Film festivals usually announce themselves with a slightly hysterical roar. Hey! Eric Stoltz is going to be in town! And maybe Hal Hartley! Parker Posey almost certainly! See this spring's hottest Miramax titles -- a week before they're released nationally!
But WorldFest is easing back into Houston on softly padded paws, playing at the General Cinema Meyerland. The words "Meyerland" and "film festival" are seldom uttered together, but the festival's modest, pleasant site fits its new low-key persona well.
For the third year, WorldFest is eschewing movies that already have a distribution deal and is exhibiting only truly independent films, except with the opening-night October Film's Three Seasons.
The festival is screening only approximately 40 features (culled from around 400 submissions, according to director Hunter Todd), which is in keeping with recent practice but way down from the 150 or so titles it featured in previous years. Again, WorldFest has embraced modesty as a virtue, a concept foreign to the buzz-loving festivals that populate almost every major and minor city across our fair land.
There's a trade-off here. The festival is frankly less stressful for Todd and his merry band, which isn't to say the WorldFest folks aren't hard-working. But Todd no longer has foul-mouthed, 25-year-old Miramax execs pummeling him over the phone to ensure that their product gets maximum exposure. Instead, Todd is positively gleeful over how delighted struggling filmmakers are to be included in WorldFest. More important, according to Todd, WorldFest no longer serves as a sneak-preview machine for high-powered distributors. For example, if you don't catch Paulina at its festival screenings, you won't catch Paulina at all, which frankly would be a shame.
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On the other hand, though, the festival now makes a smaller blip on the Houston arts radar than it used to. Poland's Agnieszka Holland is the only brand-name filmmaker on hand. Nearly every other film in the festival will also be accompanied by its maker, but you probably haven't heard of any of them.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, Todd's modest approach has had a good bit of success in hype-happy Houston. Attendance is up from the old days at the Greenway; the last two years' attendance has averaged a very respectable 20,000. At the same time, the city itself seems less aware of the festival's existence.
Not so in Flagstaff, Arizona, new home to the festival's fall season. Until last year, Todd had been running a fall WorldFest in Charleston, South Carolina, and there was even talk of making it WorldFest headquarters and putting Houston on the back burner. But Charleston never came through with the money it promised, so Todd pulled up stakes (hardly for the first time -- the festival is called WorldFest because it has bounced around so often) and set them back down in Arizona, where he is delighted to be "a very big duck in a very small pond," rather than the "feathers on the duck's hiney" that WorldFest is in Houston.
The festival has its share of dogs, such as Rose's and The Last Best Sunday. But most local film buffs just want to know if anything good is playing. Happily, the answer for this year's festival is yes.