The Why of WorldFest

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

And then there's the issue of WorldFest's history: Beginning in the 1960s in Atlanta, then moving to the Virgin Islands, and then Miami and finally Houston. And once it got here it went under the name of the Houston International Film Festival, then WorldFest Houston and now WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. To add to the confusion, there's also a Charleston, South Carolina, version of WorldFest, which is held in the fall. According to founder/director J. Hunter Todd, all of them are the same thing. Well ... maybe.

Ever ebullient, Todd has managed to keep the fest going through every kind of adversity imaginable. But in the process, he seems to have gotten crosswise with a fair cross-section of the local film community. Political types are still complaining about the way Todd once sniffed that Houstonians got "the festival they deserve." Film community members complain about his autocratic style, and theater operators seem chary of dealing with the fest.

For example, until 1994, the opening night gala was held at the Museum of Fine Arts, which is conveniently located across the street from the festival's hotel hospitality suite. Now the museum "declines to be a part of WorldFest." AMC Theatres, which for years provided the fest's principle location, had rocky relations with WorldFest. And Landmark, which hosted the festival in 1994, this year asked for considerably more money -- in order, it's been speculated, to encourage Todd to look elsewhere. Securing a new venue was a matter of serious concern until General Cinema came through with two screens in the newly refurbished Meyerland.

Naturally, the festival staff puts the best face on all this instability, arguing that the new location is actually more convenient. But is a cinema with no restaurants or cafes within easy walking distance really the best place for a convivial event such as WorldFest?

Further, there is some concern among film fans about the size of the event. In 1992, there were 138 films in the fest. In 1993, there were 70. This year there are 50. Todd says that less is more, and has called the slimmed down fest a "lean, mean, movie machine." He can certainly make a good case for having dumped a lot of the dreck that choked the schedule in the past, but some fear that the smaller schedule is just a prelude to Todd's oft-threatened move to South Carolina.

If the fest does move, it would be understandable: WorldFest has never enjoyed significant corporate or civic support in Houston. Todd himself has complained that the festival loses money year in and year out. He's also said that wonderful films draw only a handful of viewers in Houston. He's probably right on both counts.

This doesn't mean that what you'll see at WorldFest is the bottom of the barrel, but it does mean that there will be more marginal films this time around. Some of these, though, will have the filmmakers' hearts and souls in them -- like the lovely little no-budget film for opera buffs called Valhalla that played the fest a few years ago, got a rave in Variety, but never even made it to video -- a genuine tragedy.

What to choose? Well, what do you like? Some possibilities will eliminate themselves. If you hate to read subtitles, stay away from foreign films. To do so, though, would be to miss such possible gems as The French Revolution, produced in 1989 in honor of the revolution's bicentennial. At $50 million, this was the most expensive film ever made in Europe, and it's likely to sell out.

Other possible sellouts are the Buzz Films, with their big names and Oscar nominations. But consider this: these films already have their distributors. You've probably seen their trailers already. If you frequent such films, why waste festival time on something that will soon appear commercially? Far better to take a chance on something you've never heard of by people you don't know. It could turn out to be this year's Diva, Trust or Truly, Madly, Deeply.

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