Coming Into Focus 

NIFF balances the frustrations and successes that come with growth

NIFF balances the frustrations and successes that come with growth

Seven countries. Twenty-one U.S. premieres. Thirty-four world premieres. One hundred thirty visiting filmmakers. Two hundred seventy-five films.

Five days.

Boil those numbers down, and you have some idea of the pressure cooker that the Nashville Independent Film Festival has become. As recently as three years ago at Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Cinema, the festival (then known as Sinking Creek) was struggling to fill one auditorium. Last year, though, the NIFF drew more than 7,000 people to two screens at Regal’s Green Hills 16 megaplex—a two-year attendance increase of 294 percent. Starting next Wednesday, the 31st annual Nashville Independent Film Festival will occupy four screens, at least two of which will be running 12 hours of programming every day through Sunday, June 11.

”It’s taken three years to get to this point,“ says Michael Catalano, executive director of the Nashville Independent Film Festival, who was brought on board in 1997. The fest’s partnership with Knoxville-based Regal Cinemas certainly hasn’t hurt—especially since the creation of the DreamMaker Award, which grants the NIFF’s winning films an Oscar-qualifying run at a Regal ’plex in Los Angeles. One film, Jordan Brady’s country satire Dill Scallion, received a brief theatrical run after a Regal exec saw it at the festival last year and booked it into theaters. By giving filmmakers access to theaters and audiences, and by creating alternate channels of distribution, the NIFF hopes to boost the Nashville film industry in the bargain.

”[The festival] was a huge boost for us—the boost for us,“ said director John Lloyd Miller in an interview last year, just a few months after his short ”I Still Miss Someone“ took the Tennessee Spirit Award at the NIFF. Last year, the striking black-and-white film—in which country singer Mark Collie uncannily plays a sweaty, pill-popping Johnny Cash—created such a demand for tickets that it sold out two hastily added additional screenings. As a result of its NIFF performance, the film received a Directors’ Guild screening in L.A.; it was also shown at Woodstock ’99 and has gone on to successful screenings in Austin and New York.

Whether it’s because of the awards or the attendance, the NIFF’s profile continues to rise. It’s bringing in more filmmakers than ever before: Guests this year include actors James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential), Grace Zabriskie (Twin Peaks), and Sopranos regulars Vincent Pastore and Dominic Chianese, along with director John Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly). Several actors will appear with directorial efforts, among them 90210’s Paul Johannson (”Conversations in Limbo“), Happy Days’ Don Most (The Last Best Sunday), and Malcolm in the Middle’s dad Bryan Cranston (Last Chance).

With success, though, have come growing pains. The festival operates out of a cramped MetroCenter office awash in tapes, notecards, and bulletin boards, and it relies on a skeleton crew of three full-time staffers. In preparation for this year’s fest, those three—Catalano, managing director Kelly Brownlee, and administrative assistant Ashley Driggs—waded personally through nearly 1,000 submissions.

In years past, those submissions have exemplified reigning trends in indie filmmaking, from big-name, small-budget ensemble pieces (like last year’s opener Desert Blue) to geeky pop-culture riffs (like the Trekkie comedy Free Enterprise, one of last year’s hits). This year, though, Catalano says the selections are more ”shotgun“—more wide-ranging, less easy to categorize. ”I don’t see a theme this year,“ he explains, ”but the films are definitely slicker. Not in a Hollywood-slick sense, just better made.“

Catalano points to several films this year that he says the festival could never have gotten in his early days, ”back when nobody would return my phone calls.“ Among these are the opening-night selection, the mob drama Under Hellgate Bridge (see story on p. 32), and Anne Makepeace’s acclaimed documentary Coming to Light (see story on p. 30). Aside from features such as John Hancock’s family comedy A Piece of Eden, Salmaan Peerzada’s Pakistani epic Zargul, and Linda Yellen’s name-cast ensemble piece The Simian Line, Catalano sounds most excited about the fest’s slate of documentaries, which have generally been showing up fiction films on the festival circuit in recent years. This year’s contenders address subjects ranging from softball (Fastpitch) and creative perseverance (Amargosa) to folksinger Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack).

Especially encouraging, Catalano says, is the number of entries from local filmmakers. While there isn’t a locally shot feature like last year’s Existo at this year’s fest, the overall number of submissions by area filmmakers is up significantly—from less than 20 last year to 55. Perhaps the most anticipated of these is the locally generated, feature-length TV pilot On Music Row, directed by Armanda Costanza and created and written by actors Robert Lynn and David Alford. A story about five music-biz hopefuls sharing a house while seeking their shot at stardom, it features Jennifer O’Neill, singer Lari White, Steven Pippen, Branden Hart, Kelly Warren, and Kristian Corp, along with music from nearly two dozen Nashville artists, including Kim Richey, Kevin Welch, and Jonell Mosser.

Other promising local films include ”Friends Seen and Unseen,“ Demetria Kalodimos and Kathy Conkwright’s documentary about the enigmatic early-’80s Nashville cult figure the Prophet Omega; ”Hollerin’,“ Annie Price’s short about a longtime hollerin’ contest in a North Carolina town; and Steven Goldmann’s mini-feature 50 Odd Dollars, inspired by the songs of Canadian singer-songwriter Fred J. Eaglesmith. There were enough submissions this year that the traditional Thursday-night ”Tennessee Film Night“ had to be split into two blocks of programming.

One perpetual headache is the flurry of last-minute cancellations, additions, and adjustments. One feature selection dropped out when its makers reportedly demanded a large sum to show their film. Another had to be dropped when the festival learned it wasn’t finished. At the same time, the NIFF has added a few 11th-hour attractions. These include John John in the Sky, a domestic drama starring Randy Travis (Friday, 7 p.m.), and Outside Out, a musical feature directed by Mike Gordon of the band Phish (Thursday, 7:15 p.m.).

For all its growth, though, Nashville’s film festival is suddenly large enough to be in a precarious position: competing with better-known, better-funded festivals for high-profile films. ”My impression was that it was a festival in its infancy with a dynamic new director,“ said veteran distributor Jeff Lipsky after last year’s fest. But Lipsky, whose Lot 47 Films is distributing The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, added that the NIFF’s national presence at this point is negligible—as is true of most every U.S. festival except Sundance. ”Even New York is a provincial fest,“ Lipsky said. ”All regional festivals serve their local constituencies.“

The NIFF is currently developing ways to serve those constituencies beyond its June extravaganza. The festival will conduct its second annual Spanish-language minifest later this year, and in September the NIFF will partner with Fisk University for an African American film fest. And Catalano says the organization will continue to build bridges between the local film industry and the business community. If it succeeds, the Nashville Independent Film Festival could be that long-awaited, long-deferred spark that ignites the city’s feature-film production.

”I’d love to see all the production companies in town get behind this,“ says Armanda Costanza, a member of the NIFF’s board of directors. ”I’d love to see the festival grow to be Austin, or even Toronto.“ She laughs, then adds: ”You know that saying, ‘Every great city has a great library?’ I sent around a letter [to people in the local film industry] saying, ‘Every great film community has a great film festival.’ ”


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