It used to be that a film festival was an event as exotic as a World’s Fair or an international summit. Once a year, filmdom's glitterati converged on some impossibly sun-drenched locale for red carpet photo ops, industry schmoozing and – oh, yes – the obligatory film premieres, screenings and awards. They were events only the rich and powerful could hope to attend, leaving the rest of us to catch the snapshots a few months later in our favorite celebrity rags.
Now, almost 30 years after Robert Redford decided to bring a little bit of Hollywood to Utah every January for Sundance, film festivals are threatening to become as ubiquitous as county fairs, and Southeastern Michigan is no exception.
Where eager 4-H teens once groomed their best steer in hope of a blue ribbon, high-schoolers now hash out their best Spielberg homage on a camcorder and laptop –sometimes under contest-mandated time constraints of 48 hours or less– and submit it to the nearest fest board.
The advent of low-cost digital video put the means of creation in the hands of just about anybody (for proof, just click over to YouTube), but the capital, manpower and sheer square footage necessary for a sustaining a vibrant festival remains in the hands of only the most tenacious movie-lovers.
So what determines the survival of the fittest in the local fest world? The ones that thrive fall into four distinct categories: Scrappy, collective-like “starving artist” festivals; niche or minority fests (such as the Triangle Foundation’s Reel Pride festival or the Arab-American National Museum’s film program); exhibitor-heavy networking events that are more like film expos than fests; and star-studded, tourism-boosting, Sundance-style festivals.
At one end of the spectrum is perhaps the purest distillation of what a film festival should be. Founded with the goal of nurturing passionate, independent, often local filmmakers, these organizations use their modest resources to collect and screen the most exciting unprofessional work they can get their hands on.
For the filmmakers, they get all-important feedback and praise but little else. More often than not, these are non-profit affairs co-sponsored by a major university, or a local arts council. Still others get by on sheer ingenuity and pluck.
Few Detroit-area fests fit this description better than Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Film & Video Festival. In its fifth year, this offshoot of the decade-old Planet Ant Theatre has cultivated a laid-back, neighborhood block-party vibe, all the while steadily attracting talent from all over the nation.
"The first couple of years it was just kind of a get-together," explains Mikey Brown, Planet Ant’s Festival Coordinator. In recent years, however, Brown and Festival Director Nate DuFort managed to woo celebrity judges from Fox, ABC and MTV, secured screenings of acclaimed films from higher-profile fests, all while retaining the backyard barbeques, late-night karaoke parties, and music-video screenings that have become hallmarks of the mid-June gathering.
Brown recalls a group of filmmakers from St. Louis commenting that that Planet Ant was one of the most hospitable venues they’d encountered. "That’s really our goal – that the filmmakers who come and hang out have a good time, and get their work seen by as many people as possible," Brown says.
To make it happen, however, requires the tenacity of a starving artist. Recent grants from the Michigan Film Office and sponsorships from such big names as Sony, HD Studios and Final Draft screenwriting software have enabled Planet Ant to offer none-too-shabby prizes. Still, Brown says, "we’re always on the edge of not having any money."
Luckily, the Internet has allowed fests like Planet Ant’s to connect with a larger body of filmmakers than ever before. Online communities like MySpace Film, iFilm and the ubiquitous YouTube allow directors to prescreen entire shorts or snippets of their longer works. Festivals are even using the Web to streamline the submissions process: Sites such as withoutabox.com allow filmmakers to upload their work and fill out a form that can be entered into dozens of contests the world over.
Detroit’s Mitten Movie Project has certainly capitalized on the power of the Internet for publicity, using MySpace pages and its own website, thoughtcollide.com, as a rallying cry for local filmmakers, as well as a showcase for InZero, the episodic sci-fi saga created by its founders. For no submission fee, Michigan residents can have their work considered by the Mitten Movie Night, held the first Tuesday of every month at Royal Oak’s Main Art Theatre.
Making the Industry Take Notice
Still another variant, more along the lines of the industry events held in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, is making inroads in the region. Preparing for its second appearance at Cobo Hall this September, the Midwest Urban Film Festival presents itself as more of an expo, "an avenue for independent filmmakers to get exposure for their products," according to its founder, Alex Thomas.
Thomas seeks to put local talent in touch with elusive industry professionals. "There’s enormous talent here – we just can’t get the exposure," he says.
With a background in the recording industry – as publisher of the area hip-hop magazine The Promoter – Thomas says he’s striving to put Detroit on the map, the same way a musician like Babyface brought attention to his hometown of Atlanta almost a decade ago.
The interconnectedness of the music and filmmaking industries puts Thomas in the position of bringing not only those who advertise in The Promoter, but also major studio players to the floor -- literally. Anyone willing to pony up the $250 exhibitor fee can have a table at Cobo, and renegades with little more than a homemade DVD and a dream can walk the floor and set up a private screening and sell their wares to the burgeoning urban film and video market, an industry hungry for everything from the next big hip-hop video director, to straight-to-video scripts, to full-fledged features.
So far, the response has made Thomas hopeful: "We were shocked at the turnout [last year]. It was way beyond our expectations," he said.
The Sundance Hopefuls
While many of these fests bring international visitors to the area, none has become a bonafide tourism juggernaut for the region. The venerable Ann Arbor Film Festival all but dares out-of-state attendees to brave Michigan's end of winter blues.
Over the last few years the 45-year-old festival has struggled to reassert itself in a crowded field of fests. Christen McArdle, the organization's new Executive Director recently gained press when she got involved in a war-of-words with conservative legislators who criticized the fest as a venue for prurient material. The run-in turned out to be much ado about little but it did give Ann Arbor a badly-needed shot of notoriety.
Other parts of the state are home to movie events more obviously modeled after Sundance, combining an enticing locale with a slate of crowd-pleasing, star-studded or otherwise accessible feature films. With filmmaker panels, screenwriting classes and open-to-the-public screenings, they create a buzzworthy event for travelers, whether they’re in-state roadtrippers or industry professionals looking for sun and sand to go with their schmoozing.
In two short years the Traverse City Film Festival has gone from a summer treat for locals to national sensation, worthy of major premieres and coverage in the Hollywood trades. It helps that its founder is the much loved/reviled documentarian Michael Moore. Last year, he was able to convince director Larry Charles to show a special sneak screening of the unexpected smash Borat, a month before its official premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Charles and director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) liked the experience so much, they signed on to the festival’s Board of Directors.
Saugatuck’s Waterfront Film Festival has found itself in much the same position. Without a single proper movie theater, this Lake Michigan tourist destination has managed in each of its eight years to provide an impressive slate of American indie films for the droves of Chicago and Grand Rapids-based tourists. In addition to accepting submissions from plucky, undistributed directors, the fest has become a way for distributors to jump-start their art-house releases: Buzzed-about films like Napoleon Dynamite, Murderball and March of the Penguins had their Michigan premieres at the city’s various indoor and outdoor screens. As if to underline its mission, Waterfront offers no awards. What could express the inclusive, egalitarian spirit of the modern film fest better than that?
MICHGAN FILM FESTS:
Plant Ant Film & Video Festival
June 13-16, Hamtramckwww.planetant.com
Mitten Film Project/Festival
First Tuesday of every month, Royal Oak
Midwest Urban Film Festival
September 29-30, Cobo Conference Center
Ann Arbor Film Festival
Phone: (734) 995-5356
Traverse City Film Festival
July 31-August 5
Waterfront Film Festival
June 7-10, Saugatuck
Michael Hastings is an Ann Arbor-based writer who reviews films for Detroit's Metro Times and is an editor at AMG's All Movie Guide.
State Theater marquis in Traverse City
Outdoor screening in Traverse City
Planet Ant Film and Video Festival postcard
Planet Ant Logo
Michael Moore takes the podium in Traverse City
Waterfront Film Festival co-founders Dana DePree Minter, Judy Smith, Hopwood DePree, Kori Eldean, Dori DePreeAll photographs courtesy of Traverse City Film Festival, Planet Ant Film and Video Festival and Waterfront Film Festival