Feztive Occazion 

A Web-driven Nashville film festival attempts an indie revolt

You’ve just spent the past two years chasing the dream: making your own independent feature. You cashed in the bonds you inherited from Grandma.

You’ve just spent the past two years chasing the dream: making your own independent feature. You cashed in the bonds you inherited from Grandma. You sold your dad’s stamp collection on eBay. You ate Tombstone pizza for every meal, kept a running IV of three-liter Mountain Dews and spent six months chain-smoking in a basement editing room. Daylight burns you. But at long last, you’re ready to show the world your magnum opus, an existential road movie called The Taco of Our Discontent. You just have to find a way for people to see it—as do 4,999 other filmmakers exactly like you.

Traditionally, their hope was the festival circuit, with a handful of major fests at the top and hundreds of local and regional showcases underneath. But now there is a court of appeals—a people’s court. Called Fylmz.com, it’s a Nashville-based Web site that amounts to a festival selected by the public. Filmmakers submit their work, which is rated by the site’s open membership; the highest-ranked films compete for a $100,000 prize and distribution. Starting Thursday at the Belcourt, the first 10 Fylmz finalists will face off for all the marbles, screening consecutively until the grand prize is handed out Saturday night.

“Fylmz is about having audiences identify which movies resonate with them,” says Tony Vidmer, the Nashville filmmaker who founded the site. “We want to identify films that can find an audience. We are unabashedly commercial.”

The site grew out of Vidmer’s own battering in the indie pipeline. As writer and director of Stuey, a well-received biopic of poker legend Stu Ungar, Vidmer came out of the 2003 Nashville Film Festival with great word of mouth and a movie that had a shot at decent distribution. Then the hangover set in. For every legit festival Stuey played, Vidmer says, it would hit another that made the filmmaker shoulder all the costs, with no advertising, no promotion and no feedback. The low point, he recalls, was one that kept stalling its award ceremony to rack up sales at the cash bar. (For the record, Fylmz is not only flying in filmmakers but putting them up at Union Station for the weekend.)

Life after the festival circuit was also a mixed blessing. Stuey came out on New Line Home Video, under the name High Roller, and is still showing on cable two years later. It made the Top 50 in U.S. video rentals, and to date has amassed rentals of at least $4.5 million. But because the movie was sold to cable in a “black box” package with other movies—meaning that under the hocus-pocus of major-studio accounting, determining its exact revenues is impossible—Vidmer won’t be retiring in Monte Carlo anytime soon.

“The frustration I felt is the same as most independent filmmakers,” shrugs Vidmer, whose strapping build and graying close-cropped beard make him look a bit like a sea captain. “It’s a zero-sum game—somebody wins, somebody loses, and [the loser is] usually the filmmaker. By the time distributors get hold of them, they’re worn out spiritually and financially, and there’s always somebody else in line. I wanted to create a power center to confederate independent filmmakers, for lack of a better term.”

Fylmz combines elements of talent development, test marketing and sales repping, along with a member-voting component that lets the site bill itself as “the American Idol of film.” After the site went live last April, some 75 features and 170 shorts paid an entry fee to join the first competition. Visitors who signed up for a free Fylmz membership could see synopses, posters and trailers for each feature. By the fall, driven mostly by a MySpace notice, some 4,500 members had come aboard. They voted on which films looked most promising, and last November the top 20 advanced to a round of judging, with judges culled from the site’s member base according to their interests and favorite genres.

As such, nobody can accuse the Fylmz festival of egghead elitism. Among the finalists are an ensemble poker-sting comedy (Freeze Out, screening 3:30 p.m. Thursday); a splattery vampire saga (Ed Peduzzi’s Slayer, screening 5:30 p.m. Thursday); a grim study of high-school life (Jordan Albertsen’s The Standard, showing 8:15 p.m. Friday); a wintry Detroit noir (The Death of Michael Smith, screening 2 p.m. Saturday); and a making-of satire that director Eric Wolfson describes as “Pulp Fiction meets Monty Python” (Callback, 6 p.m. Friday).

Their means are as different as their loglines. Some of the films feature familiar faces. Richard Halpern’s creepfest Zzyzx (8 p.m. Saturday) has a starring turn by former Shield regular Kenneth Johnson, while the comedy-drama Pope Dreams (4 p.m. Saturday) numbers noted supporting players Stephen Tobolowsky and Julie Hagerty among its cast. Husband-and-wife TV vets Bradford Tatum and Stacy Haiduk pooled their resources to make their thriller Salt (6 p.m. Saturday) after getting badly burned on an earlier feature. By contrast, writer-director Daniel Casey made The Death of Michael Smith on a reported $541 budget (what cost $1?). In a case of writing what you know, filmmaker Matthew John Loheed financed Freeze Out primarily with his poker winnings.

What they share is frustration with the festival glut and distribution logjam. “The distribution system seems to be broken,” says Kurt Voelker, writer-director of a comedy called Park (noon Saturday) that co-stars William Baldwin and Ricki Lake. As a major-studio screenwriter—he scripted the Charlize Theron tearjerker Sweet November—he says all he hears in pitch meetings now is that Hollywood is in “the tentpole business,” meaning little films don’t have a prayer.

“You’re still competing with the big independents and studio films for attention in a more crowded marketplace,” says Jen Prince, producer of the picaresque Eve of Understanding (4 p.m. Friday). “[So] making the film is only the first tiny step toward actually getting your film seen, being able to make a living doing it and finding the resources to make another film. It’s a lot of time, money, and energy to put into something that has so little guarantees of paying off in a financial or career sense.”

So how does Fylmz plan to pay off? Vidmer says the site does the work of a major-studio marketing department, testing ideas, artwork and trailers: the narrowing process basically proves whether a film has any commercial prospects. Fylmz also has financial agreements with the films on board. Even if a single film doesn’t sell, Vidmer explains, a package of 10 or 20 features is much more attractive to content-hungry cable, on-demand and home-video outlets. Mark Lincoln, whose Nashville-based Deer Park Investors, LLC, stands as the site’s major backer, says that he sees three major areas for generating revenue: advertising, distribution, and the site mechanism itself. But he admits it’s by no means a sure thing.

Nor is it a guarantee that excellent overlooked movies will reach an audience. Ironically, by handing off the ultimate decision to the audience, Fylmz may reinforce the same cinematic Darwinism that rules the megaplex: a great movie that can’t be condensed to a hot two-minute trailer or gotcha! poster has little chance against a piece of crap with a dynamite preview and a killer hook.

But Kurt Voelker believes just the opposite. “These are the 10 people who are still on the island,” he says. “I’ve got a little more confidence I’m going to see a good film.

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