Cleveland festival keeps indie dreams alive

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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The Kings of Summer is a coming-of-age story about three teens who decide to build a house in the woods. The Cleveland International Film Festival opening-night presentation is on April 3, 2013. (Photo courtesy CIFF)

The Cleveland International Film Festival is not only an opportunity for filmgoers, but one for the people who make the movies.

Beginning Wednesday with The Kings of Summer, the Cleveland International Film Festival will offer 178 feature-length films, and almost as many short works. Movies from 65 countries will be shown through April 14 in an array of venues, including both the Akron Art Museum and Akron-Summit County Public Library on April 11.

CIFF is an event bracketed by potential crowd-pleasers. The Kings of Summer (previously called Toy’s House) is a coming-of-age story shot in the Cleveland area; producer Tyler Davidson said both that it is hilarious and “it has a lot of heart.” The festival closes with Unfinished Song (also known as Song for Marion), which one critic has called “a sunny antidote to Amour”; it involves a grumpy old man (Terence Stamp) who with his wife joins a senior-citizen singing group.

Special showings in Akron include Magic Camp, a documentary about adolescent magicians improving their craft, and Underdogs, a drama set and shot in North Canton, about both a local football team and a man hoping to improve his family’s life by inventing a special space heater. Entrepreneur Ben Suarez, the man behind the EdenPure heater, is a backer of the latter film.

But the festival is also a place to see a Russian crime thriller; a documentary about a Maine lobster-packing plant; a comedy-drama about a Swedish family gathering for the matriarch’s 70th birthday; a look at an Afghan man returning home to help rebuild his country; a documentary about a mobster-turned-FBI-informer who came back to Cleveland from witness protection; a drama from India about a boy trying to get to a great kite-flying site; and a film about LGBT people in Uganda, where being gay is illegal and dangerous.

Some of the films have either made it into commercial theaters or will get there; Kings is set for wider release in late May and a return to Northeast Ohio in early June. Magic Camp is completing a deal for a theatrical run and eventual DVD and digital release.

Festivals are often crucial to the process. Judd Ehrlich, who made Magic Camp, said it has been shown at about two dozen festivals — often with a magic show and discussions with the movie’s stars and filmmakers. Although Ehrlich plans to be at a screening in Cleveland on April 13 along with some of the people featured in the movie, he won’t be able to do so for the Akron showing on April 11 because Magic Camp is opening Michigan’s Capital City Film Festival that day.

“We premiered it at Newport Beach in April of last year,” Ehrlich said. “We’ve been playing all over the country, and we played it in Toronto — and Bermuda.”

Festivals build word of mouth about a film, said Ehrlich, and get it noticed by distributors. Run For Your Life, an earlier Ehrlich film, made a distribution deal off a showing at the Tribeca festival. Festivals can also generate reviews which can be used to promote the film.

After all, filmmaking — especially the independent kind — can be very difficult, a fight for recognition and funding against not only other movies but the growing world of online productions. Even relatively small amounts of money can be essential. For his next film, Science Fiction Land, Ehrlich turned to Kickstarter to raise $50,000. (The film collected $54,000 in a 30-day campaign.) So a showcase like Cleveland is to be valued.

And some movies may be getting their only chance at local audiences through festivals, said Davidson.
“Film festivals are hugely important, in that for a lot of films, that is the release plan,” said the Chagrin Falls native and film-festival veteran. “Without a broader commercial release, festivals are the way a lot of films get their exposure. …

“There are these small handfuls of festivals in the world that also serve as markets to garner the attention of prospective distributors,” he said. “But for the vast majority of films, the festivals are the only way they are ever exposed to audiences, because most films don’t engage distribution.”

Cleveland, which prominently features movies with Northeast Ohio ties, is also useful because audiences have a stronger connection to those movies.

“For us, the Cleveland Film Festival, which I consider one of the best in the country, is very important because the film was made here,” Davidson said. “We’re really looking forward to sharing the film with local audiences who are going to identify so many of the locations … and really help to drive the excitement leading up to the commercial release.”

The Cleveland fest is “very near and dear to me,” Davidson said. His movies The Year That Trembled and Swedish Auto were part of previous Cleveland fests. With Year, he said, the festival was “the first public screening of a film that I had ever produced in my life. Aside from being the Cleveland film festival, which I consider a very prestigious showcase, it was an overwhelming experience overall.”

He has also made the festival rounds with the likes of Take Shelter, shown at Cannes and Sundance, and Compliance, which caused a stir at Sundance in 2012. He has seen the “highly competitive” duels among festivals for films; Davidson said the widely acclaimed Take Shelter, shot mainly in Lorain County, did not play the Cleveland fest because some of the bigger fests wanted first crack at it.

But Compliance showed that festival attention is not always positive. The film is about how far people will go when ordered to by someone in authority, and the lengths shown were so horrifying to some Sundance filmgoers that it was reportedly greeted with boos and other hostile reactions.

“I always think that any attention is good,” Davidson said. “It’s so challenging to get people’s attention in our current culture. The idea of course is to separate yourselves from other things that exist out there. I think the idea of playing festivals is a good thing. The only way that distributors or producers might shy away from it is if it’s a film that is not going to be well-received critically or by audiences.” And Compliance did have its supporters.

Besides, in a fundamental way, film festivals like Cleveland are old-school. You sit in a theater with other people and share an experience. And Davidson agreed that is the best way, even in this streaming-movies-to-your-home-theater age, to see a movie.

“It’s really gratifying to see it play in front of audiences, and to see how much people enjoy it, and are touched by the characters,” Ehrlich said.

“There’s something inherent in the communal experience of movie-going that will never die,” Davidson said. “There’s nothing like the energy in a room of hundreds of people all laughing at the same joke, or all crying at the same emotional scene.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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