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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.

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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