In its promotional materials, WorldFest Houston claims to be "the oldest independent film festival in the world and the third oldest film festival in North America." So why doesn't WorldFest enjoy the high profile, glitz and glamour of Sundance, Toronto or Tribeca? Houston's fest gloats about being the one that discovered Spielberg, Lynch, Lucas and a long list of Hollywood luminaries, but who has it discovered lately? We may not know for certain -- at least, not for while. WorldFest used to showcase so-called independent films (movies actually owned and distributed by big-studio "indie subsidiaries"), but not so called anymore. Unlike Sundance, which lures media and industry with big-budget premieres and star sightings in an orgy of sycophants and cell phones, WorldFest keeps it simple -- it's about promoting independent filmmakers, period.
"WorldFest has been great," says Tom Estus, producer of the film Paradise, Texas, which opens the fest. Paradise, Texas is the product of a three-year labor of love for Estus, a local real estate developer. He originally conceived the script as a short story, and through a friend and a series of coincidences, he wound up making a movie with a recognizable cast and a top-notch crew. It's a feel-good family film about a successful actor, Mack (Timothy Bottoms), who is juggling his career and neglected family. Mack takes a role in an independent film shooting in his hometown of Littleton, Texas. On set, he meets 12-year-old actor CJ (Estus's son Ben) whose rancher father, Cal (Brandon Smith), wishes he'd play baseball instead of act. Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer in TV's Twin Peaks) plays Cal's concerned wife, Betsy.
According to Estus, the production schedule covered "20 locations in 20 days" in and around Houston. Estus wishes Houston attracted more film projects. "We have talented people ready to go to work here, but we don't have enough film work going on," says Estus. "A lot of people go to New Mexico and Louisiana, and Austin is still the center for the Texas film industry. In a city the size of Houston, WorldFest is critical to independent filmmakers. It gives the film credibility."
Canadian director Jessie Wallace, 27, is one of WorldFest's success stories. In 2003, her experimental short film 15 Minute Death won a WorldFest Remi award. Wallace utilized her award-winner status to finance her entry this year, Yellow Bird. Three Canadian arts councils helped finance the film, which was written by Houstonian Carol Brown. Yellow Bird is about an elderly married couple, Fayette and Roy, whose relationship has soured. After Fayette has an inspiring encounter with a canary, things change. "The bird brings her joy and gives her strength to speak up for herself," says Wallace, "and the joy almost transfers to her husband."
Government financing gave Wallace the opportunity to pull out some stops. "I decided to build Fayette and Roy's 900-square-foot apartment in a film studio," she says. It allowed Wallace to really design her film and give it its own world. Already her reputation as a director is growing. She is set to begin production on her first feature. "It takes place in a fictional town populated by the descendants of pirates," she reveals. "They know there's a legendary treasure pit just offshore, but nobody's been able to find it."
For up-and-coming filmmakers digging for treasures like representation, distribution or even the simple gift of having your film screened in front of a willing audience, X marks the spot right here.