The silence on the other end of the line speaks inglorious volumes about Arizona’s role in the world of independent film.
Pat Saperstein, a senior editor at Daily Variety in Los Angeles and authority on all things cinematic, is trying to name a film festival — any film festival — in Arizona. And she’s drawing a blank.
The Scottsdale International Film Festival? Nope. The Phoenix Film Festival? Sorry. The, er, Tucson Jewish Film Festival? No dice. Oy vey.
Finally, a flash of recognition. Saperstein knows about the Sedona Film Festival, the longest-running and most prestigious of the state’s annual cinematic retreats. But she’s never attended.
“I would say there’s minimal recognition,” Saperstein impugns politely. “So far, I don’t think your festivals have really registered on the greater festival radar.”
It’s not for lack of numbers. This week alone, three Valley film festivals get under way, beginning a three-month, statewide monsoon of cinematic activity, including the Sedona Film Festival, the newly founded Peoria Film Festival, the seven-year-old Phoenix Film Festival and a welter of smaller events.
Festival organizers are quick to point out gains made in recent years, and it’s true — local festivals book better movies, and bigger stars, than ever before. Last fall, the Scottsdale International Film Festival, the brainchild of longtime Valley film programmer Amy Ettinger, hosted the Arizona premieres of “The Queen” and “Babel,” both Academy Award front-runners.
The Phoenix Film Festival, founded by local filmmakers Chris Lamont and Jason Carney, has attracted such luminaries as Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne, and boasts a loaded stable of promotional partners, including the Sundance Channel.
By the same token, no Arizona festival has yet risen to semi-elite national status, like Telluride in Colorado, or Taos in New Mexico. According to Pat Schweiss, director of the Sedona International Film Festival, a “large” festival has minimum ticket sales of 30,000; the most-attended festival in Arizona, the Phoenix Film Festival, drew just over 18,000 last year. Magnet festivals — in other words, those that draw out-of-state visitors — also have the clout to demand world or national premieres.
How do festivals generate such clout? According to Schweiss, by proving themselves as a “market” for filmmakers where movie companies shell out big bucks for distribution rights. Though dollar fixation has spawned a backlash in recent years (even at Sundance, the Wall Street of film festivals), this is every festival programmer’s dream: to launch the next big indie hit.
Certainly, there is no shortage of ambitious, film-minded festival promoters in Arizona, but might that be a problem? Could the crowded festival marketplace — especially in a metropolitan sprawl with an uncertain commitment to independent film, such as Greater Phoenix — dilute the appeal of festival season and prevent any one event from achieving upper-echelon, nationally recognized festival status?
Helen McCready doesn’t think so. As the director of the first-year Peoria Film Festival, McCready was instrumental in bringing independent film to the West Valley, that culturally challenged wilderness of strip malls, athletic arenas and planned communities. She reasonably points out that the nearest art house theater (Harkins Camelview in Scottsdale) is almost an hour away from Peoria.
And she defends her decision to hold the Peoria festival on the same weekend (March 1-4) as the Sedona festival, which typically pulls a fair number of patrons from the Valley.
“They have a wonderful festival up in Sedona, but because the cities are so far apart, and their festival is so established, I don’t really see a conflict,” McCready says. “They’re on a much different level than us.”
Still, the timing of the Peoria event has raised many an eyebrow in the tight-knit Arizona film festival fraternity. Traditionally, festival organizers give each other right of way, the better to optimize their paper-thin profit margins.
“To be honest, it kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” Carney, the Phoenix Film Festival co-founder, says of the Peoria/Sedona double booking, “I don’t like the idea of one festival programming against another.”
Art house indifference?
From a consumer standpoint, Carney worries about the deluge of movie product during Arizona’s festival high season, which he says can be “tricky for the moviegoer.” He also frets over the availability of “finding films that haven’t been shown already” to art house film crowds. “There’s only so much of a market for that,” he points out.
Indeed, that fringe of foreign, low-budget and revival cinema collectively known as “the art house” has met with indifference in the Valley of the Sun, particularly outside of Scottsdale. Recall the fate of Madstone Theater in Chandler, which closed in June 2004 after a largely unsuccessful bid to woo art house crowds.
When the Valley’s art house film scene is working at full capacity, perhaps seven or eight screens are showing limited-release films such as Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” or Todd Field’s “Little Children”: the five screens at Harkins Camelview, the one screen at Harkins Valley Art in Tempe, and one or two at the Harkins Shea.
Compare that with a similar-sized metropolitan market such as Seattle (3.2 million people to 3.8 million in Greater Phoenix). According to Seattle Post-Intelligencer entertainment editor Duston Harvey, on a random Wednesday last month there were 28 screens spread out over 11 theaters showing limited-release films in or around the Emerald City. Small wonder the Seattle International Film Festival is one of the country’s most prolific, with 180 to 200 feature films screened over four weeks.
When it comes to movies, it appears that Valley sensibilities veer toward the middle: Hollywood blockbusters, preferably not subtitled. It’s widely known that our dependably bourgeois cinematic palate (and close proximity to Los Angeles) has made the Valley a popular destination for audience “test screenings,” where studio filmmakers fine-tune early edits of their movies for maximum market acceptance. Recently, George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh were in town to test-screen “Ocean’s Thirteen.”
When it comes to Arizona, the old Hollywood dictum “Will it play in Peoria?” can be posited literally.
Still, there are signs that the Valley’s thirst for independent film is coming to life. Carney and his mates at the Phoenix Film Festival (held in north Scottsdale) report 20 percent to 30 percent growth in ticket sales every year.
Moreover, Harkins Theatres President Dan Harkins says that limited-release art house movies often perform extraordinarily well in the Valley. Recent independent gems such as “Napoleon Dynamite,” “A Scanner Darkly” and Oscar nominee “Little Miss Sunshine” all sold more tickets in their debut week at the Camelview than they did anywhere else in the country.
“Compared to Hollywood blockbuster-type movies, art house films are a niche business in the Valley, but we do pretty well,” Harkins says, while conceding that Camelview-style movies face “an uphill battle on the fringes of town.”
So what are the chances that any of the Valley’s film festivals will evolve into a top-tier event with national notoriety, such as South by Southwest in Austin, Texas? According to Variety’s Saperstein, the country’s top festivals typically enjoy one of three major advantages.
In some cases, the festivals are championed by film industry honchos who happen to live in the area. For instance, in its infancy, the Sonoma Valley (Calif.) Film Festival was handed a key endorsement from Pixar founder (and Sonoma resident) John Lassiter.
In other cases, the festivals are well-funded and have the luxury of hiring talent away from proven operations. Saperstein says that the nine-year-old CineVegas International Film Festival was put on a winning track when it hired away the programmer from the Sundance Film Festival.
Lastly, there’s the novelty of the host city itself. As Sedona’s Schweiss says: “I’m not under the illusion that people come here strictly for the films. Sedona is a beautiful place.”
A need for need
Thus far, none of the Valley’s current festivals enjoy the advantages listed above. To the last, they are homegrown events that have made do with elbow grease and love, in an urban sprawl that boasts nothing more than nice winter weather and golf courses to lure out-of-state movie buffs.
Certainly, this makes the accomplishments of local festival entrepreneurs all the more impressive. In fulfilling the Valley’s modest independent cinema needs, the local festivals do a bang-up job. What we need is more need.
PHOENIX JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
When: Saturday, Feb. 17, to Thursday, Feb. 22
Where: Temple Beth Israel, 10460 N. 56th St., Phoenix; UA Pavilions, 9090 E. Indian Bend, Scottsdale
Background: Founded and operated by spouses Sheldon and Phyllis Pierson, the festival will showcase seven films over six days. Top selections include the opening-night film, “Forgiving Dr. Mengele” (7 p.m. Saturday), a 2006 documentary about the survivor of notorious Nazi medical experiments, and “Three Mothers” (7 p.m. Sunday), an award-winning Israeli drama about triplet 60-somethings who make a pilgrimage from Egypt to Israel.
Tickets: $5 to $8.50. Log onto phxjewishfilm.org for more information.
This weekend's festivals
Almost Famous film festival
When: Friday, Feb. 16, to Sunday, Feb. 18
Where: Majerle’s Sports Grill, 24 N. Second St., Phoenix
Background: Less a festival than a do-it-yourself film competition, this brainchild of Phoenix videographer Jae Staats challenges competitors to shoot, edit and score a seven-minute short film in just 48 hours. Registration costs $50 and is open until Friday, Feb. 16. Competitors supply their own equipment. Staats will screen the top 20 entries and award prizes on March 1 at the AMC Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix.
Tickets: Log onto thea3f.net for more information.
Mesa Community College International film festival
When: Saturday, Feb. 17, to Thursday, Feb. 22
Where: Harkins Centerpoint, 730 S. Mill Ave., Tempe.
Background: Festival director Donald Castro has programmed the latest MCC festival around a filmmaker described by some as India’s answer to Pedro Almodovar. “Portraits of India: The Films of Shyam Benegal” will showcase six feminine-themed films by the internationally acclaimed filmmaker. Each free-of-charge screening will begin at 6:45 p.m. nightly from Feb. 17 to 22, followed by a question-and-answer session with Benegal himself. “That’s what makes our festival special,” says Castro.
Tickets: Free. First come, first serve. Call (480) 461-7613 for more information.
Other upcoming film festivals
Sedona International Film Festival (Feb. 28 to March 4): Featuring more than 120 short and feature-length films, this five-day blizzard of movies and workshops is among the state’s best-known film retreats, and undoubtedly its most scenic.
Peoria Film Festival (March 1-4): Charles Durning (“Tootsie”) will be on hand to receive a lifetime achievement award, and to answer questions about his Arizona-filmed mob comedy, “Forget About It.”
Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival (March 8-11): “Four spectacular days of films,” organizers say. Includes a special program for extreme sports buffs.
Arizona Black Film Showcase (March 22-25): Six-year-old race-themed film confab has featured Bill Duke (“Predator”) and Wayne Brady as guests. Held at the AMC Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix.
ASU Short Film and Video Festival (April 14): What this university-sponsored festival lacks in production values, it makes up for in enthusiasm and atmosphere. Held outdoors on the ASU campus.
Phoenix Film Festival (April 12-19): The largest and best-connected of the local festivals, boasting partnerships with the Sundance Channel and Cox Communications. Past celebrity guests include Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Bacon.
Arizona International Film Festival (April 20-29): The pride and joy of the Tucson festival scene is a 10-day monster of an event, featuring more than 150 short- and feature-length films.
Lake Havasu Film Festival (April 20–22): How’s this for hyperbole: “Mohave County’s premier independent film showcase.” Something to fit in between the nude houseboating, perhaps?
Scottsdale International Film Festival (Oct. 5-9): Last year, Amy Ettinger’s autumn festival featured the Arizona premiers of “Babel,” “The Queen” and “Infamous.”
San Tan Short Film Festival (November): Held at the Queen Creek Performing Arts Center, this well-organized East Valley short film showcase schedules screenings by genre (Western, comedy, documentary).