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The World (Fest) Is Not Enough

In its 33rd year -- or is it the 22nd? the Houston International Film Festival still barely registers with the people it's suppose to serve

J. Hunter Todd still winces when he remembers an all-too-typical episode from last year's edition of his WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. He was standing in the lobby of Meyerland Plaza Cinema, scoping the queue of ticket holders for an afternoon screening, when a middle-aged fellow, on his way to see a standard-issue Hollywood release in another auditorium, wandered over from the concession stand to ask, "Hey, what's going on here?"

Instantly transforming into his Ultra-Ingratiating Festival Director mode, Todd beamed a Cinemascope smile and proudly told the guy, "They're here for WorldFest." Noting the blank look on the man's face, Todd added: "The film festival." Still no response. And so, somehow sustaining his smile even as he gritted his teeth, Todd further elaborated: "The Houston International Film Festival."

Finally, a response: "Oh, really?" Pause. "I didn't know Houston had a film festival." Another pause. "How long have you been doing this?"

Todd couldn't help himself: "More than 20 years."

And he'll keep on doing it, until he gets it right.

"Maybe we're around at the wrong time of year," Todd theorizes during a freewheeling interview at his Galleria-area office. "We picked April in the first place because it's the rainy season here. And that's a good thing for us: Our box office almost doubles if it's dreary. Saints preserve us if we have gorgeous weather for the film festival. We always pray for at least a nice drizzle. Otherwise, instead of seeing movies, people are out at the beach or the bayou or the bay or whatever.

"But really, every year we think of changing our date. The trouble is, there are problems with just about any other time, because it seems like you're always competing [for films, filmmakers and media coverage] with some other event. You can't have a film festival in May, that's totally out, because there's a little thing in France called Cannes. And March is totally out because that is when you have the American Film Market in Los Angeles, and South by Southwest in Austin. February? That's Berlin. January? That's Sundance and Palm Springs.

"Summer's out because -- well, there's simply too many other things going on in the city. Though we have thought about the possibility of late summer. But if you wait until August, or early September, then you start running into Telluride, Montreal and Toronto. And after that, there's practically a film festival every week somewhere until the holiday season. So we're stuck with April, I guess, for better or worse."

To be sure, some people might say WorldFest/Houston already is a success story, if only because it has somehow managed to survive relocations, identity crises, economic downturns and, yes, what often seems to be widespread local indifference. Despite drastic expansions and contractions of its size and scope, the festival continues to be supported by a devoted audience.

Trouble is, that audience remains distressingly small. Ridiculously small, when you consider just how big Houston is. Small enough, if fact, that even Todd -- the man who has devoted nearly a quarter-century to keeping WorldFest/Houston alive, sometimes only through sheer force of will -- has wondered if maybe he might do better anywhere but here.

Eight years ago, Todd admits, he established a "sister festival" in Charleston, South Carolina, to test the waters. "And I have to tell you," he says, "we really were considering the options. At the very least, I thought we were going to move to Charleston and run WorldFest/Houston out there."

When Charleston proved to be something short of paradise, Todd moved his sister festival to Flagstaff, Arizona, for a couple of years. "They have a population there of about 60,000," he says, "and 20,000 of them are college students. And yet both years we had a greater attendance there than we ever do here in Houston. It's amazing. But it's also proof of the famous big duck, little pond theory. There, we got a lot of attention because there was little to compete with us. Here in Houston, we're not even a small duck. We're barely the feathers on the duck's heinie."

And yet, for all that, Todd has ended operations in Flagstaff -- it's too expensive to live there, he claims, and there's no place for him to go sailing -- to concentrate exclusively on making WorldFest/Houston all that it can be.

"Flagstaff is a wonderful community," Todd says, "but running a festival there was taking our focus away from Houston. I figured that the most valuable thing I have is my time. And I figured that to be able to spend more time on the Houston festival, and to be able to spend more time with my family, would be a lot more valuable than working my fingers to the bone for a place where I don't live."

At least that's Todd's story, and he's sticking to it. Just as important, he's also sticking to a game plan that he has honed during more than two decades of desperate paddling in the Houston market.

What is billed as the 33rd annual WorldFest/Houston, set for April 7 through April 16 at Meyerland Plaza Cinema, actually is the 22nd Houston edition of a festival Todd previously operated in Atlanta, Miami and the Virgin Islands. Until 1995 the exposition claimed the Greenway 3 Theatre as its primary base of operations for its annual ten-day run. During this period, the festival's major claim to fame was its successful relaunching of Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way (1981) after that film's less-than-successful debut in New York. Despite the infamous oil bust that ravaged the city's economy during the mid-1980s, the Houston International Film Festival (as it originally was known) maintained a slow but steady growth. Kirk Douglas and Alan Alda were among the notables who appeared to present new films or to collect lifetime achievement awards.

In 1992, however, the renamed WorldFest/ Houston got too big for its own good. By his own admission, Todd seriously miscalculated the appeal of his festival when he ambitiously expanded his program to cram some 140 features into three venues over ten days. At the end of WorldFest '92, a disappointed Todd promised to reinvent his showcase as "a lean, mean movie machine." The following year WorldFest/Houston presented 70 features. In 1995, the year WorldFest shifted to two screens at General Cinema's Meyerland Plaza multiplex, the downsizing continued with a slate of 47 features.

Todd makes no apologies for what some wags have described as "The Incredible Shrinking Festival." In his view, less truly is more.

"I know that at some other festivals, like Toronto or Sundance, they show anywhere from 150 to 300 movies," Todd says. "That's unfair to the filmmaker, and unfair to the audience. With only 47 movies, the audience has more of a chance to see more of the movies. And we get to have more repeat screenings, so that if you miss a movie tonight at nine, you may get a second chance to see it at five."

Better still, less means fewer movies of lesser consequence. Reducing the number of screening slots that must be filled with something, anything, means WorldFest "can be more selective, and program fewer marginal movies," Todd says.

"We received over 500 feature entries this year, of which we were able to pick 47. And let me tell you: In our first round of selecting, we were able to throw out all but about 80. In other words, the others should have never been made. I'd say The Blair Witch Project has done a great disservice to the industry, because now everybody thinks they can make a terrible, grainy, shaky movie -- and make money."

This year, as he has for the past three years, Todd will emphasize "truly independent" productions in a schedule of 47 premieres. For WorldFest 2000, he has accepted "only independent, undistributed, new feature films," he says. "No major studios or distributors are accepted." The only exceptions to the rule are revival screenings of The Sound of Music (a benefit for KUHF/88.7 FM) and The Wizard of Oz, and the opening-night premiere of Love and Basketball. Of the latter, a New Line Cinema release, Todd insists: "It's still an indie, even though it has a distributor already."

So what's new at WorldFest 2000? For one thing, state-of-the-art digital projection, which will allow Todd to screen video and 16mm at Meyerland Plaza instead of at a separate venue. And there has been some crafty tweaking of the scheduling. "We have a new documentary section," Todd says. "Every afternoon at five, we'll show a feature documentary. We're especially proud of Waco - A New Revelation, which is going to blow people's minds. And then, every day at five, we're [also] going to have a family film section."

Looking ahead, Todd points with pride to a new staff addition: Charlotte Aguilar, director of development, who comes to WorldFest with considerable experience in fund-raising for arts organizations. With her help, Todd hopes "to make the festival more of a year-round event, to expand our Houston Film Society membership, [and] to offer classes and workshops in filmmaking," he says. "We'd also like to have a building of our own, and have a large screening room in it."

Even as he considers these ambitious plans, however, Todd acknowledges that WorldFest/Houston currently is, in terms of scope and attendance, far short of being a first-tier, or even a second-tier, film festival. Part if the reason for that, he insists, is lack of local support.

"But part of it is my own fault," Todd says, "because I have almost a fetish about paying my bills and keeping my promises. I cannot run an event that doesn't pay its bills. And therefore I am very fiscally paranoid. Remember Filmex in Los Angeles -- the film capital of the world! -- that went bankrupt? They would have ten elephants in the street outside, and 50 spotlights, and it was quite an event. But I've seen grandiose things come and go. Over the years, I've run a few of them myself. But now, if I rent a spotlight or two, I pay for it. And if we bring in a celebrity, I have to pay him. We can't promise things and then say, 'Er, well, we don't have the money.' We run a very fiscally responsible event, which is a tough thing to do sometimes. Because, you know, when a celebrity does come in, well, they don't come because they're your friends. They come because you pay them. And appearance fees now are up to ten grand for an old star like Liz Taylor or somebody at that level.

"We're just trying to produce a quality event, with films that we're proud of showing to the public."

The big question is, does the public know? Or care?

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