WorldFest: Where Stars are Born

Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ang Lee and the Coen Brothers all got their first film festival award at WorldFest - Houston International Film and Video Festival. So did Ridley Scott, Robert Rodriguez, Oliver Stone, David Lynch and Brian de Palma. All big name filmmakers who might be in for a shock if they submitted their winning entry to the festival today.

"Speilberg won ... for a film called Amblin' about a boy and a girl going to California. If he entered it today, it might not win, because shorts have gotten so good," says Hunter Todd, founder and festival director of WorldFest. "There are people who send in films to us that are much, much better than what we saw from Spielberg or Ang Lee."

Todd says that like the features division, the shorts category receives hundreds of entries every year, making the selection process a monumental task. "The first round, we throw out the junk and try to get it down to two or three hundred shorts. Then we look at all of those again to pick out the 107 or so that we accept."

Filmmakers often looked at shorts as a stepping stone to features, according to Todd. "Many of those are the calling cards for [a] feature. (It was at WorldFest that Speilberg famously got noticed by an executive from Universal Studios and to his first studio contract.) "Sometimes that's not such a good idea because sometimes a really wonderful short story doesn't translate into a full-length feature. It's a wonderful, wonderful [short] film - and then you never hear from them again."

The features team, led by Kathleen Haney, goes through much the same selection process as Hunter with shorts. The team looks at each feature-length film for at least 15 minutes, tossing out the really bad ones on the first round. "We've discovered in all these years, that if a film is really, really awful for the first 15 minutes, the hand of God is not going to come down and touch it," Hunter laughs. "I'm talking about garbage -- films that have horrible sound, or bad camerawork, or have actors that sound like they're in high school."

Some 160 films made it into this year's festival (107 shorts and 55 features). This year the films include Exodus Fall, starring Rosanna Arquette and Jesse James (no, not that Jesse James), about an American family falling apart; Bathory, from Slovakia, about the alleged greatest female murderer of all time; and Project Aether, a ghostly thriller by Houstonian Shawn Welling. Most of the directors and many actors will be in attendance for the screenings.

This year there'll be a special sing-along screening of Grease, the musical starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, with director Randall Kleiser in attendance. (Kleiser is among the long list of successful directors who got his first festival award at WorldFest.)

The 44th Annual WorldFest - Houston International Film and Video Festival runs from April 8 to April 17 at AMC Studio 30, 2949 Dunvale. For information, visit www.worldfest.org or call 713-965-9955. Admission varies from $10 per screening to $500 for a VIP Festival Pass.

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Olivia Flores Alvarez