine the halls of downtown's Cincinnati Club, home of this year's festival, abuzz with film aficionados between screenings.
HUNDREDS OF SUBMISSIONS
It's too early to say which films will be shown. Final selections were scheduled to be announced after Cincy went to press. But with total submissions at 343 films from 23 countries, it's likely that this year's festival may match last year's total of 100 screenings.
"We want the festival to grow," says Steele, who is also the Cincinnati area director for the international 48 Hour Film Project, which took place Aug. 5-7. "But you have to understand that we are a very new organization. This really is only our second year."
Well, sort of.
CFF grew out of the Oxford International Film Festival. Founded in 2007 in Oxford, Ohio, the OIFF was a highly respected undertaking founded by independent film director/producer J.C. Schroder. In 2009, in fact, MovieMaker Magazine named the OIFF one of the "Top 25 Film Festivals worth the (entry) fee."
Gradually, the festival made its way into the Cincinnati metro area. In time, though, audiences grew fuzzy as to whether it was an Oxford festival or a Cincinnati one. As recently as a year ago, The Cincinnati Enquirer referred to it as the Oxford-Cincinnati Film Festival. While all this was going on, Schroder moved his Star Com Productions to Los Angeles.
He continued as an advisor to the 2010 festival, but this year, he has distanced himself from it. Many of Schroder's supporters wanted to take 2011 off to regroup. Its website says, "The OIFF is in no way affiliated with and does not endorse the Cincinnati Film Festival" and promises visitors that "a new incarnation of the former Oxford International Film Festival is in the works."
Steele and others felt a one-year pause could be disastrous. "We believe in the power of this festival and the power of what it means to filmmakers," she says.
So in many ways, Steele is absolutely right: Staging the Cincinnati Film Festival is like starting over.
"In the future, we'd love to have several large corporate sponsors in line," says Steele. (In the interest of full disclosure, Cincy magazine is one of the festival's media sponsors.)
"Even better would be a celebrity sponsor."
Traverse City's Film Festival, for instance, was co-founded by high-profile documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. And Robert DeNiro is inextricably linked to the TriBeCa Film Festival.
When you have a star in your corner, fundraising gets immeasurably easier.
So can Cincinnati get a patron like George Clooney? Or Sarah Jessica Parker? Or even Steven Spielberg, who was born here? "Maybe," says Steele. "We're definitely trying to make something like that happen."
The 2011 festival has tentatively secured the screenings of a pair of feature films starring second-tier Hollywood celebrities.
It's a start.
One of the most promising elements of the 2011 festival is a new screenplay competition.
There's an age-old saying in Hollywood that everyone is working on a screenplay.
Now we'll find out just how true that is.
Jean Agnes Lerma, the festival's director of operations and an officer of the Southern Ohio Filmmakers Association, is spearheading the screenplay competition. "You'd be surprised how many people there are working on screenplays at any given time," says Lerma, who has recruited a small team of readers to screen the entries.
"Reading a screenplay is totally different from watching a screening of the film itself," Lerma explains.
A completed film is the result of an enormous collaborative effort among actors, director, crews and all sorts of supporting staff.
A screenplay needs to capture all of that on a printed page. "And let me tell you," Lerma says, "that is not easy." That's why one of the prizes for the first place feature film script is a "table read," where actors give the script a dramatic reading.
Nothing compares to having live actors reading the parts. "That's where you really learn how well your screenplay works," says Lerma.
So what about the future? Will a celebrity step in? Will big corporations write checks to support it all? Will Cincinnati's film aficionados find their way to the festival screenings?
The Cincinnati Film Festival, like film festivals in general, provides an outlet for a lot of independent and international films that never get released in theaters, according to former film critic Margaret McGurk.
"If you're a film fan and like to see new and unexpected things or weird, quirky little things or even a lot of smaller international things, film festivals are the place to do it, " McGurk says.
Cincinnati does have a handful of places to see independent films. The Esquire and Mariemont theaters and the Cincinnati World Cinema programs are the best known. But those forums can't begin to keep up with the outpouring of new films.
So with distributors becoming more cautious than ever about the films they release, film festivals have taken on a new importance in the film world.
"It's the primary opportunity for many filmmakers to get their work seen," McGurk says.
Attending a film festival is a little like shooting craps. You really don't know what you're going to get. But the possible payoff is so irresistible that it makes the risk worth it.
Of course, it's not a complete gamble. The films have been screened and selected by a panel and there is a festival schedule with descriptions of each one. Stylistically, though, the films will be all over the place. Same with the directors' experience. Some will be veterans; others will be first-timers.
But then, that's the excitement of it. Film festivals are the cinema's R&D lab. Something that sounded great on the printed page may turn out to be less so. On the other hand, you may stumble across the work of a budding genius. You know, one of those films that change your life.