WorldFest Houston, the city's annual international film festival, is like any other annual event: a select crowd waits eagerly all year for it to roll around. Only this year the regular crowd for this orgy of art films awaited the festival's announcement with mixed emotions.
At first blush, this was a radically different WorldFest. It had fewer films than any previous festival and, after 17 years at the Greenway, was held at a new location -- in a plex theater. This year, cinema devotees cued up to see 50 features, from the latest Asian films to the grimmest avant-garde, in a lobby filled with bleating arcade games. Snobbish art film fans rubbed shoulders with the Major Payne and Tommy Boy crowd. Was this egalitarian atmosphere a change for the better?
The answer is mixed. On the one hand, the General Cinema's Meyerland Plaza, WorldFest's new home, has a couple of serious strikes against it. Strike one: no Coke, Pepsi. Strike two: the popcorn's not fresh; it may not have been popped during this decade. On the other hand, though, General Cinema sells pizza by the slice, and not half-bad pizza, either. These things do matter.
When one plans to hunker down in the dark and endure three, maybe four movies in a single day, access to caffeine, crunchy carbohydrates and sticky sweets is of paramount importance. So, food-wise, festival director Hunter Todd didn't let his public down; food-wise, the new festival location was simply different. Six out of a dozen people might report the new location's worse, citing the lack of coffee, while the other six would report that Meyerland is better, because it has more kinds of candy.
But drink-wise -- as in libations -- General Cinema's Meyerland had a serious problem. Unless Los Tios, on Beechnut, is considered a watering hole, the theater isn't within walking distance of a bar. A bar atmosphere matters, too. At the film festival in the past, schmoozing, chatting, showing off and other purely social activities were all part of the arrangement. For hard-core fans, WorldFest is a social event. Sure, people were eager to see Oscar-winner Burnt by the Sun and Jason Priestly in the quirky Cold Blooded or the latest by Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tornatore, A Pure Formality. But this wasn't the only opportunity to see those and other anticipated works; with video rentals and cable, seeing non-mainstream films gets easier every day. The point of a film festival is not just to watch films, but to provide a gathering place for people to celebrate the art.
And at WorldFest, attendees carried their punch-card passes conspicuously, as a display of their status. Having a $60 film buff pass with seven holes punched by the third day protruding from the left-rear Levi's pocket was some people's way of saying, "God, yes, I would be facilitated by the comparisons you've drawn between the mountaineering documentaries of pre-WW II Europe and Destiny Turns on the Radio." These people, and the filmmakers rounded up for the festival, needed a comfortable, safe place to talk about their passions. The fest's new location meant that this year, fewer festivalgoers were drawn into post-screening conversations. Some did linger on General Cinema's wide steps or talk film in the parking lot. And it was possible to drive over to the Wyndham Warwick hotel, WorldFest's official headquarters, to hang out in its bar. But it wasn't the same, even if at many of the screenings Hunter Todd would first introduce the film and then invite everyone to "Club WorldFest," where admission is only "your bright and smiling face." A bargain, he said, compared to the $1,200 cover charge for the Sundance Film Festival club. True enough, though WorldFest doesn't have Sundance's elan.
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Still, though being convivial was more difficult, people came out for the films -- especially on the weekends, when sellouts weren't uncommon. General Cinemas Meyerland has crisp projection and one of (if not the) best sound system in the city -- and a film crowd can be snobbish about such details. Curiously, many conversations centered not on the quality of the films being screened, but the technical quality of the screening itself.
In post-screening Q&A sessions, many filmmakers were asked not about their ideas or inspirations, but about budgets and shooting schedules -- as though the film had just been shown to an auditorium full of accountants. This trend in questions was a reflection of the crowd rather than the film selection. Or maybe it was a reflection of the fact that the elbow-rubbing opportunities, a frequently hyped aspect of WorldFest, have been better in years past. The most famous person available for chatting at this year's festival was either Lenny Von Dohlen, Twin Peaks' orchid man, who proved a real sweetheart for hours on end, or Funny Bones director Peter Chelsom, who made golf jokes about local greens.
Still, the most important opportunity WorldFest provided was the opportunity for members of the local film-fan community to get together and argue. A few aesthetes, no doubt, couldn't bear to see films in a less-than-elitist theater. But they were replaced by curious Meyerland ticket buyers who enjoyed films they wouldn't have heard about had they been shown in an art theater. A film festival needs a mix of people, and the General Cinema location at least helped assure that. That's a mark of success.
Anyone can read Cineaste for a year and design the "perfect" festival schedule. And people can complain about the schedule put forth by WorldFest -- too many comedies, not enough foreign films. But the selection of movies is not the be-all and end-all. Neither, for that matter, was the shift in location. For ticket buyers, the point of a film festival is to see and dissect new stuff. And while there were fewer films this year, it was still possible for anyone with dedication to see 32 films in ten days. That ought to be enough.