Sometimes it seems like there are too many film festivals in Portland. We've got everything from the Portland International and H.P. Lovecraft film festivals to the Portland eXperimental and WW's own Longbaugh, to name just a few. In 2005, Portland played host to somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 film fests. I know, I know...this may sound kind of strange coming from the creative director of a film festival. But just because I put together a fest doesn't mean I have to live in denial about their abundance in the City of Roses.
Now, don't get me wrong—I'd rather live in a town that has too much going on cinematically than not enough or nothing at all. But as WW's fourth Longbaugh festival prepares to kick off this week, and as I look at the program of more than 100 features, shorts and documentaries that we will be showing, the role of our fest is becoming much more clear—Longbaugh is the independent film festival of the future. And this year, many of the films we're showing represent what's being done right in the world of independent filmmaking today.
OK, stop rolling your eyes and gagging. And quit mumbling, "That Walker is a complete egomaniacal jackass," for just a moment while I explain. The film industry is on the verge of major changes. The studios pump hundreds of millions of dollars into big-budget mainstream movies like King Kong that ultimately disappoint at the box office, while worthy micro-budget films like The Puffy Chair struggle in vain just to get seen. Digital technology has leveled the playing field considerably by making it more affordable for filmmakers to create movies. Local film-industry types are changing the way films are made and distributed (see sidebar, page 17). Audiences are watching films on the Internet, or on their cell phones. Come on, who out there over the age of 30 would have ever thought there would be a time when you could watch a movie (or make one, for that matter) on a phone? That's some crazy-ass Jetsons nonsense right there.
Everything about the film world is changing. While Longbaugh follows many of the same guiding principles other festivals do, we are also trying to keep up with and help foster the changes occurring in the world of movies. We're not exactly ahead of the curve—there won't be festival entries beamed to cell phones (at least not this year)—but we are looking toward the inevitable changes that are coming.
Searching through the program guide for 2006's Longbaugh Film Festival, there are tons of examples of what is being done right in the ever-changing world of independent film. Here's a sampling of what is being done right and who's doin' it.
Smart Move: Story
Who's Doin' It Right: No matter how much changes in the way films are made or watched, nothing will ever change the fact that story is most important. Digital technology has made it possible for people to make films—even if they don't understand the importance of story, conflict and character. Chris King's narrative feature Touching Down features a powerful performance by Sarah Lewis as a young woman liberating herself from an oppressive life. Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan's documentary So Much So Fast is an intimate portrait of a man diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and the struggle his family goes through trying to deal with the disease. Both films, along with others playing at Longbaugh, never lose sight of the importance of a good, compelling story, with interesting characters who face conflict.
Smart Move: Innovative Use of Technology
Who's Doin' It Right: The downside of the digital revolution? At times it seems like it's being led by wannabe filmmakers who either have little to say or are saying it with very little innovation in execution. The days of indie filmmakers being bound by the restrictive cost of film stock and processing are gone. That liberation should be reflected in how (and where) filmmakers choose to tell their stories. Neal Mandt's Last Stop for Paul, about two friends who travel the globe to scatter the ashes of a dead friend, was shot all over the world using real people in "real-life" situations. A movie like this shot on real film with real actors would cost millions, but shot on-the-fly in total guerrilla fashion, with a camera small enough to fit in a backpack, it cost only thousands. Hunter Weeks' documentary 10 MPH chronicles Weeks, his friend Josh Caldwell and their support network as they attempt to travel across America on a Segway. While it seems like an overwhelming number of documentaries by budding filmmakers are nothing more than repurposed home movies or poorly conducted interviews shot with a camera on a tripod, this quixotic journey, funded by credit cards and fueled by junk food, takes you along for a personal ride.
Smart Move: Self Distribution
Who's Doin' It Right: Every filmmaker wants her/his movie to be seen by as many people as possible (and most want to get rich as well). Taking their cue from musicians, some filmmakers are finally deciding to put their films out themselves. Think about it: When you see a band perform live, you usually see them selling CDs and other merchandise after the show. Independent, micro-budget films like the compelling drama September 12th are adopting a similar a strategy. With more interest being generated for upcoming 9/11-related films like United 93, September 12th producer Louis Giovino is putting the film out himself, selling it on his website and through the local website Film Baby (see sidebar). The day is coming when you will go to a film festival, watch a movie and then be able to purchase it in the lobby after the show. Getting a distribution deal for smaller indie films usually means no up-front money, with a profit share only after the distributor has recouped production and marketing costs (which can exceed $100,000). A filmmaker who self-distributes will spend less than $2 per unit on DVD production and keep all the profit. The filmmakers who go this route, like the makers of September 12th and other Longbaugh films like Friends Like These and Flight from Death, can potentially make more money this way, even if they sell fewer DVDs than a bigger distributor.
Smart Move: Cultivating a New Audience
Who's Doin' It Right: One of the best ways to get people to appreciate films from outside the mainstream is to introduce them to noncommercial cinema at an early age. Less than 18 months ago, Lil' Longbaugh was one of only a handful of film festivals for children—period. Now more festivals are adding programming for children, and some, like the kidsfilmfest in Brooklyn, N.Y., are strictly for kids. This new generation of film lovers who are discovering the joys of foreign and indie films at an early age will be integral to the survival of cinema in the years to come. Sure, they'll be watching their generation's equivalent to Pedro Almodóvar and Jim Jarmusch films on video iPods and cell-phone screens, but at least they'll be watching.
To recap: When big-budget mainstream films cast such a large shadow they obscure from view smaller films, which wither and die from lack of light, film festivals become all the more crucial. The role of the festival must continue to be the cultivation of cinema. In a week's time, when people look back on Longbaugh 2006, they will think about all the great films they saw. They will talk about how Marc and Nick Francis' Black Gold made them rethink where they buy coffee; how the Spinal Tap-esque Electric Apricot, directed by Primus bass player Les Claypool, made them laugh out loud; and how So Much So Fast made them re-evaluate their lives. But in a year's time, when people look back on Longbaugh 2006, they will also realize this was a festival populated by films, filmmakers and even audiences that were shaping and defining the future of film.
For a full schedule of films showing at WW's Longbaugh Film Festival (Thursday-Sunday, April 6-9), see the festival's pullout grid on page 38. To read reviews of Longbaugh films, see screen listings, page 53.
Portland film industry insiders look to the future, today.
>> Film Baby
You put your blood and sweat into making a film, and then what do you do with it? Film Baby, a Portland-based company, is helping independent films that have not otherwise been picked up for distribution. The Film Baby website (filmbaby.com) showcases and sells DVDs provided by filmmakers, who get all but $4 from each disc sold, while potentially gaining worldwide exposure.
Jamie Chvotkin founded the company in 2004 after attending film school, getting into marketing and working for CD Baby, the 7-year-old Portland company started by Derek Sivers that shares the same maxim as Film Baby—looking out for the little guy. Although it seems independent film has found its mothership, and some filmmakers in business with Film Baby are making money, many of the films on the site are still looking to get noticed. But in the competitive home-video market, which is dominated by Blockbuster and Hollywood Video—two companies that sell the same exact product—audiences need to rethink where they can find good films. Film Baby is the first step toward discovering hidden cinematic treasures. —Laura Mulry
WW: What filmmaker do you admire the most?
Jamie Chvotkin: This business would be nothing if the thousands of independent filmmakers who chose to sell their film on Film Baby did not max out their credit cards, quit their jobs, sell baseball cards on eBay, live off two hours of sleep a day, have craft services provided by Mom and countless other sacrifices—just so they could make the story they believed in. They are giving it their all to make these films. If Film Baby doesn't believe in them, how can we expect anyone else to?
What do you hate about the film industry?
It upsets me that independent filmmakers still can't get a fair shake in showcasing their films. It is the biggest barrier we have to overcome, in getting more people to notice these filmmakers from Iowa, Kentucky, even Oregon. A musician can walk into almost any bookstore, coffeehouse or cafe, or play on a street corner. A filmmaker can only show his work in a theater—if they're lucky—on public-access TV or in a remote film festival.
How is Film Baby changing the game?
We make the playing field level in terms of giving any filmmaker the chance for worldwide distribution through our site. Then we tilt it 100 percent pro-filmmaker when it comes to fees, payments and services. We never look at any filmmaker as a bottom line.
>> DVD Talk
Geoff Kleinman was working at Intel back in 1999 when he and his wife had their first child. Kleinman was a lifelong lover of movies—he majored in film in college and worked in the industry for several years before relocating from Los Angeles to Portland (his short film Are We Agreed screens at Longbaugh). But with a new kid, it was clear his time spent in the theater watching movies was going to be drastically reduced. At the time, DVDs were just starting to hit the market; Kleinman was excited about the prospect of watching films on the new format, but was disappointed to find few reviews on the Internet. And that's when the Portland-based website DVD Talk (dvdtalk.com) was born.
With more than 1 million unique visitors per month and over 15,000 reviews currently on the site (even some, ahem, penned by yours truly), DVD Talk is one of the most popular and frequently visited DVD review sites on the Web. But unlike other review sites that primarily cover the big releases, Kleinman's site covers smaller films, and he himself often champions the gems he discovers at film festivals that don't have distributors. —David Walker
WW: What filmmakers do you like the most?
Geoff Kleinman: I like so many for so many different reasons. I am a big fan of Martin Scorsese's storytelling, David Lean's breathtaking shots, Chan-wook Park's vision, Curtis Hanson's heart, Lars von Trier's risk-taking, Charlie Kaufman's making insanity sane, Kevin Smith's connection with his audience and, despite the new trilogy, George Lucas for helping turn me into a film nut.
What do you hate most about the film industry?
The total and complete lack of understanding studios have of film as art. Film is a business, I get that, but it's also an art, and sometimes great films don't look great on paper. I'm convinced a good producer can make or break a modern film. Unfortunately there're more examples of breaking than making nowadays.
What is DVD Talk doing to make the world a better place for film?
DVD Talk is a huge advocate for good films, despite their Hollywood pedigree or box-office numbers. So many film outlets follow the leader and cover the films everyone is buzzing about; we're always looking for the little films that fall through the cracks and give them the push they need to get noticed. DVD is an amazing place for great films to get discovered, and I'd like to think that we've helped quite a few films connect with an audience through our work.
"It really is a community service," says AudioCinema co-founder Adam Mackintosh. "A for-profit community service." That might seem like a slimy businessman's sleight of hand, but in the case of Mackintosh and partner Ilan Laks' entertainment production collective it makes sense. Last August the two old friends opened up a big warehouse in the Southeast industrial district. They turned the space into a hive for independent businesses that can collectively help artists get their art onto plastic and into the wider world. Basically, a young director or a band can come in with an idea and leave with a film, a record or a music video—finished, prepped for distribution and owned by the creator. —Mark Baumgarten
WW: What are your inspirations, creatively and businesswise?
Ilan Laks: Andy Warhol, the Factory: People come together, and the more the merrier. There's a critical mass getting all the creative minds together. And the desire to have a warehouse, so anything that we dream up can be done.
What do you see as the greatest pitfall of taking a more traditional route in the production of film and music?
Adam Mackintosh: I think people get starched; they get hung up on one step and they don't see the big picture. Here you get access to all these people that can help you, from the publicist to the screen printer to pre-production and post-production to graphic design to DVD production. We've even got a voice teacher.
Do you imagine this place as a stepping stone, or could this be a solid base for an artist?
Laks: Well, art's like a shark; you gotta keep moving. If somebody stayed too long, it probably wouldn't be good for their art. But they could do everything here forever, if they wanted.
Longbaugh Film Festival Thursday-Sunday, April 6-9
Festival pass $30; individual admission $1-$10.
See www.longbaugh.com for full schedule and more info.