Considering the white-knuckle economy, you might expect that the organizers of the 2008 Indie Spirit Film Festival would hesitate to throw another big bash this year. But when they met recently to talk about what they're calling the "second annual" event, festival director Jim Turner and co-organizers Matt Stevens and Chris Loud made it clear they're glass-half-full kind of guys.
"We had the advantage of not having a budget last year," says Turner with a laugh, "so the economy hasn't really hurt us."
In fact, last spring Turner and Stevens dug into their own pockets to bring the festival to life. This year, with Loud on board as director of marketing, they've attracted support from approximately 20 sponsors.
And ironically, it appears the economic downturn could end up boosting their box-office receipts. Current figures from Media by Numbers, a firm that collects movie data, show that attendance at U.S. theaters in 2009 has increased more than 15 percent since 2008. Stevens, who notes that most of Indie Spirit's pass prices have stayed flat, says he'd like to see the festival double last year's crowd of 600.
"In hard times," says Loud, "people go to the movies."
There are more than just movies among the attractions at Indie Spirit's 2009 incarnation: for instance, dozens of filmmaker and cast-member appearances, and more seats in bigger venues than last year.
But naturally, the weekend revolves around the films. The guys say they hadn't planned on expanding the number of offerings from last year's 84, but wound up with 108. And even then, Turner says, "We cut things we wanted."
Opening night will begin with a choice of two features: The Nature of Existence, an ambitious documentary exploring the meaning of life, and Absurdistan, a comedic battle between the sexes over broken plumbing.
"A lot of independent films tend to be a little dark, or maybe they don't have the happiest endings," says Turner. "But these are much lighter — they really leave you with a good feeling."
Friday will continue with a late-night feature from New Zealand called The Map Reader and a series of short films titled "Shorts You Wouldn't Take Your Mother To." It's one of the organizers' favorite parts of the lineup, a series of edgy films bearing names like The Gynaecologist, Valley of the Dommes and Jimmy Hits the Big Town.
Loud says Sudden Change, the winner of a local film competition, planted the idea. It's set to a snarky song about moodiness and menstruation.
"Before Sudden Change won, the filmmaker introduced it saying, 'This isn't a film for everyone. I don't know whether or not you'll want the kids to see it.' Of course, everybody's ears perked up," remembers Loud. "So when it won, we thought, 'How do we show this?'"
Their solution was to group it with other potentially controversial films and give them the intriguing series name.
"It's funny, because Matt and I got the same response from our moms: 'So you mean I can't see these movies?' I said, "No, you can see them, I just don't want to be sitting next to you. And afterwards, I don't think I want to discuss them with you,'" says Loud, laughing.
"Of course, we're not trying to just show offensive films," explains Stevens. "We're also showing 'Shorts You Would Take Your Mother To.'"
Short and long of it
Along with tame and not-so-tame shorts, the festival will include more than 30 feature-length independent films — dramas, comedies, documentaries, animated movies, horror flicks and student films — from 20 countries.
Some boast fairly big names. For example, on Saturday afternoon Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Dominican Monaghan (Lost) take to the screen in the horror-slash-comedy I Sell the Dead. The film Remarkable Power!, showing later that day, stars comedians Kevin Nealon and Tom Arnold. And a feature-length animated piece called Idiots & Angels by syndicated cartoonist Bill Plympton, whose previous film work has been nominated for an Oscar, will play Sunday.
But even as they penciled in some of these more mainstream releases, Loud, Stevens and Turner have had Colorado Springs in mind.
Says Loud: "We're trying to be — I hate to say generic — but a festival where we're showing a lot of different kinds of films because we want to find out what Colorado Springs wants to see."
One of the films they've selected with the city specifically in mind is Everyman's War, based on soldiers' actual accounts of World War II, which they hope will appeal to the large military population here.
Another is My Inventions, a short film about Nikola Tesla, the brilliant but eccentric inventor who conducted experiments involving electricity and wireless technology in Colorado Springs near the turn of the 20th century.
There's another nod to local history with the fest's newest venue, the Lon Chaney Theater at the City Auditorium: The theater named for Colorado Springs' own silent movie great will show a full day of horror films, sponsored by Fangoria magazine.
But the most direct local connection comes via "Colorado Spotlight," a series of a dozen films from local and regional filmmakers, as well as films with footage shot in Colorado Springs. Plus, they're recognizing local director Pete Schuermann, director of three festival films, as the festival's first featured director. (See more on the Colorado films and Schuermann on p. 31.)
Last year, the organizers chose some of the films to win awards, which ranged from Best Horror Film to Best Documentary to Best Native American Film. This year, it's "100 percent by audience vote," says Turner. "So it's very important that people do vote."
Festival staff will provide ballots for rating each film, or attendees can vote online. The goal is to get accurate feedback for filmmakers, future audiences and other festivals.
The voting will also benefit this year's crowds: A handful of films that are highly rated will run again Sunday afternoon, along with those that sold out earlier in the festival. The organizers are already predicting a repeat of their opening-night short series.
"We expect just because of the title they'll be saying, 'I gotta see that,'" says Loud with a laugh.
Between film screenings, all festival passholders can enjoy a filmmakers reception at Terra Verde and two filmmaker forums at Nosh, which will feature directors, producers and actors talking about what goes into making an independent film. VIP passholders can also attend an opening-night party, and a filmmakers lounge at the Metropolitain.
It's a lot for the guys to put on. But then again, it's no more imposing than starting a festival from scratch, as they did last year.
"The best thing last year was all the people who came up to us and said, 'This is great — we're so glad you're doing this. Don't stop,'" Turner says.
"And actually, we've already started reserving locations for 2010."