The Struggle Of Regional Festivals

The times are hard for regional film festivals. First off, let me define my terms. A regional film festival, as opposed to an international one that attracts both a wideranging public and industry executives (think Sundance), is one that exists primarily as a cultural event for its local audiences. While such festivals have experimented with all-inclusive travel incentives to attract out-of-towners, the truth is that most people that attend them live in a local radius. The only ones who come from beyond that red line are the filmmakers, who are anxious to show their films to audiences beyond the canyons of Manhattan, Los Angeles, Chicago and urban areas of similar size and density. These local festivals are particularly dependent on local sponsors, as well as city, regional and state funding. In the last few years, with money drying up on all fronts both private and public, it has been an especially demanding task to run these events.

And yet, the festivals continue, sometimes on greatly reduced budgets and other times blessed with private benefactors (translated as rich people who live in the area) who keep the thing afloat. This is a positive thing for many reasons. Firstly, film as a cultural event for local audiences is an important matter, adding diversity and complexity to a local arts scene. Secondly, it is an opportunity for local audiences to sample new indie and international films, and hopefully whet their appetite year round to sample such films at their local multiplexes. If people outside of the big urban hubs stop being interested in indie films or international films with subtitles, then the specialty film industry will shrink even further and may just curl up from lack of interest. Finally, regional festivals provide a unique and often satisfying for visiting filmmakers, who have a chance to immediately gauge feedback and create awareness for their projects that hopefully will result in a distributor showing interest.

Practically no state in the union has been more hit with economic woes these past few years than Florida. As housing values have plummeted and tax rolls have diminished, the cultural budget on the state and local levels has been drastically trimmed. And yet the state boasts the largest number of individual film festivals in the USA, with three of them occurring in the same week alone later this month. Why they are overlapping and what tensions that creates is not the subject of this article, but clearly the three in profile in this article are largely regional affairs that attract the community in their neck of the woods (but not across county lines). In other words, people in Palm Beach do not travel to Orlando, nor do people in Orlando travel to Sarasota, nor do people in Sarasota travel to Palm Beach (tant pis, as the French say). Instead, there are three festivals all continuing to make an impact in their region and, despite loss of sponsors and governmental support, keep on going and offering their audiences an astonishing variety of film highlights.

The first to hit the gate is the Palm Beach International Film Festival, which celebrates its 17th edition from April 12 to 19. The Festival boasts 25 World Premieres, 14 U.S. Premieres and 2 North American Premieres and will present features, documentaries and short films from the U.S. and around the world, including Netherlands, Spain, Argentina, Tanzania, Italy, France, England, Israel, Thailand, Guinea-Bissau, Portugal, Australia, Canada, Romania and Sweden.

Opening Night kicks off with ROBOT & FRANK, a Sundance hit directed by Jake Schreier and starring Oscar nominee Frank Langella.  Set in the near future, a retired cat burglar bonds with a walking, talking humanoid robot programmed to improve his physical and mental health. What follows is an often hilarious and somewhat heartbreaking story about finding friends and family in the most unexpected places. The opening night will be followed by a party on the luxurious rooftop of Two City Plaza in City Place. The Festival will close with the local premiere of SASSY PANTS, a family dramedy directed by Coley Sohn and starring Anna Gunn, Ashley Rickards, Diedrich Bader and Haley Joel Osment.  In between these events, the Festival offers a potpourri of special events, including a festival of short films, an evening of cutting-edge music videos set in art gallery, a biopic and performance by legendary violinist Ida Haendel, and the world premiere of TIGER EYES, the first of iconic author Judy Blume’s novels to be brought to the big screen, directed by her son Lawrence Blume.  Despite some tough economic times, the Palm Beach International Film Festival will make the most of its dazzling environment to showcase both the films and the venues that make the county one of the most alluring in the state. For complete coverage of the event, visit: www.pbifilmfest.org

With almost parallel dates, the 14th edition of the Sarasota Film Festival, held in the beautiful Gulf of Mexico resort city on Florida’s west coast, is featuring over 230 films from 30 nations. It also is showcasing the Sundance hit ROBOT & FRANK as its Festival Opener, with cult director Todd Solondz’s human comedy DARK HORSE serving as the Festival Centerpiece and documentarian Joe Berlinger’s UNDER AFRICAN SKIES as the Festival closer. Fourteen of the festival’s films are either World or US Premieres, including new work from Paula M. Froehle, Dan Sallitt, Olivia Silver, Kris Swanberg, Onur Tukel, Femke and Ilsa van Velzen, Randall Wood and more. Many of the filmmakers will attend, giving local audiences a unique opportunity to interact with the artists whose films they are viewing. Among the Festival highlights are the Southeast premiere of ETHEL, a new documentary film about Ethel Kennedy presented by her granddaughter Rory Kennedy, the screening of a new horror thriller THE DAY, with stars Dominic Monaghan (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) and Ashley Bell (THE LAST EXORCISM) in attendance, and the awarding of a Filmmaker Tribute prize to celebrated stage and screen actor Frank Langella. The Festival sponsors a trio of competition sections, including Narrative Features, Documentary Features and the Independent Visions competition which this year will present two world premieres: EMPIRE BUILDER by Kris Swanberg and RICHARD’S WEDDING by Onur Tukel. For more information on the full program, visit: www.sarasotafilmfestival.com

As if these two overlapping events are not enough for a single state, Florida hosts yet another regional film festival with a high national profile. The 2012 Florida Film Festival, sponsored by Full Sail University and held at the Enzian Theater in Winter Park, a chi chi suburb of Orlando, will present a record-breaking 167 films representing 31 countries. The Festival, which runs from April 13 to 22, boasts a strong lineup of world, North American, U.S. and East Coast premieres.  The Festival, dedicated to showcasing new talents, offers Narrative Feature, Documentary Feature and Short Film competitions that are one of the most respected on the circuit. Among the highlights are local director Sylvia Caminer’s revealing documentary on pop star Rick Springfield (who will attend and perform in concert). Familiar faces on the screen this year include Penelope Ann Miller (THE ARTIST), Lauren Ambrose (SIX FEET UNDER), Andrew McCarthy (ST.ELMO’S FIRE), Robin Tunney (THE MENTALIST) and Scott Glenn (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). Festivities open with the East Coast Premiere of RENEE, based on the life of Renee Yohe, a 19-year-old who received national and international attention when her courageous story was posted on MySpace. The Orlando-based production deals with the cycle of self-injury which plagues many teenagers and young adults worldwide. This is exactly the kind of film that a regional festival can champion and bring to the attention of discriminating audiences. The continued health of these events is crucial if there is to be a continued stream of independent voices in an industry dominated by big budget extravaganzas. Regional festivals, hold on…….you are too important to lose.

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