Tales From the Underground

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Proliferation of underground fests means a new wave of outlets for artists

Pay a visit to Seattle’s Coffee Messiah, with its blue neon sign declaring “Caffeine Saves,” and the image probably won’t spark thoughts of independent cinema. But for three days last summer, the tiny coffeehouse doubled as a makeshift movie theater for the second annual F4 (short for F***ing Fabulous Film Festival), an energetic showcase of features, shorts, and experimental films, drawing largely from Seattle’s pool of underground talent.

Underground film festivals are akin to off-off Broadway plays. Unpolished, unpretentious, and often locally aimed, they are the community theater of the film world. While they may lack the prestige of their more established counterparts, these fledgling events can be invaluable to the not-ready-for-Sundance moviemaker seeking exposure, audience feedback, and a network of supportive peers.

In Seattle’s case, a film festival void may not have been readily obvious. After all, the city already hosts the largest cinema showcase in the United States. But the F4 offers an alternative to the major circuit, which can often seem impenetrable to developing talent. It has a lenient selection process, no entry fees, (though that may change next year) and no format restrictions. The goal, according to Event Coordinator Joel Bartenbach, is simply “to give anyone with a camera and a vision a chance to express him or herself.”

A longtime supporter of Seattle-grown cinema, Bartenbach gave the F4 its colorful name in part to make sure it always stays a few blips under the mainstream radar. As a promotional strategy that may be self-defeatist, but it falls in line with the festival’s noncompetitive, art-for-art’s-sake philosophy. “It’s impossible for art to compete,” Bartenbach says. “There’s no way to compare two pieces, when often times it’s apples and oranges.” With that, he asserts the idea that underground festivals should strive to maintain a comfortable environment.

Adam Rocha, Festival Director for the San Antonio Underground Film Festival, agrees. “Idealistically, underground fests cultivate an encouraging atmosphere for artists showcasing their films,” says Rocha, who started the SAUFF as a means to bring Sundance-type films to the Alamo City. “Most film festivals are businesses/markets where filmmakers sell their movies; We’re not a market. We’re more comparable to a ‘zine.”

Market or no, Rocha has a do-it-yourself ethic that’s kept his festival running for nine years. He’s seen the rise of digital technology put moviemaking in the hands of the general public, accounting for the recent wave of what he calls “mom & pop” festivals like SAUFF. So how does a mom & pop festival get noticed in Texas, amid heavy hitters like Houston and Austin? Easy, says Rocha. “Our fest takes great pride in offering the most unique prize worldwide: a low-rider bicycle.”

Larger festivals, billed as international events, often favor entries from afar. A common complaint among independent filmmakers is that the closer you live to the festival you’re submitting to, the harder it is to get accepted. Rick Danford, co-founder of the Saints & Sinners Film Festival, saw this as a problem in the Tampa Bay area and in Florida as a whole. A one-day festival, held three times a year, Saints & Sinners was initially a Florida-only competition. Though mounting interest from beyond the state has prompted organizers to open their doors to everyone, Danford and his cohorts -who also run St. Petersburg-based Renegade Films– still largely cater to the local talent. “I feel this state could be the ‘Hollywood South’ that so many people have predicted,” he says. “And we want to do everything in our power to help make that happen.”

For Saints & Sinners, like many smaller festivals, length is a primary factor in deciding what films get shown. With a one-day event, that means a feature will sometimes have to be turned down in lieu of four or five shorts. A full program, in fact, takes precedence over whether or not the judges personally like the films. Explains Danford, “If someone spent the time, money, and trouble to put it together then we feel it deserves an opportunity to be played.”

Of course, carte blanche screenings can sometimes backfire on filmmakers, especially in the guilt-by-association category. The approach is still broader in scope than many of the big players who often try to weave a thematic connection between offerings. For the Coney Island Short Film Festival, diversity and unpredictability are always key considerations. “The most important thing is never to bore an audience,” says CISFF Director Rob Leddy. “We try to add an element of the bizarre and risqué to our selections. We don’t just look for one genre.”

Complete with sideshow performers and a burlesque orchestra, CISFF is a showcase worthy of the neighborhood’s amusement-rich history. Leddy, who started the event with help from Coney Island USA (a nonprofit arts organization), had been disappointed by stolid nature of festivals he attended in the past. “Many of them had this impersonal vibe,” he recalls. “I wanted to create something that made the filmmakers and audience feel like they were bonding.” Echoing the view of his fellow underground festival directors, Leddy shares the opinion that these events should be first and foremost an intimate experience.

Ultimately, for career-minded moviemakers, underground festivals will be seen as a stepping stone. Chances are, they won’t lead to major distribution deals or Oscar considerations, but their growing numbers mean a new wave of outlets for artists to utilize. As a filmmaker himself, F4’s Joel Bartenbach recognizes the value of having more accessible options. “In working together, all of us indie filmmakers can go into our projects knowing there are countless venues to tour and broader audiences to reach.”

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Originally published in MovieMaker magazine, Fall 2003

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