According to film programmer Ben Popp, filmmakers' artistry can only get them so far.
"People go to film school and they're never really given the business skills to succeed," Popp says. "Everyone's like, 'I wanna work on the craft!' But then suddenly you're like, 'Wait, I gotta raise how much money?'"
Portland has a wealth of arthouse movie theaters, plus plenty of out-of-town, big-budget productions that can provide stable work for local filmmakers while they're creating their passion project. The city is also home to several institutions that offer classes and rental equipment, like Open Signal and NW Film Center. But until now, Portland's film industry has been missing one crucial resource—one that helps small-scale filmmakers actually get their work screened for an audience.
The Portland Circuit was founded to fill that gap. It was created by Tim Williams, executive director of Oregon Film, an organization that promotes the industry, and Popp, who is NW Film Center's regional programmer. Portland Circuit provides filmmakers with four venues for four nights: Cinema 21, NW Film Center, Clinton Street Theater and the Hollywood Theatre, at no cost to the filmmaker.
Popp says that a driving forces behind the project is that raising money is the No. 1 issue that filmmakers face. There's crowdfunding and grant writing, but a $5,000 grant barely makes a dent in a $100,000 budget. On top of finding funding, filmmakers then have to find a theater willing to take a chance on their work instead of a well-known film more likely to draw a crowd. But guaranteed screenings offer significant padding to the massive financial risk of making a movie.
By providing a venue, Popp hopes for general audiences to realize that, even though it may not be Los Angeles or New York, Portland has the potential to become a hotbed for innovative, high-quality films. Filmmakers just need the public support Portland Circuit intends to cultivate. "At the end of the day, every single one of us consumes so much media," Popp says. "Every single one of us is gonna watch something today, or tonight, or tomorrow. But we're not really helping the creatives here that are wanting to do that."
The program will open in October with Sex Weather, local filmmaker Jon Garcia's sixth feature. In the film, an independent film director named Darrel (Al'Jaleel McGhee) and a crew member named Sydney (Amber Stonebraker) wake up in bed together the night after a premiere. As Darrel and Sydney talk about their feelings, the film they made and each other, Sex Weather's intimate, character-driven story begins to unfold. It's as if you took Jesse and Celine from Before Sunrise, placed them in the bedroom scene from Breathless, then stretched that into a full-length feature.
Most mainstream distributors would balk at the idea of watching 88 minutes of two people talking in a single location. But for the Portland Circuit, it's perfect. "We felt that this film would be the thing that the mature, filmgoing audiences would really respect and understand as a really great piece of cinematic work," Popp says.
According to Popp, Sex Weather was chosen out of 15 to 20 other submissions because it best straddled that careful line between artistic and commercial value. In a perfect world, money wouldn't factor into independent art. Portland Circuit exists to help filmmakers overcome financial barriers, but it's not free from capitalist trappings. Oregon Film doesn't have unlimited funds, and the Circuit needs to be able to fund its next screening, which is scheduled for February.
After every Portland Circuit screening, there will be a Q&A with the film's director and an opportunity for networking. Popp emphasizes Portland Circuit is about much more than just theatrical distribution—it's about building a flourishing community.
"If we start growing an audience, then we can start building that foundation," Popp says, "rather than just waiting and hoping for the next Todd Haynes or Gus Van Sant to pop out of the water."
SEE IT: Sex Weather opens at Hollywood Theatre on Monday, Oct. 1; NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium on Tuesday, Oct. 2; Cinema 21 on Wednesday, Oct. 3; and Clinton Street Theater on Thursday, Oct. 4. See oregonmade.org for more details.