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Filmworks brings the festival circuit to you
Fresno Filmworks celebrated its sixth anniversary this month -- six years of consistently bringing first-run independent, experimental, and international movies to the central San Joaquin Valley each month.
Now, to kick off its seventh year with a bang, the all-volunteer nonprofit group has a big event in store for April: the 2008 Fresno Film Festival, featuring 29 films from nine different countries.
The fourth annual festival will run April 18-20 at the historic Tower Theatre, continuing to offer Fresno-area moviegoers a multicultural, international film experience that cannot be regularly found at commercial theaters.
The group's president, John Moses, took some time to catch up with Fresno Famous for an interview.
This is the festival's fourth year. Each time, Filmworks has expanded the size of its programming. This year's schedule features 29 films from nine different countries. What drives the festival's yearly expansion?
The drive comes from the same thing that has been at the heart of Filmworks to begin with, to offer an alternative source for films in Fresno. We want to screen films that do not have an opportunity to be seen by people in theaters anywhere else in the Fresno area, films that won't get to the multiplexes.
The festival includes all these shorts that are available to festivals in other cities and countries where the short film is valued more than it is in commercial theaters. Very few cities actually enable viewers to see those kinds of films. Shorts are now widely available on Web sites, and that has become the dominant way to see those films. The Web is a boon to short-film makers, now that there's an audience. But the big screen is also still important.
We began last year asking for submissions for our own short-film programs. We had a small pool last year, around 20 submissions, and created one program for it. We were pleased with the shorts at that time. But this year, our call went out earlier and with a wider net. We had nearly 150 films submitted and many of them are absolutely wonderful. ... We picked 17 films from those submitted shorts, more than two full 90-minute-or-so programs, and we're using a few of them to open other feature programs.
Many of these submitted shorts have been in the festival circuit, so we're happy they've been submitted to us as well. Not everyone likes experimental cinema, but with the shorts, we'll give our audience a good taste of what some smaller filmmakers are doing.
What general criteria does Filmworks use to pick the festival films, in comparison to the picks for its usual monthly screenings?
One of the things that Filmworks is very much trying to do with the festival as opposed to the monthly screenings is to give Fresno-area people a chance to really enter into the film festival circuit. Each year, we've moved more in that direction.
This year, three of the feature films are also still out in the festival circuit. They're not getting into commercial theaters and won't come to Fresno anyway. Those three are the Israeli film Jellyfish, the Australian mockumentary Kenny, and the Southeast Asian documentary The Betrayal (Nerakhoon). Recently, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) has been pulling a wider audience and has played at both Sundance and Berlin. We're ecstatic about having those films here.
For the third straight year, the festival will feature A Night at the Oscars, a selection of the Academy Award-nominated short films. Why has Filmworks decided to keep bringing these Oscar shorts, instead of other full-length features?
The Oscar shorts have been the most popular of our programs for the two previous years we've shown them. They've been in the late afternoon slots before. But given the feedback we've gotten from attendees, we were certain we'd bring them back again and that we were going to feature them in one of the evening slots.
Of all the nominees this year, we picked the ones we thought our audience would most enjoy, including the two winners, Peter & the Wolf and Le Mozart des Pickpockets.
Again this year, Filmworks has chosen a family-oriented film -- the restored Charlie Chaplin classic, Modern Times -- at a Saturday matinee. Why choose this film?
In terms of the variety of offerings we had, we did want to have a family program but also a revival film. This one allows us to do both at once. It's not a children's film, per se, as in past years, but it's one that kids and adults can equally enjoy.
I sometimes use my old children as a test case. I've introduced them to Chaplin and others over the years as one of my ways of introducing them to classic film. Modern Times is one of Chaplin's funniest films. It's maybe not the most perfect, in terms of narrative or structure. But there's just something about this film that will appeal to a wider audience.
In terms of being a classic, Modern Times is an entirely restored, new print. It's not just a classic film, but it's one that has been back in theatrical venues again because of the restored prints.
The festival opener, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, is a French film that got tons of major award nominations worldwide. How did you decide on that film for the festival's opener and why do you think the local multiplexes passed it up?
We have no idea why the multiplexes passed on it. We had fully expected it to pop up here in the commercial theaters, if not as a prominent release, then maybe in the art series at Sierra Vista or at the very least at the Clovis UA. Films like this usually slip in and slip out of the commercial theaters here quickly and quietly.
We weren't seriously considering it originally for the festival because it seemed obvious it would have come to town. But then we jumped on it because it's such a significant film for this season. It has won so many awards and has been highly respected by everyone. It's adventurous in both subject and style, and it really begs for a venue.
When we decided to book it, we were thinking of the best place to put it, looking at the other features. It was chosen toward the end of the booking process and seemed good to open with. In the past we've started with lighter films. Diving Bell does have optimism, but it's maybe not as light as past festival openers. It did strike nice notes for an opening night film, though, because of a broad interest in it, and also because French films typically do very well for us.
In contrast, our concluding film, Starting Out in the Evening, is not known quite as well. It's an American film set in New York City. Audiences will recognize lead actor Frank Langella, though, and will be interested in seeing one of his greatest performances in a long, distinguished career. The subject matter is very literary. Langella plays an academic novelist who's continuing work on his latest novel for a very long time. Our audience should find that selection interesting.
Filmworks recently celebrated its six-year anniversary in March. What has been the most difficult thing about keeping the project going month after month, and how has Filmworks continued to compete with the commercial theaters?
We've had an amazing run. None of us truly thought that Filmworks would be this successful and that audiences would respond as well as they have for this long of a time. We're proud to be entering our seventh year.
Commercial theaters, whether in response to us or just by happenstance, are offering more art films than ever before on a sustained basis. That has been one of our biggest challenges lately. The pool of films we've looked to has gotten somewhat smaller for the monthly screenings. Films we might have asked to book, like Juno, The Savages, or Persepolis, we're not getting.
A number of other films that are highly acclaimed are also on our list but we've had zero chance because they were coming to the commercial theaters. When that happens, there's no reason for us to program it. Our mission is to bring new, first-run films, rather than simply to replicate what the commercial theaters are doing. We're now sometimes looking to littler films that our audience hasn't yet heard of.
The festival is another way we have now competed with the multiplexes, but in a different way. They aren't doing the festival thing. They aren't looking to festival circuits for unusual films that aren't picked up by big commercial distributors. That allows us to show these unusual and important films and shorts.
The group's original, stated mission is to eventually have a full-time theater in Fresno dedicated to experimental, foreign, and independent cinema. Is that still a goal?
Right now, it is not. The goal is to continue our direction with the monthly series and the yearly festival. I would love to see the festival expand in future years to beyond three days and one venue. Maybe we could move it to four days or five days, or maybe consider multiple venues with smaller screening rooms for digital production and delivery. Some kind of expansion like that is most feasible right now.
The board probably needs to revise that original part of its mission. We pursued that idea pretty actively for several years but it has seemed too risky, in terms of finances, location, audience, etc. The financial resources to start up and keep going a full-time theater, at a time when the commercial theaters are creating more competition, has not seemed right.
Plus, a permanent art house in a different location might not nearly be as grand as the Tower Theatre, especially loyalty wise. We appreciate our audience.