The Why of WorldFest

Houston's film festival returns a "lean, mean movie machine"

It's baaaaack! WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, which has zapped through so many incarnations it probably should be known as the Mighty Morphin Power Festival, has once again confounded its critics by returning for another engagement in the Bayou City.

No matter what the gripes of film mavens with the fest or its management -- and these are both numerous and exquisitely detailed -- local movie fans should be ecstatic about any film festival's continued existence. After all, where else it is possible to choose from among 50 films in only ten days?

A film festival is a strange sort of hybrid event -- part culture, part carnival and part souk. To be a big success, a fest has to be all three. On this score, WorldFest gets a mixed review.

The culture part's easy. Notwithstanding such films as Dead Boyz Can't Fly -- which screened at an earlier WorldFest -- film is the art form of the 20th century, and there are enough people in Houston who recognize that to keep the level of movie talk and thought relatively high.

But as for door number two, the Houston festival's fun quotient is pretty abysmal. Our town has never really gotten the carnival aspect. The city isn't possessed by movie star mania, with numerous "fest-guest" sightings reported daily in the papers. There aren't even any "cheetah women" parading in costumes à la Cannes. There's no affiliated street fair as in Sarasota; no non-stop party and film-theme decorating contests as in Toronto; and no giant outdoor screen on a downtown building for free community viewing as in Montreal. Too bad.

Behind door number three, we have a film marketplace every bit as subject to the rule of supply and demand as Wall Street. While every place that's any place wants the cultural cachet a film festival brings, not every town can pull one off. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop them from trying. As a result, the market is wildly overcrowded, resulting in too many festivals chasing after too few really good films.

Just think about this: in Texas alone there are annual festivals in Dallas and Austin, as well as Houston, and there used to be one in Galveston. There are large yearly fests in Montreal, New Orleans and Philadelphia; Chicago, Boston and Telluride, Colorado; Palm Springs, California; and the Hamptons on Long Island, New York. And that doesn't even count the really important ones in North America: the huge Toronto, Sundance, San Francisco and New York City festivals and the highly specialized Sarasota, Florida, French Film Festival.

When you do the arithmetic, what all these fests add up to is a dearth of what Hollywood calls good "festival product." These are the films that are impossible to describe in one sentence. Most of them are foreign, or are low-budget movies by young and/or iconoclastic filmmakers. Sometimes they feature big Hollywood names taking a chance on small or unusual roles. The quality is often less than stellar, but if WorldFest ticket buyers are lucky, they also offer a glimmer of something special that you're unlikely to see in the mainstream. Together with Buzz Films, they're what you see at WorldFest.

What's a Buzz Film? It's a film such as Burnt by the Sun, the Russian/French co-production that's WorldFest's opening night film and which just won the Academy Award for best foreign film. Or it's Farinelli, the erotic epic about an 18-century castrato that was nominated for an Oscar. Or maybe it's Little Odessa, set in New York's community of Russian emigres and starring Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell and Tim Roth. Or perhaps it's My Family, a multigenerational Mexican-American drama starring Jimmy Smits of NYPD Blue. Or even Funny Bones by the director of Hear My Song and starring Oliver Platt and Jerry Lewis -- yes, that Jerry Lewis.

In the world of movie marketing, films such as these are known as art house films, and Hollywood wisdom has it that art house product needs buzz -- word of mouth recommendations -- to succeed. That's especially true in a city such as Houston, where the margin on art house films is too small to support a major ad campaign. Because festival audiences love movies, and they're more adventurous than the average filmgoer, distributors pray that a number of true buffs will take a chance on something such as Cold Blooded with Jason Priestly of Beverly Hills 90210 as a hit man, and then tell their friends about it.

But because most of these films were made on speculation, and the folks behind them want to attract the attention of a distributor, they naturally want their works in the biggest, best festivals that'll take them. Unfortunately for us, Houston isn't high up on the food chain, and so our fest's bookers often have trouble getting the hottest product.

In April, if a producer has to choose between Houston, where the films are shown with minimal fanfare at a suburban multiplex, and the famous San Francisco fest with its massive regional media attention, citywide corporate sponsorships, numerous visiting celebrities and back-to-back A-list parties, they'll take San Francisco every time.

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