What makes an "indie" film indie? Hunter Todd, director of WorldFest Houston International Film and Video Festival, thinks lots of movies billed as independent films are really anything but. Take the movies shown at Sundance. "Sundance, which started out as a purely indie film festival, has emerged as a showcase for studio pictures," says Todd. "In our book, [films are] no longer indie when they've got a deal with a major."
The 36th annual WorldFest will show work in 12 categories, including shorts, features and student films. Todd is proud of the opportunities WorldFest has given to independent filmmakers. "We don't show no stinkin' studio movies," he says. "Warner Bros. has millions of dollars to promote their films, and so does Miramax and Paramount, but indie filmmakers didn't even have enough money to make their movies."
That's not to say that Todd is ruling out big names at the festival. The crown jewel of this year's lineup is One Last Dance, starring Patrick Swayze and his wife, Lisa Niemi. The movie, about three dancers fighting to save their company, was also directed by Niemi, who first wrote the script 18 years ago. "All the major studios wanted to do it," says Todd, "but Patrick said they wanted to turn it into Dirty Dancing 2." So the couple produced it themselves. Todd says folks from Germany, England, Scotland, Canada, France and Spain have all made reservations for this "honest-to-God world premiere," which will play at 7:15 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on the festival's opening night, Friday, April 4. Swayze and Niemi will be in attendance.
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If you're in the mood for something more substantial, the lineup also includes several well-received documentaries. Mighty Times (directed by Bobby Houston), a short documentary about Rosa Parks, was up for an Academy Award this year. And the feature-length documentary Prisoner of Paradise(directed by Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender) was also nominated for an Oscar. It recounts the life of Kurt Gerron, the German-Jewish actor, director and cabaret star who was forced to make Nazi propaganda films.
Houston director David Craig's thriller flick The Face of the Serpent, which was filmed here, makes its world premiere at the festival. In it, an assassin with a heart saves the life of his would-be victim, and the two end up dodging bullets all over town. Face is the festival's only feature filmed in Houston. "We have a very small film industry," Todd says by way of explanation. But he's quick to point out that the short Sophie (directed by Helen Haeyoung Lee) was filmed here. And The Anarchist Cookbook, by Dallas director Jordan Susman, tells the story of a college dropout who joins a commune because Dallas is so boring. (Incidentally, that film's associate producer is Houston jeweler I.W. Marks.)
Typically, more than 400 filmmakers from around the world converge in Houston for WorldFest, but with the war, Todd thinks this year may be different. "We're not very confident about international attendance," he says. But he still hopes that lots of locals will show up. "Maybe people will want to get away from it all," says Todd, "and see some movies and have dollar popcorn at the NOVA Meyerland."