This is the role of film festivals: to provide audiences for independent films without major distribution. The wishful thinking goes something like this: after a film gets accepted into several festivals, wins awards and garners pages of favorable reviews, a distributor will take a chance on it.
But many good films never get a break. They screen only at festivals, and if you don't live in cities like Park City, Utah (home of the Sundance Film Festival) or Cannes, France, you're likely to miss out.
San Diego nurtures a healthy collection of festivals, including the San Diego International Film Festival, the San Diego Asian Film Festival and the San Diego Latino Festival. This week, the first annual San Diego Film Festival joins the line-up, hoping to establish itself as a yearly cultural conduit.
Located in the Gaslamp, the festival will screen more than 70 local, national and international features and shorts between Sept. 18 and Sept. 22, as well as host parties, balls, workshops, and a closing awards ceremony.
Robin Laatz, the festival's executive director and president of a PR firm for independent films, explained that event organizers are industry professionals who see a niche for a downtown film festival that is “non-exclusive-where anyone can submit their film.”
Organizers also think San Diego's proximity to Hollywood makes it ideal. “A lot of the top industry professionals can come down to San Diego and share their experience,” Laatz said.
Industry professionals figure heavily in the festival's attraction. Directors and casts host Q&A sessions after most screenings. Free workshops and panel sessions, led by such experts as casting director Victoria Burrows (Lord of the Rings) and author Skip Press (The Complete Idiot's Guide to Screenwriting), will tutor aspiring filmmakers and actors in the essential tricks of the trade.
Out of 600 submissions-mostly national, some international-the organizers selected films they felt featured strong acting, in support of this year's theme: “Celebrating the Actor.”
Unlike strictly indie festivals, celebrities dot the cast listings, including Tatum O'Neil, Andrew MacCarthy, Scott Baio (OK, and ex-celebrities).
“As a first-year festival, we need to keep in mind, we're trying to attract a general audience,” Laatz explained. “No matter how much you try to support independent films, there are still people who like to see celebrities.”
Big spenders who buy a $90 “all access” pass gain entrance to Saturday night's exclusive “Actor's Ball,” which promises ample celebrity attendance.
For all its Hollywood affiliations, the festival promises a good range of independent films. Some are directorial debuts, some student projects; some have already traveled around the world to festivals and come home heroes; a few were born out of low budgets. About 15 percent of the films have distribution, but the fates of the rest are uncertain.
As Laatz pronounced, “San Diego residents are getting a chance to see films they've never seen before, and may never see again.”
For those interested in film as an art form, the shorts program is a good bet. Shorts are effectively unmarketable, so a filmmaker working in this form is free to follow his or her own vision without concern for what a distributor might think. (Although many aspiring feature filmmakers use their shorts as portfolio pieces to showcase their marketable skills.) The San Diego Filmmakers Shorts segment attempts to capture the diversity of locally produced films.
Neil Kendricks' Loop, a three-minute experimental film, uses time-lapse sequences to depict an urban populace (San Diegans) flying by in an empty frenzy. During the film, one man and one woman slow down and make a chance connection. The “plot” isn't so new, but Kendricks' artistry conveys a surprising degree of wistfulness in a short time.
“It's all about the composition,” Kendricks explains, “soaking up the particular image and trying to see how it relates to the image that came before, and the image that comes next.”
Shot for $200 dollars on video, Paul De Santiago's short film El Pastor eschews actors for a cast of doleful dolls. Using “animation by editing,” in which careful editing of still shots creates the illusion of movement, El Pastor illustrates the sad plight of a young, orphaned shepherd. The film is a visual narration of a Spanish-language song.
“I work at a taco shop, and I would hear it every once in awhile. I love the way the singer sings it, in a very melancholy, somber but beautiful way,” said De Santiago.
With help from his mother, who sewed authentic looking rural Mexican costumes for the dolls, De Santiago brought the song to life in his one-of-a-kind film.
The festival's organizers have accepted unusual, high quality works from local filmmakers. If the rest of the program is as memorable, the San Diego Film Festival will be a welcome addition to the local arts scene.