Cover Story: Coming Attractions

Can Greater Cincinnati afford to host a major film festival? Can it afford not to?

Jan 2, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Oliver Meinerding

One look at the number of film festivals and series planned for Greater Cincinnati in 2008 and 2009, and you might think this is the big Midwestern city for serious appreciation of the cinematic arts.

Check out this schedule of events: Underneath Cincinnati, Cincinnati 48 Hour Film Project, Conscious Choice Cinema, Cinema Carnegie, Saturday Night Alternative, Outreels, Israeli Film Festival, Lite Brite Indie Pop & Film Test, Idiot Joy Showland, Art and Design on Film, College Weekend Movie Festival, Film Fringe.

And yet, not to take anything away from the enormous amount of hard work — and imaginative programming and naming — that goes into these, but hardly any is more than a niche event, sometimes a component to a music or theater festival. Some have extremely low budgets, showing call-for-submission, independently made shorts and features in improvised or temporary venues.

There are those who want something more. There are also those who doubt Cincinnati is ready for something more. And still others wonder what form "more" should take.

One thing missing on this list is a broad-based, high-profile, true Cincinnati Film Festival — the kind that cities like Indianapolis, Nashville, Birmingham, Cleveland, Savannah, Denver and many others have. The kind of festival that most people would assume a city of Cincinnati's size and cultural reputation might demand by now.

Lots of film events, no central organization
Here are tentative plans for some of the film festivals and series scheduled for 2008 and/or 2009, with more undoubtedly in the works:

Underneath Cincinnati, a festival of mostly locally made shorts and an offshoot of the memorably titled Happy Catchy Flashy Film Festival at the old Sudsy Malone's, had been run by Sara Mahle of Media Bridges, but she's given it up to pursue a master's degree in communications.

It appears Southern Ohio Filmmakers Association will operate it at Know Theatre of Cincinnati in Over-the-Rhine.

Cincinnati 48 Hour Film Project will occur in the summer, probably at Covington´s Carnegie Visual + Performing Arts Center, produced by Chris Appleby of Media Bridges with assistance of Northern Kentucky University professor and previous 48 Hour producer Chris Strobel, who is also in charge of organizing the Film Fringe component of May/June's Cincinnati Fringe Festival. The 48 Hour Festival, in Cincinnati since 2003, continues to grow in popularity as teams make movies under deadline. Last year, the festival's best was presented at Showcase Cinema de Lux in Springdale.

Strobel, a busy man, will be involved with the annual College Weekend Movie Festival at The Carnegie, which empowers students at six local colleges to quickly make and show movies. This year, it will give them a full week.

The Carnegie's own Cinema Carnegie gets started Jan. 26 and 30 with Rain Man and will subsequently have one title a month, often films with strong area connections. (Much of Rain Man was filmed locally.) Josh Steele, the multidisciplinary arts venue's theater and facility manager, said success could prompt him to ask his board to purchase permanent movie exhibition equipment for The Carnegie's restored theater.

Meanwhile, the five-film Conscious Choice Cinema — a New Age spiritual series put on by an outside producer — gets underway Jan. 23 at The Carnegie.

The Cincinnati Museum Center's OMNIMAX Theater will appeal to adults with its new Saturday Night Alternative Film Series starting this weekend with Ski to the Max.

Outreels, held last June at Cincinnati Art Museum and sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Greater Cincinnati, will occur again either in October/November or in early 2009.

Idiot Joy Showland is a new series at the Contemporary Arts Center downtown, running May 10-June 2 in the galleries and presenting avant-garde shorts curated by artists John Pilson and Claudia Altman-Siegel.

Lite Brite Indie Pop & Film Test, put on by CityBeat Marketing Manager Dan McCabe, kicks off July 24 with a free feature on Fountain Square's video board, then follows with three nights at the Southgate House. Each night will begin with a music-related feature in the ballroom (before music acts) and will project short films throughout the evening.

Art and Design on Film, an ongoing series at Manifest Creative Research Gallery in Walnut Hills that actively seeks submissions, has 2008 dates reserved for Feb. 22 and March 21.

Perhaps the city's biggest current fest, the 17-film Israeli Film Festival, was held over two weeks in October at the Kenwood Towne Centre cinemas as well as at several colleges and a retirement center. It drew 1,600 people just to the Kenwood Cinemas. Sponsored and heavily promoted by the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati with a mandate to expose Cincinnati to Israeli culture, the event had support from biggs, Duke Energy and LKC Foundation. The federation's Barbara Miller, without disclosing the budget, said it would take $20,000 to $30,000 to put on a fest like this. The festival will return in 2009.

Why not Cincinnati?
As of now, an upstart film festival in Oxford, Ohio — the Oxford International Film Festival — is being promoted by its young founder, JC Schroder, as the only major such event in Southwestern Ohio. It will have its second edition April 10-13 in Oxford, with $15,000 contributed by the city and Schroder planning a black-tie extravaganza at Miami University's 10,000-seat Millett Hall at which celebrities will present International Crystal Awards to independent films.

Schroder says he's counting on the event's revenue to help pay for his estimated $330,000 budget. Last year's festival — funded with money from Miami University, Butler County's Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Fine Arts Fund — had a total budget of $75,000 and drew about 1,100 people to four days of screenings at Miami's Markham Conference Center.

Schroder, who says he's slowly working on a Mass Communications degree from Miami, is also a filmmaker. His latest, The End of All Things, is a short about a series of explosions on a college campus in a given day.

So why not Cincinnati? Surprisingly, there are no simple answers. While everyone interviewed for this story agrees a successful major film festival would be great for the city, not everyone thinks it's attainable at a reasonable cost. And visions differ.

Another potential problem: Cincinnati has a lot of people with a lot of film-fest ideas and no central figure able to unite all the players.

"It's a full-time job for someone to plan and organize," says Kristen Erwin, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky Film Commission, which promotes area film production but not exhibition. "I know in the past the (National Underground Railroad) Freedom Center has talked about a film festival and The Carnegie in Northern Kentucky wanted one. If we could get all the people together who want one, we could have success rather than compete for demographics."

Greater Cincinnati — a major metropolitan area with a 2006 population of 1.7 million — has some major-league assets to offer a general film festival. Among the celebrities with local connections, and who could be the subject of tributes in exchange for personal appearances, are George Clooney, Steven Spielberg, Sarah Jessica Parker, Todd Louiso, Jerry Springer and Natalie Portman. (Clooney's father, Nick, also has hosted American Film Classics and written the book The Movies That Changed Us.)

From the music world, and perhaps able to pick always-popular music-oriented films for a festival, are Peter Frampton, Greg Dulli, Bootsy Collins, James Levine, Adrian Belew and Nick Lachey. And local filmmaker Steve Gebhardt has made movies with John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Rolling Stones.

The city also is home to several major corporations that might like to sponsor a glitzy, glamorous film festival — a touch of Cannes on the Ohio. It also has a rich, relatively recent history of movies shot here with the film commission's help: Rain Man, Fresh Horses, Eight Men Out, A Rage in Harlem, Little Man Tate, The Public Eye and City of Hope, for example.

Cincinnati also has a key film festival supporter in Mayor Mark Mallory, who counts himself a buff of one of the earliest and rarest films shot in Cincinnati (in the West End), Homebodies, a ripe-for-festival-rediscovery 1974 dark comedy about elderly tenants turning to murder to resist displacement.

"Cincinnati is a great place for a film festival," Mallory says. "We're centrally located in the Midwest, and there's a huge population base within easy driving distance. And we have so many films that have been shot in Cincinnati."

Brian Gordon, artistic director of the 39-year-old Nashville Film Festival and a Cincinnati native, agrees — with reservations.

"It's a beautiful city, and that should be an attraction," he says. "And certainly somebody out there knows George Clooney. Certainly somebody knows Nick or Spielberg. Plus you could tap into people in the area who are well known in the independent film world, like Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar (who made the documentary A Lion in the House) from Yellow Springs.

"That's how you get started. You make that splash to get the media out there, to get TV and the dailies to cover it and people to show up that first year."

But Gordon cautions that to do that a festival would need a lot of resources, organization and community commitment to work. A University of Cincinnati graduate, he came to Nashville in 2001 after 13 years as director of the San Francisco International Film Festival's Golden Gate Awards Competition.

"A film festival sounds like an easy thing to start up, even on a volunteer basis," Gordon says. "You book a theater, you advertise a call-for-entries and you show the best films that submit. But if you want something that'll last for more than one year, there has to be a lot of planning involved."

Indeed it's too easy, he says, in this day and age when seemingly everyone is making a low-budget "independent" film, to find titles to show. But big festivals — and big cities — need higher quality to interest people.

In 2007, the weeklong Nashville Film Festival showed 240 films from 44 countries and drew 20,000 people. The full-time nonprofit organization also hosts year-round events.

"The whole American indie scene has a lot of smaller festivals that rely on this cool vibe, with films made on a really low budget and filmmakers who'll come for a Q&A and a party at a brewpub," Gordon says. "I think that's all well and good, but the lack of consistent quality among the films ends up showing. A film festival owes it to its public to find the best American indies out there and to pursue more than just indies.

"I'm sure plenty of people in Cincinnati want to see a good foreign film. And you want to have diversity, to attract different audiences within a community."

To do that, he says, takes dedication and staff. Gordon estimates it would take $150,000 — including in-kind contributions from airlines, hotels and theaters and with an initial all-volunteer staff — to do it right for a five-day festival.

"Where I sit, that's actually a reasonable amount," Mallory says. "That means with city participation, corporate participation and participation from people in the arts it could be done."

Are Cincinnati film fans ready for a festival?
One notable skeptic to the city's cultural readiness for a film festival is Tim Swallow, whose all-volunteer Cincinnati World Cinema right now is perhaps the most active non-commercial advocate of film awareness in the area. Its is a clearinghouse for Greater Cincinnati film events.

Swallow, who's worked as a concert producer, presented films regularly at Cincinnati Art Museum in 2007. Offering multiple showings of about two titles a month, his volunteer organization drew 5,700 people overall. It's averaging 200 people per screening to a theater that seats about 300.

There have been some notable sell-outs, including three showings in November of Cincinnati-born filmmaker Linda Hattendorf's award-winning documentary The Cats of Mirikitani with the director present.

In January 2004, amid bad weather, Cincinnati World Cinema presented a weeklong independent film festival on the Northern Kentucky University campus. There were nine screenings of international features and shorts, both new and classic, including French filmmaker Chris Marker's enduring La Jette; a documentary about artist Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides; and a South African documentary about that nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Long Night's Journey Into Day.

The 2004 event finished in the black, Swallow says.

"Now having said that, you have to realize it took four months to make that happen and we had 2,200 people," he says. "That's an average of 550 people per month in terms of time invested. If we were showing two films a month at the art museum, you could expect roughly twice that in terms of gross and capacity.

"So you have to decide: What's the best way to reach people, and how sophisticated is your audience? Is the Cincinnati audience willing to come out and come back two or three times a week to see films it might not otherwise see? That in my mind takes a fairly aware film audience. We're trying to grow that in Cincinnati, but we're not there yet."

A new city film festival also runs the problem of getting filmmakers interested.

"There are so many film festivals now, it would be really competing," says filmmaker John Sayles, whose 1988 film about the Chicago Black Sox baseball scandal, Eight Men Out, was partially shot in Cincinnati. He spruced up sections of Over-the-Rhine's Main Street to do so, and many people attribute Main Street's 1990s revival to that work.

"It's not bad to have a theme if the people in your town are interested in it," Sayles says in a phone interview. "Like people in Indianapolis should have a sports theme. General film festivals are OK, but then you're at the mercy of whoever is available and wants to come. We've been to a bunch of film festivals, and some are very well run while others are having a hard time."

Filmmaker Hattendorf believes Cincinnati is ripe for a fest.

"Put my vote down as an enthusiastic 'YES!' for a Cincinnati Film Festival," she says via e-mail. "In the past year, I've been invited to festivals all over the world with (The Cats of Mirikitani). Big festivals like Tribeca, Tokyo, Palm Springs and Rotterdam attract huge crowds from all over the world, while the smaller regional festivals have their own charms. I've been rafting in Munich, wine-tasting in Croatia and dog-sledding in Tromso (the Paris of the Arctic Circle), all while meeting fascinating filmmakers and seeing great movies.

"Festivals are a great way for a city to promote its assets to a wider population while at the same time giving locals a taste of the world beyond its borders. I´m surprised a great city like Cincinnati doesn't already have a film festival of its own."

Looking back, looking ahead
People have tried to start major film festivals here in the past. The Cincinnati International Film Festival, for instance, ran in different venues and to decidedly mixed results from 2001 through 2004.

During a short phone conversation, its organizer, Terry Alvarado, said the festival didn't lose money and thanked his volunteers. In October 2001, shortly after 9/11, that festival tried to get underway with ambitious plans at several venues, including the Esquire Theatre in Clifton and the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.

The film commission's Erwin attended the festival's Doris Day tribute at the Museum Center — without the reclusive, retired Cincinnati-born actress present — and recalls some of the 50 or so people there being upset by her absence.

"I felt it attempted to do too much on too large a scale," she says of the festival, noting it needed more promotion and attention to its films.

Swallow says he and Jim Kesner, a microbiologist and film buff, first started Cincinnati World Cinema as an offshoot of screening films in 2002 to help retire the debt of the inaugural 2001 festival, for which they did volunteer work.

A 2002 CityBeat story reported an unfortunate event in the festival's second year: the last-minute cancellation of a documentary at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theatre because of poor ticket sales. The festival did show movies at the Museum Center´s Newsreel Theater in 2004, however, helped by a $1,000 grant from the Fine Arts Fund.

Cincinnati does have at least one successful, nationally significant film series in its background, though you have to go all the way back to the legendary 1960s-era Spring Arts Festival at UC to find it.

The campus film society decided to bring Jean-Luc Godard one year. That fell through, but pioneering New York underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas came in his place. That started a tradition of bringing the top avant-garde filmmakers to campus for the festival: Adolphus Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Ed Emshwiller and more.

¨We also booked all sorts of film series,¨ recalls filmmaker Gebhardt, who was involved in the programming. "By the time we got to the 1968 Spring Arts Festival, we were operating on a $20,000 budget. We paid our way."

Gebhardt even parlayed the festival's success into a job taking care of Mekas' film archives in New York and, later, Yoko Ono's.

Were there to be a new, broad-based film festival in Cincinnati, another question would be where to host it. There are scattered multi-screen theaters around town: the Esquire and Mariemont, AMC Newport on the Levee, Kenwood Towne Centre, Showcase Cinemas Cincinnati along the Norwood Lateral. And there are plenty of nonprofit and educational institutions with auditoriums as well as alternative clubs and galleries capable of using rental equipment.

There are even some old movie theaters not currently being used for screenings in neighborhoods like Oakley, Northside, the West End, Camp Washington, Mount Lookout, Bellevue and downtown, although their condition for movie screenings would have to be ascertained.

"You want to have a combination of nicer venues and scruffier ones," says Media Bridge's Mahle. "You want that mix. You want the venues to be conveniently located to one another, close to hotels and places to eat, and not in a neighborhood that's scary. You could maybe do it on Main Street (which has no active movie theaters), and across the river you could maybe have a mix of the Southgate House and some of the screens at the AMC Newport.

"But wherever you pick, you set the tone. Maybe that's why this has been stalled: Nobody knows where to put it."

Former councilman and arts/urbanism supporter Jim Tarbell has his own idea for a festival showcase venue: Restore the historic, 2,200-seat Emery Theatre at Walnut Street and Central Parkway in Over-the-Rhine. Built in 1912 as an auditorium used by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra because of its superb acoustics, it more recently was operated by American Theatre Organ Society, which showed classic movies until stopping in 1999.

"It's across the street from the Art Academy and Know Theatre (and) has a 1,000-car parking garage — nobody has selling points like that," Tarbell says. "Now's the time to fill in an important blank in our cultural offerings."

Currently owned by the University of Cincinnati, the auditorium is under long-term lease to Emery Center Apartments Limited Partnership, which has converted the building's old office/classroom space into apartments and in 2001 had a goal of raising $18 million to renovate and upgrade the theater. It could conceivably be restored for movie use for less money.

Tarbell, by the way, has special feelings for the Emery. Because of a delay in opening his beloved Ludlow Garage rock club in 1969, he had to move its first concert to the Emery at the last minute. He recalls a packed house present for The Youngbloods, Balderdash and Lonnie Mack.

"And they were standing from the moment the music started," Tarbell says.

It could happen again, on opening night of the Cincinnati Film Festival. At some point, though, people would have to sit down so those in the back could see Steven Spielberg, George Clooney or someone else accept an award.