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Hollywood, the Global Village: Festivals Feed a Love of Movies

Ella Waldek, 74, and Ida Mae Martinez, 73, don't look much like movie stars. But as they answered questions and kibitzed for an audience at the historic Little Theater at the High Falls Film Festival here, it was clear that they were born to entertain.
Ms. Waldek and Ms. Martinez are two real-life heroines of ''Lipstick and Dynamite the First Ladies of Wrestling,'' a crowd-pleaser directed by Ruth Leitman about the brash and lovable pioneers of women's wrestling in the 1940's and 50's. It may not be the perfect movie to blast onto 7,000 screens in multiplexes across the country, but it certainly clicked with the festival audience last month.

In the last 10 years, film festivals have spread across the country. According to the Web site, there are roughly 2,500 worldwide. Withoutabox, a Los Angeles-based company that helps filmmakers apply to film festivals, estimates that there are 950 festivals in the United States alone, with 300 more in Canada; in North America, there are 100 Jewish film festivals, 30 gay and lesbian film festivals, and 279 festivals that either focus on animation or have animation categories.

In many instances, regional film festivals emerge when local chambers of commerce finance them to promote economic development through cultural tourism. But some festival directors say their events are part of larger efforts to reclaim a film culture overrun by multiplexes and studio blockbusters. They say starting a film festival is a rebellious act and a sign of the growing democratization of film.

''The more you build the center, the more the fringe aspects reach out to the outside,'' said Geoff Gilmore, director of the Sundance Film Festival. ''Today it's not so esoteric for people to talk about directors like Walter Salles, who would have been considered obscure 10 years ago.''

In a business saturated with independent films that are costly to market, festivals are an invaluable way for a distributor to generate word of mouth and local press for a movie. For fledgling filmmakers, they are occasions to travel, schmooze and maybe meet someone who can advance their careers.

''Super Size Me,'' Morgan Spurlock's critique of the fast-food industry, was shown at more than 20 film festivals, including the West Virginia International Film Festival in Charleston and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C. The film was distributed by two independent companies, Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions; it has taken in more than $11.5 million since its release in May.

Eamonn Bowles, the president of Magnolia Pictures, an independent distributor, said regional film festivals become alternative forms of distribution for some films that will never find distribution. The outlets in the commercial marketplace just cannot keep up with production, Mr. Bowles said.

Ira Deutchman, a film professor at Columbia University and president of Emerging Pictures, is exploring digital distribution for independent films. But until a new system catches on, film festivals will remain a means of distribution, allowing audiences at events as varied as Zoinks Film Festival in Boston and the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, Mont., to see a vast range of films.

The four-year-old High Falls Film Festival drew inspiration from local history. George Eastman invented Kodak motion picture film in Rochester; his legacy endures through the George Eastman House, one of the world's most important film archives. Rochester is also the city where Susan B. Anthony, the women's suffrage leader, spent most of her politically active years.

The backdrop proved perfect for a festival whose focus is women's contributions to cinema. This year's honorees included the director Mira Nair, the actresses Joan Allen and Sally Kellerman, and the pioneer publicist Lois Smith, all of whom were on hand for the festival's closing-night gala.

''Our goal is to become the East Coast center for women filmmakers,'' said Catherine Wyler, the festival's artistic director, a daughter of the three-time Academy Award-winning director William Wyler.

Some festivals have less lofty goals, including the Tunkhannock Film Festival in the tiny Pennsylvania township of Tunkhannock, where the dilapidated 1936 Dietrich Theater was renovated in 1998.

''We can't believe we're doing this,'' said Hildy Morgan, a founder of the festival. ''We are all in our 50's and 60's; we are retired from something else. And now we are in the movie business. We hire a lot of people in a town where a lot of people are out of work.''

Now in its third season, the Tunkhannock Film Festival is gaining popularity in nearby towns, Ms. Morgan said. ''It opens up dialogue between people,'' she said. ''The films we show are uplifting and educational. People have strong feelings about the movies they see at our festival, one way or another.''

Other festivals have other cultural agendas. The first annual San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival, held from Nov. 11 to 13, was intended to encourage the production of films that inspire the highest ideals, support the clearest and noblest biblical values and do so with a commitment to holiness, according to a mission statement provided by the festival's founders and main sponsor, Vision Forum Ministries, based in San Antonio.

With so many festivals, it is not surprising that their directors say they must compete with other festivals for the best independent films. A filmmaker who spoke on condition of anonymity said some festival directors even agree to pay distributors a percentage of box office grosses to obtain the films they want.

Despite success stories, Jeff Lipsky, the co-founder of October Films, said festivals masked a 52-week-a-year problem. According to Exhibitor Relations Inc., a box office tracking company in Los Angeles, roughly 405 films will be released in the United States by the end of the year. Of those, about 120 come from major studios and the remaining 285 from independent distributors. The 40 top-grossing films will represent an estimated 90 percent of the year's total box office receipts. That leaves hundreds of films vying for the rest.

And finding a distributor, even at a major festival like Sundance, remains difficult. Of the 5,874 submissions to this year's Sundance, the festival screened just 255 films, including shorts. According to Sundance, roughly 30 features were picked up for distribution. It's too early to say how many of those will prove profitable, but if past years are any indication, the number will be fewer than a dozen.

Recent history shows that most independent films do not survive a Darwinian cultural landscape in which theater owners at local art houses replace small films that aren't performing well in their opening week with other small films that might. A gem like ''Lipstick and Dynamite,'' which Koch Lorber Films plans to distribute next year, may not have the chance to build word of mouth. But for the roughly 200 people in Rochester who saw a quirky film about female wrestlers, the experience was probably unlike going to the multiplex. For that they can thank one of the hundreds of film festivals that delight in finding bold, eccentric and vital new voices.
Published in the New York Times

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