Lights, Camera, Attraction!
The Frederick Film Festival Is Entering Its Fourth Year in June – And Grabbing the Attention of Big-Name Indie FilmmakersBy Chris Little Photography by Casey Martin
When New York director Tim Sutton needed funding for his next project — the one that would become the 2012 SXSW (South by Southwest) opening-night premier film Pavilion — he set up a campaign at the crowd-sourced fundraising website KickStarter.com. It so happens, as these things often do, that one of his $25 contributors mentioned that she knew the programmer at a fun little film festival in Frederick, Maryland, and that Sutton might want to check it out. “I did a little research, and I saw it showed really quality small films and films I really liked,” says Sutton. “It immediately looked like a quality film festival that not a lot of people knew about.”
The programmer of that fun little film festival was none other than Walter “Butch” Chalkley, a founder of Frederick’s CinemArts and director of the Frederick Film Festival since it began four years ago. These days, the festival, known colloquially as the “F3,” is attracting attention — and submissions — from directors whose indie films draw flocks of fans at big-name festivals like SXSW and Sundance.
Why would these directors want to show their work in Frederick? In short: the opportunity to connect with their audience. “South by Southwest was a very, very interesting experience and it was incredible, but it’s huge,” explains Sutton. “You’re fighting for an audience and you’re constantly marketing. A place like the F3 gives you a chance for intimacy with your audience. The film will show; it won’t have competition that night. People who are interested in the film will go see it, and there’ll be a chance to talk about it.”
Intimate Showcase, Not Media Circus
But it’s not just the F3’s relatively small size that makes it special. It’s also the friendly, low-key way Chalkley runs it. “At SXSW I had an opportunity to email a couple times with the head programmer, but it’s kind of like getting the president of the United States on the phone,” Sutton says. “What I like about the F3 is that Butch loves films, and he’s constantly in communication with me asking if I’m interested in this and in doing that. He’s very collaborative, and when you get a chance to work with someone like that, it’s great. The F3 in a few years could be a vital regional film festival. It’s very attractive to be there in person and collaborate.”
That kind of personal interaction tipped the scales for Los Angeles filmmaker Andrew Bowler, too. He decided to send his Oscar-nominated short, Time Freak, to the F3 based on conversations with Chalkley that convinced him Frederick offered a true film-lover’s film festival rather than a promotional media circus for celebrities.
“It’s an interesting world for us because after the Oscars, we get invited to a lot of festivals now,” Bowler says. “But you want to know that your film is going to be represented well, it’s going to be showcased well, and it’s going to have an enthusiastic audience. They can like it or they can hate it; you just want to know that there’s a film crowd out there that’s going to judge the film because they’re film fans.” And he says that’s exactly what Chalkley and Frederick deliver.
Bowler notes that a Frederick-sized festival is especially advantageous for shorts — films that run less than an hour. “Without disparaging others too much, you can get yourself into a situation at a film festival larger than Frederick’s where you feel you’re not particularly welcome, especially with short films,” he notes. Bowler says that some of the larger events can tend to treat shorts almost as a necessary evil — at least not as something to get excited about.
This year’s edition of the F3 will screen some 50 indie shorts, along with about a dozen feature-length independent films.
Connecting filmmakers with appreciative audiences is what the F3 is all about, as far as Chalkley is concerned. “That’s one of the most important aspects — to have the filmmakers here, have them available to talk to, hang out with, that kind of thing,” he says.
For that reason, the festival offers multiple discussion panels and question-and-answer sessions throughout the weekend. The closing night’s Filmmakers’ Reception is designed to give you a chance to mingle with your favorite filmmakers, ask them questions and express your opinion. “These people are proud of their work, and they want to talk about it,” says Chalkley. “We’re hoping the summertime vibe will make people even more willing to hang out and chat.”
That laid-back atmosphere was also attractive to Eddie Mensore, writer and director of The Deposition, which won the 2011 Grand Jury Prize at the Las Vegas International Film Festival, among other awards. “I want to show my film in a cool environment with interesting people who like obscure independent films — and it’s very evident that the Frederick Film Festival is one of those,” he says. A West Virginia native now living in California, Mensore says he’s excited to be bringing his film to the F3, in part because of the other productions he’ll get to see while he’s here. “My taste resembles the taste of the festival, and the filmmaking that I enjoy is going to be represented there. It just seemed like a fit,” he observes.
Building Buffs or Box Office?
Of course, the city is no stranger to independent film, thanks to local events like the 72 Film Fest and local organizations like CinemArts and the Weinberg Center for the Arts, which partner to produce the F3. And based on what he hears at community forums, John Healey, executive theater manager at the Weinberg, believes locals are hungry for more. “We’re hoping that the festival will fill that niche,” he says. “And we’re starting to see that. We’re starting to see people travel in from out of town and spend the entire weekend in Frederick. That’s the goal, and we’re seeing signs that those corners are being turned.”
Yet, with grant monies harder to come by, putting together funding is tough for regional film festivals everywhere. Since the F3 doesn’t charge filmmakers for submissions, it covers expenses through ticket sales, in-kind sponsorships, a kickoff concert fundraiser called Soundtrack and ad sales in its hefty bulletin. This year’s Soundtrack will be blues rocker Deanne Bogart, who headlines the F3 kickoff on Saturday, June 9 with an evening show at the Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center’s Pavilion. “Nobody’s getting rich off this or even doing better than breaking even,” Chalkley states. “We’re hoping someday, but right now, we’re happy as long as we’re not losing money.”
Healey notes the F3 is still an ingénue player — it typically takes five or six years for a regional film festival to take off. F3 organizers are growing community and regional interest even as filmmakers stuff Chalkley’s inbox with unsolicited submissions.
Chalkley acknowledges inevitable obstacles to building an audience. “Film is tough anywhere, because televisions are 40-some inches wide now, and you can sit on your couch and watch a movie and get up and go to your refrigerator whenever you want,” he observes. Nevertheless, he’s optimistic. “I think the audience is here. I think most people enjoy watching a film and turning to the person next to them and talking about it. You just have to get them out of the house.”
The festival’s willingness to collaborate with community organizations for the ultimate goal of bringing people together through cinema has been key. “Any time anyone has an idea about how we can add another movie or an event or a venue, we’re willing to give it a try because it will bring a new audience and show the overlap between different art forms,” Chalkley says. “Film is by definition a communal experience. It takes a lot of people to make a movie, and you want a lot of people to see it. We’ve tried to make the festival something where you can go and meet people and talk about film.”
A Film Lover’s Film Festival
Frederick’s down-to-earth film festival is clearly catching on among indie directors. Submissions are up dramatically this year. Chalkley has his own theories about why: “I think the fact that it’s our fourth year is something. More people have heard of us over the years, and word gets out. Also, we’ve tried to treat the filmmakers well when they’ve come in the past. I think it gets around that we’re a nice bunch of film fans.” Plus, Chalkley thinks shifting the date from March to mid-June this year — well outside the crush of the spring film-festival season — avoided competition as well as gave organizers three extra months to promote the festival.
This year’s leap in filmmaker interest is a far cry from previous years, Chalkley adds. “I remember during the first two years, we were always excited when we got a submission in the mail — a real unsolicited submission.” He estimates that the festival received fewer than 10 unsolicited submissions its first year. But this year, Chalkley says, “I got 14 films in the mail and another three submitted online just yesterday. It’s truly been amazing.”
So, does Chalkley see the F3 becoming another Sundance or SXSW? “No, probably not,” he says. “But I also don’t think that’s the aim. We definitely want it to be a local festival with a national appeal. We want people to say, ‘Let’s go to Frederick because it’s relaxed, it’s in a cool place, and we can meet some people.’ It won’t have the raucous attitude of SXSW or Sundance, but we have a tradition of a laid-back festival that’s for viewers instead of for the industry. F3 is for people who want to go and watch films.”
Three local filmmakers come home to the F3. Check out the Web Exclusives section of frederickgorilla.com.
Several films coming to this year’s F3 are creating substantial buzz — like the 2011 vampire film Midnight Son, executive produced by Eduardo Sánchez of Blair Witch Project fame. Another is Tim Sutton’s Pavilion, which made its world premiere on the opening night of the 2012 SXSW film festival.
A documentary that’s anticipated to attract a lot of local attention is Semper Fi: Always Faithful, which addresses the issue of water contamination at the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. “it’s got extreme parallels with the water contamination issue here at Fort Detrick,” says Walter “Butch” chalkley, a founder of Frederick’s CinemArts and director of the Frederick Film Festival. “We’ll have a panel discussion after that film, and we’re expecting a crowd.”
And if you want to see what aspiring film students are dreaming up, check out the student competition featuring works from maryland high school students. Finalists are screened at the cultural arts center, with the winner chosen by a celebrity judge — this year’s is Eduardo Sánchez, director of 1999’s surprise indie hit The Blair Witch Project and an f3 regular.
Chalkley’s favorite film this year? The 2012 Oscar-nominated, 12-minute short Time Freak. “it’s a comedy about a guy who invents a time machine. He wants to go back to ancient rome, but he can’t get past all the stupid stuff he did yesterday,” he says.
Let’s All Go to the Movies
Now in its fourth year, the Frederick Film Festival screens about a dozen feature-length indie films and 50 independent shorts over the course of one festival weekend.
WHEN: June 22-24
WHERE: Screenings at three downtown venues: the Weinberg Center for the Arts (20 W. Patrick St.), the Cultural Arts Center (15 W. Patrick St.) and The Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center (40 S. Carroll St.), with other events scheduled around downtown.
COST: One- and two-day passes are available for $20 and $30, respectively.
You can purchase tickets, get a complete screening schedule and find out about F3’s musical events and other festival happenings at www.frederickfilmfest.com.