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The Lon and the short of it 

With a new downtown series, cinephiles aim to rewrite city's film story

As local movie director Pete Schuermann talks about his work — films ranging from Haze, a documentary about alcohol and college hazing, to Evil Brain from Planet X, a sci-fi short spoofing old B-movies — he admits he has a pet peeve.

"When people around town ask me what I do and I tell them I'm a filmmaker, they say, 'You do that here?'" explains Schuermann. "I'm tired of hearing that."

So he's been meeting with others, who are passionate about the local film scene, to work toward changing that attitude.

"Maybe we can turn that around," he says, "and have them say, 'Yeah, there is good stuff that's coming out of the Springs.'"

If anyone doubts that real talent can arise from our region, they need look no further than director Marc Webb, a 1996 Colorado College graduate whose feature film debut, the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, charmed audiences and critics alike this year in theaters across the country.

Then there's the acting end of things. For example, recent two-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams (Junebug, Doubt) grew up just down the road in Castle Rock and performed in area productions before winning over Hollywood. Geoff and George Stults, brothers from Cascade and graduates of Manitou Springs High School, are probably best known as brothers Ben and Kevin Kinkirk on the long-running TV series 7th Heaven. But more recently, Geoff appeared in The Express and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and George will star as Jesse James in American Bandits: Frank and Jesse James, scheduled for theaters in 2010.

Beginning in January, Schuermann and his cohorts will give audiences a chance to view some of the work happening here and, possibly, discover emerging filmmakers and actors. They are encouraging anyone across the state, who has a quality short film, to submit work now for possible inclusion in the showcase they're calling Colorado Short Circuit.

From the talent they uncover, they'll select the "best of the best" Colorado-based short films for free quarterly screenings, plus notable shorts from national and international filmmakers like celebrated animator Bill Plympton, an Oscar nominee whose shorts Hot Dog and Horn Dog are tentatively scheduled for the first event. Filmmakers in attendance will introduce their works and answer questions in a forum at the end of the evening.

"I'd love to see this become as anticipated and recognized on the local level as, say, an important exhibit at the Fine Arts Center or a performance at the Pikes Peak Center," says Schuermann.

The knight is young

This effort — involving Schuermann, Chris Loud of the Independent Film Society of Colorado, Steve Mack of the Filmmakers Alliance of Southern Colorado, Matt Stevens of Kimball's Peak Three Theater, and others — represents a confluence of some of the most active players in Colorado Springs' film scene. Each has worked to bring indie films and audiences together via events like the Indie Spirit Film Festival, weekly Film Society screenings and Filmmakers Alliance gatherings that invite professional and aspiring filmmakers to network and share their work. Loud says they've learned from these endeavors.

"I know that people have come to these types of events before, and then they come to the second one and the quality is not there, so they stop coming," says Loud. "So keeping quality high is something we're focusing on."

By being selective about local films and by mixing in national and international shorts, they aim to enforce their standards. At the same time, they hope to open the door a little wider to younger filmmakers.

Schuermann explains: "The thing that was missing from what the Filmmakers Alliance had done — and Steve will fully acknowledge this — was that they were unable to show students' work because they were at the Rocket Room and no one under 21 was allowed."

By using the all-ages Lon Chaney Theater as their venue, and widening their outreach to local schools and universities, they're bringing in some fresh faces, such as 17-year-old music video director Dillon Novak (see "Visual learner," Break, Aug. 7). Schuermann believes the high quality of Novak's work and that of other student filmmakers should serve as a "beacon" setting new standards for local film.

"I'd love to shake up some in the production community and say, 'Look at what this kid's doing, and he's kicking your ass,'" says Schuermann.

He also has praise for Sarah Lotfi, the latest student director to draw admirers both on campus and around town with her work.

"She showed me a short film called The Last Bogatyr, and the opening looked like something out of Saving Private Ryan," he says. "I couldn't believe it. It was good."

Lotfi, a 21-year-old University of Colorado at Colorado Springs student, shot footage for the 17-minute film on a Greeley farm and in a local church, with the help of a professional pyrotechnics team undaunted by her "shoestring budget." The silent, surreal film, which she filled with political and religious symbolism, follows the struggle of a Russian soldier in World War II. (Bogatyr is Russian for knight.)

At the first Short Circuit screening, audiences can see Lotfi's rising star for themselves and ask her about her work.

"I think the thing that sets our film apart," she says, "is the fact that it's nonlinear. It has gaps, but they're gaps that can be bridged. And sometimes the most powerful thing for an audience or as a viewer is to see the gap, but to make your own connections."

In addition to engaging an audience with her work, Lotfi sees the Colorado Short Circuit film series as an opportunity to build bridges in the film community: "Showing Bogatyr for me will be proof that I'm a filmmaker," she explains. "I think you really have to prove yourself — especially as a student."

Schuermann relates to that struggle to gain credibility and an audience for good work. He says that some who attempt to make films locally eventually give up or move to places like California, but he believes Colorado's film industry holds growing opportunities.

"Filmmakers try so hard to get their films seen," he says. "You can go online and you can put it on YouTube, but you're like the chef who creates something and never gets to see people go, 'Mmm ... this is good.'

"This could be that chance."

Diamonds in the rough

Recognizing that some local arts gatherings often can feel more like exclusive clubs, Schuermann insists part of this endeavor's goal is to turn up unfamiliar faces in the film world.

"I'm always meeting new people," he says. "It seems like there's a new one every week that I hadn't heard of, that came out of somewhere."

This series, Loud says, was constructed with that in mind: "For up-and-coming and younger filmmakers, short films are the format of choice, because it doesn't take a lot of money to make those and it's easier to have them seen. Short films are known in the festival world as calling cards. Filmmakers want to get their name out there, and their films out there, and show what they can do. It's a very accessible form."

It's an accessible form for viewers as well, since they can see the work of a dozen filmmakers in the time it takes to catch one feature film. Loud says he sees that as a big part of the series' allure.

"I think there are a lot of people out there who want to watch shorts, and unfortunately, there just aren't that many avenues to see them," he says. "This is going to give people the opportunity to see them on the big screen."

And as far as giving people a chance to discover some surprising new talent, Schuermann says he and his colleagues' expectations are high: "I still honestly believe there are going to be a bunch of diamonds that nobody even knows about."

jill@csindy.com

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