Culture in the Vail Valley

Hollywood or Bust

On a mountain, in a backyard or, perhaps, in a basement there’s a chance you’ll find fledging filmmakers honing their skills hoping to make it big time. They may not have the budget, but they have the drive and ambition. Hollywood, here they come! The proving grounds are film festivals, where films are screened and professionally judged and nascent, independent filmmakers are given a chance. And many times, the fans of these festivals see productions they may never be able to find in their local theatres.

One such indie film was Steven Soderberg’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989 and won the Audience Prize. Miramax Studios “picked” the film up and released it shortly after. The movie, which was made with a budget of just over $1 million, grossed nearly $25 million in the United States alone.

“Film festivals are crucial exhibition circuits because they nurture independent films,” notes Jeffrey Ruoff, film historian and documentary filmmaker in the Department of Film and Media Studies at Dartmouth College.

“We try to program as many new films as we can from our submission process in our festival,” says Sean Cross who, in 2004, along with his brother, Scott, founded the Vail Film Festival with Megan Musegades as associate director, under the auspices of the Colorado Film Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting independent film. Of the 67 films shown at the 2016 festival, twelve had world premieres, two had U.S. premieres and 28 had Colorado premieres.

“We have always been focused on independent films and are not concerned about store-driven projects,” continues Cross.

“Unlike some film festivals that primarily program films that have shown at other festivals, we really try to program from our submissions. We’re generally looking for a story that’s entertaining, that’s compelling and is tooled well, across the board. And obviously, we’re trying to find great films because we want our attendees to have a good experience.” The festival employs a team of programmers for its films, focusing on feature films, short films and documentaries. Generally, 60 to 90 films are screened each year.

“I learned that anyone can be a filmmaker,” comments Levi Gilbert who, along with other students studying the craft at Western State University, attended last year’s Vail Film Festival. “However, it takes a tremendous amount of dedication and the people that had films in the festival displayed just that. I learned that everyone there loved what they did from documentaries to features. “There’s so much you can do with this art form and so many people you can work with–I knew it was the place for me. Film festivals are a great resource for all filmmakers to talk and dissect each other’s films so the next one will be even better.”

According to Cross, the story telling and content of budding filmmakers remain the same. “They generally tell personal stories and that hasn’t changed,” he remarks.

“But the film-making technology side has changed a lot in the last decade or so. The equipment has improved and most people now film on digital. In that sense, more people have an opportunity to become film makers. So, we’ve seen advancement in the quality of the films from a technology standpoint and in terms of the number of people who are able to make films.” And although some films screened at the festival have featured “names” including Slow West, starring Michael Fassbender, Enemy,starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Before Sunset featuring Ethan Hawk and Julie Delpy, it is really the “newbies” that the festival enjoys discovering. And in that sense, Cross has some advice. “Short films are a great calling card’ so if you don’t have the resources to make a feature film, make a short film,” he says emphatically. “They are taken very seriously and can be a great way to get yourself known in Hollywood.”

“What we’ve seen is that a majority of films that are submitted to our festival can be edited more. One should try to make the film as concise as possible. Many times we see a film that, had it been edited a little more or, perhaps, been a little shorter, it would have been better. A lot of film makers spend a good amount of time shooting the film, so they want to put everything they’ve shot into the final cut. They should cut more and use just what will convey the story they are trying to tell–in a concise way.”

Newly graduated, with a degree in Communication Arts, Gilbert is currently working on a film for the Sundance Film Festival. “I always knew that I wanted to be part of the production process and right behind the camera,” he shares. “Maybe one day in the distant future I’ll direct a feature, but for now being behind the camera suits me just fine.” As for Cross? “I really like the storytelling aspect of filmmaking,” he admits, “so I think writing and directing are really the essential parts of filmmaking. Those are two areas that have my interest.” Who knows? Perhaps, one day we’ll see Cross Brothers Productions right along with the Coen Brothers.