Why shouldn't Alameda have a film festival? Every other city seems to have one. Walnut Creek has one. Orinda, too. Even Fresno, Gilroy, and Bakersfield. More than 1,800 film festivals rev up their projectors annually. Clearly, garlic and artichoke festivals are passé in expressing small-city pride -- in the new millennium, you have to have an international film festival as well.
Unlike many small cities, Alameda at least has some connection to the film industry. The island community served as a backdrop in 1934 for the movie Treasure Island, and since then has appeared in Yours, Mine and Ours, The Candidate, Who'll Stop the Rain, The Net, Star Trek IV, Flubber, The Rainmaker, High Crimes, and two Matrix movies, among others.
The Alameda International Film Festival premiered as a one-night stand on November 12. An eclectically mixed audience -- ranging from the East Bay's young art crowd through Alameda's old fart crowd -- watched and cheered 180 minutes of animation, pathos, bathos, film-student dark matter, and laugh-out-loud comedy.
The man standing in the lobby looking like a proud father was Geoff Alman, who organized this fledgling event. It occurred in a roundabout way: The sometime filmmaker and musician was hired in April to photograph objects of art and antiquity for Alameda Point's Auctions by the Bay. One of its owners is Allen Michaan, who also runs classic theaters like the Grand Lake, the Oaks, and the Orinda. Needing an auction room, Michaan restored the former naval base's theater to its former glory with lots of lights and gilt. While now used mostly for auctions, the lavish art deco theater is still good for movies as well.
"When I started this job I saw this big, beautiful theater, and I thought, 'Wow! This is a place where an independent film festival would do great,'" says Alman, who learned a thing or two while helping a friend organize the Zeitgeist Film Festival in San Francisco.
After getting a green light from his corporate overlords, Alman's first step was signing up with Web site WithoutaBox.com. Just as filmmaking has become cheaper and easier with digital video and computerized editing, film festivals have likewise been changed by the new technology. The Without a Box site allows filmmakers to electronically meet up with film selection committees around the world.
That's a good thing, because festivals nowadays are swamped with 750,000 submissions a year. Even Alameda's unknown, fledgling fest netted three hundred entries through the site. "First I was pleasantly surprised," Alman said, "and then we started watching and it seemed like a deluge." Conservatively assuming that the average independent film runs seven minutes, that was 35 bleary-eyed hours for the screening committee, which consisted of Alman and a couple of friends.
"We created three piles labeled 'in,' 'maybe,' and 'NFW' ('no frickin' way')," he said. "We whittled the 'in' pile down to roughly fifty. If I'd had the resources, I would've rented the theater for a whole weekend and shown all fifty. Unfortunately, we had one evening, so we agonized and winnowed them down to 25 films for two ninety-minute programs."
The ad hoc screening committee's trials paid off with a fast-moving mix, and only a clunker or two. Highlights included mockumentaries about volunteer animal-rescue officers (Guard Dogs, directed by Vincent Duvall), one man's quest to become an arcade dance machine champion (Dance Machine by John Benson and Ward Evans), and near-Pixar-quality stories of snowbound cockroaches, robotic love, and the dreams of a wooden airplane (Free Radicals by Mahyar Abousaeedi and Ed Chen, Magnetism by Nye Warburton, and Flyaway by Danny Oakley). Clunkers were mercifully rare. One was The Arsonist, in which director Myles Sorenson inexplicably intersperses the struggles of a narcoleptic psychology professor with a deadpan monologue by an institutionalized arsonist named Janine.
Alman says, having been on the other side, he was reluctant to charge filmmakers a submission fee as most festivals do, but that it was the only way to cover the costs of renting the auditorium and generating publicity. Still, he kept it cheap -- as little as $5 for early submissions, rising to $25 -- in the hope of attracting young auteurs. "People between the ages of fifteen and 25 have some of the greatest ideas and they don't inhibit themselves," he says. "I've gotten some great stories from people using the most basic animation techniques, even Legos. On the other hand, I've also seen films by folks with access to fantastic equipment that have been completely devoid of a great story."
But why would a filmmaker pay to enter a festival that is unlikely to lead directly to career advancement and Hollywood stardom? "It's good to have your work seen," Alman says. "One of the terrible things that can happen to a filmmaker is gathering equipment, organizing people, and calling in favors, and then having the project die on the vine. To see your project up on a big screen with an audience is quite an ego boost." Especially, no doubt, on a big screen in a handsome movie palace. And the next step? Alman plans to take the finalist films on the road to East Bay colleges.
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