Ann Arbor Gets An International Film Festival

"At first we were thinking of calling it Kinotopia," says Russ Collins, CEO for The Michigan Theater, "but then we realized people probably wouldn't understand the reference. So, we went with Cinetopia instead." (For the non-linguists in the crowd, kino- and cine- actually mean the same thing, they just come from different language roots.)  

Collins is referring to the international film festival scheduled to run May 31 through June 3 in downtown Ann Arbor. Spread over six screens, this celebration of independent, foreign, and documentary cinema will present more than 30 movies to local audiences, along with retrospectives of Michigan-connected classics. Of particular interest to Cinetopia is the craft of screenwriting and the University of Michigan's contributions to the field. This year will put the focus on U-M grad David Newman, who penned such Hollywood classics as Bonnie And Clyde and What's Up Doc.

But if you're still asking whether the world needs another film festival, it's best to understand what Collins and festival director Amanda Bynum have in mind with Cinetopia. Unlike, say, the Toronto International Film Festival, which is the second biggest festival in the world and specializes in big studio debuts (along with Canadian-made work), or the experimental and academic bent of the venerable Ann Arbor Film Festival, Cinetopia will emulate fests like Sundance and Tribeca, giving local audiences a chance to see first-rate independent features, documentaries, and foreign releases – many of which may never grace American screens, big or small.

This is particularly true of foreign films, which account for less than one percent of the U.S. box office. Even prestigious international prize-winners are frequently passed over by distributors, making festivals their sole exposure to U.S. audiences.

"We hope this [Cinetopia] will grow into a Southeast Michigan festival, similar to the Cleveland International Film Festival – a non-industry festival focused on bringing great films from throughout the world that will be of interest to audiences in the Detroit-Ann Arbor area," explains Collins. "The idea has been batted around since the 1990s but never gained traction because of the financial support needed to sustain such a festival. A lot of people mistakenly think festivals survive on ticket sales. That's never the case."

With what Collins learned through his involvement with the Sundance Film Festival and the Art House Convergence, the mechanics of putting together an international festival became more possible, especially with sponsorship interest from AT&T, Zingerman's, Whole Foods, Money Source, and others.

Though many have tried, Southeast Michigan has yet to establish the kind of independent and international film festival that thrives in cities like Seattle, Chicago, Portland, or Minneapolis. The aforementioned Cleveland International Film Festival draws upwards of 85,000 people each year, attracting tourists from all around the country while programming nearly 200 films annually. Smaller communities like Savannah, GA or Telluride, CO draw audiences in the tens of thousands, along with filmmakers and celebrities. Even fests like RiverRun in Winston-Salem or Sedona's International Film Fest enjoy robust attendance.

Collins points out that many of those festivals are difficult to get to for out-of-towners. And still, film-lovers make them a destination. "Ann Arbor is half an hour from the Detroit International airport," he says. "A lot of people outside of Michigan don't realize that."

Collins is hoping Cinetopia's debut will bring in at least 5,000 film-goers. "Our expectations are modest because it's the first year, but we're willing to put the work into growing Cinetopia. Mature festivals attract audiences between 20 and 75,000. That's a big range, but anywhere in there would be enough to make this an on-going success."

Currently, only the Traverse City Film Festival (started by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore) sees those kinds of numbers.

"When you look at the success of the Traverse City festival – aggressive growth, great films, the adoration of its community – you realize that our region deserves and should be able to sustain that same kind of enthusiasm," says Collins.


Headhunters - Filled with oddball cutthroats, well-lubricated plotting, and Hitchcockian-style direction, this Norwegian import is a darkly comical caper that'd make Elmore Leonard and the Coen brothers proud. Full review here .

Your Sister's Sister - A conversational sex farce about a sisterly love triangle that stars Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt as emotionally-linked siblings. The acting is transcendent and the twisty narrative is both honest and funny.

Cane Toads: The Conquest in 3D - The word on this Australian eco doc is that it's quirky, gorgeously shot, and filled equal doses of unnerving reality and laugh-out-loud humor. I intend to be there, savoring every amphibian moment.

Bullhead - Oscar-nominated Belgian thriller that takes audiences inside the animal-growth hormone mafia. Dark, brooding, and intense, it's the kind of film that can be hard to navigate but sticks with you after the lights have come up.

The Queen of Versailles - A fly on the wall doc that charts the financial collapse of a billionaire family and their 90K sq ft home. Critics say that fans of Reality TV will find much to love (and hate) about the obscenely spoiled Siegel family and their attempts to cling to the excesses of the American Dream.

Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean - There are many docs and biopics about James Dean's life but this one puts the focus on the least examined part of his life - his prefame life at UCLA. Inquiries into his bisexuality, his love of Rimbaud, and a personality in formation become the backbone of this intimate and moody documentary.

Bonnie And Clyde - It's a masterpiece of American cinema and a must-see on the big screen. 'Nuff said.

The Freshman - Harold Lloyd was a silent film God, delivering outlandish stunts that made audiences wince. The addition of live music accompaniment --featuring vintage U-M school songs no less- make this a one-of-a-kind cinema experience.

Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D - Do you really need anything more than the title? This should be a blast of vintage monster movie cheesiness and hysterical commentary on sexual politics. Note how thuggish Mark dismisses sensitive David's reasoned arguments with his very large spear gun. Read a full review here.

Cinetopia's complete schedule can be found here.  You can Purchase Tickets at

All photos by Doug Coombe


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