Monday, February 05, 2007

The New Angle: A Different Kind of Film Festival Is Coming to the Financial District

Tom O'Malley (left); Luke Szczygielski (right), founders of
the ACE Film Festival. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Our Town downtown
February 5, 2007

23 is young.

This fact was not lost on Wall Street Rising’s Rustie Brooke, when Tom O’Malley and Luke Szczygielski, both 23, came to the Lower Manhattan organization’s headquarters to ask for sponsorship for a downtown film festival they were planning.

She was, in a word, “skeptical.” In a telephone interview, she described their attire that recent Thursday afternoon as “college grungy.” (O’Malley doesn’t recall what he was wearing, but says that Szczygielski tends to “overdress.”)

Yet, the two recent Syracuse University graduates were accompanied by another 23-year-old, Daniel Koffler, who was wearing a suit and who Brooke knew well. And with Koffler, who runs the Broad Street Ballroom (formerly The Downtown Auditorium) and whose father, Michael, owns the nearby Claremont Preparatory School, to vouch for them, Brooke and her executive director were willing to listen. But not without a thorough grilling.

Brooke and her executive director “quizzed them, very thoroughly,” asking them about things like who their target audience and client base were, and who they thought the filmmakers contributing work to the ACE (American Cinematic Experience) Film Festival, would be.

Szczygielski came to the U.S. from Poland in 1998 and is a freelance photographer and designer, and lives in Yonkers. O’Malley is from Syracuse and followed his girlfriend, an aspiring actress (and also the festival’s poster girl) to Manhattan after college. He is a Web administrator for a nonprofit.

Both “Transmedia” majors, they met in a 16 millimeter, black and white, film production class, their junior year, and bonded over a similar frustration with the school’s film curriculum, namely budget restrictions that created “technological hurdles” and an overemphasis on foreign films. “If we were to actually make a movie, we would never be using these Bolexes [the 16 millimeter cameras] that were used in Vietnam,” O’Malley said. “We spent a whole class talking about how they’re bulletproof. Well I don’t expect to be shot at while I’m filming.” And, “if it didn’t have subtitles, it wasn’t worth showing in class, basically,” Szczygielski said, during an interview in O’Malley’s East 29th Street apartment.

Though it was an obvious problem to them, their classmates seemed to “brush it off,” O’Malley said. “Like, if you asked them who their favorite filmmakers were, ‘oh, oh Fellini, obviously, Fellini, Fellini, Fellini, Fellini, Fellini, Fellini.’ Shut up.”

They also felt that on the festival circuit, American independents were getting lost in the shuffle amidst all the international submissions.

Neither one was eager to jump from film school into a nine-to-five grind, but the notion of creating a festival that would feature films made in the U.S.A. exclusively, to fill this void, didn’t become a real idea until they became roommates.

When O’Malley moved to Manhattan in the fall of 2006, their discussions got serious.
They didn’t want their event to be “the anti-film festival,” O’Malley said. They didn’t want to create “a monster” either – the type of festival that focuses on “how many A-List stars you have, if your red carpet’s long enough to accommodate all your celebrities, when you start to figure in space for limo parking in your venue.”

They wanted to exist somewhere in between those two extremes and create the kind of independent showcase that would be huge, but maintain a focus on promoting quality independent American filmmakers.

One of their first orders of business was finding a space in which to host the event.
They began pitching their idea to venues all over the borough, four or five in-person, and about 10 over e-mail.

Armed with a PowerPoint presentation on a laptop, they would enter places like the IFC Center and Symphony Space, and present their vision of a three-day festival with a projected budget of $150,000 that they expected would be paid for, mostly, by sponsors. Sponsors, they said, would be enticed by free advertising, a chance to help boost the Lower Manhattan economy as it strove to become a real neighborhood, and if it mattered to them, get in “good standing” with the local arts community. They expected a total of 1,800 people to attend.

When they arrived at these meetings, they were never dismissed outright. But the venues’ staffs tended to write them off as cute, and it was pretty clear the answer was going to be no. Then “it would be another two hours of telling us why this isn’t gonna happen and why this isn’t gonna work anywhere, including their venue, why we should just give up,” O’Malley said. “IFC Center, I think, quoted us way too high, just to get us out of their hair.”

But they didn’t give up, and when they cold-called Daniel Koffler, after finding the Broad Street Ballroom’s Web site, their diligence paid off. “Daniel was on board from the second I talked to him,” O’Malley said.

Originally, O’Malley and Szczygielski planned to hold the event starting on a Tuesday. So when Koffler offered to give them the room, which is inside a former bank, on a weekend, they could hardly believe it; this would cost a paying client “five figures,” Koffler said. Having it on the weekend wouldn’t be a problem because during the end of August, which is when the festival is scheduled for, there is not much activity going on at his facility.

Koffler also offered them an entire floor of Claremont Prep for basically the same reason. They plan to use it as a networking lounge for filmmakers and other attendees to hang out in between screenings. It will have a casino (with prizes), in keeping with the festival’s Western-themed d├ęcor, free catered food, and a shop selling independent DVDs and related merchandise. They are also trying to book some live bands for the space, which they are calling ClubACE.

“Once we got the venue … it started snowballing,” Szczygielski said.

By January, they had 11 sponsors, including the NY Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), to whom five percent of their ticket sales will be donated. (Koffler suggested they donate some portion of the proceeds to a nonprofit whose mission was consistent with the festival and its overall concept.)

For monetary and in-kind donations, they offered different levels of sponsorship, and launched a Web site and a MySpace page (that now has almost 16,000 friends, according to Szczygielski).
To find judges, O’Malley began by consulting directories in the back of the many filmmaking books in his personal collection. Before long, he and Szczygielski managed to put together a list of judges that includes prominent producers, directors, writers and actors.

Similar to other festivals, according to O’Malley and Szczygielski, they will screen all entries, narrow them down to the ones they want to show at the festival and then send them off to the judges who will watch them off site. The categories being judged include Feature, Short/Video Art and Student Work (including both high school and college submissions). Included within these categories are animation, documentaries and music videos.

Winners will receive an award and will be invited back to the next festival as judges. (O’Malley and Szczygielski are already throwing around ideas for future years.) But the festival will primarily be an exhibition of the selected filmmakers’ work, and the winners won’t be announced until after the event.

About a week after the submissions period began, they had already received roughly 40 entries. The judges have told them to expect 500-700 by the time the submissions period is over.

Daniel Koffler has no particular interest in the film industry, but was sold the first time O’Malley and Szczygielski visited him. “[Tom] had an idea and a vision, and he seemed totally dedicated to it” he said.

Koffler gets requests to donate the Ballroom all the time, and has gotten more selective about who he lets use it for free, since past beneficiaries left little more than a mess to clean up the next day.

“They’re not just party planners, planning the event for somebody else … These guys care. They’re doing it all the hard way, which I can appreciate.”

And although he didn’t see much to gain from the festival, at first, he figured that with August being a “dead time” for the Ballroom, it would be a way to keep busy, and would be good for the neighborhood.

He has since become a kind of informal business mentor to them, and put them in touch with Wall Street Rising and the Ballroom’s existing vendors. He doesn’t involve himself with the festival’s artistic concerns, though.

“I’m totally in love with the idea. I think it has the potential to be the next Tribeca Film Festival, if they do it properly. You know, granted, we don’t have Robert De Niro. We don’t have the money and the effort that they put into it. And that’s a phenomenal thing, what they have over there … But, I think when you match star power and money with some creativity and hard work, you can do something similar.”

Koffler predicts that the first year “serious film types” and “people in the neighborhood,” will attend, but that “the real experiment” will be the second year.

And he thinks the area needs something to bring all the neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan together, and that one day the ACE Festival could be it.

Frank L. Sonntag, NYFA’s Director of Development, said in a phone interview that thinks the biggest challenge the ACE Festival will come up against is building an audience because potential ticket buyers in the area already pay high rents.

One unusual feature of the festival, though, is that anyone who buys a ticket for one, two or three days can reenter as many times as they want.

Tim Rhys is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of MovieMaker Magazine. In a phone interview, Rhys, who just got back from the Sundance Film Festival, said that making a festival unique, getting publicity and having time for all the labor involved are the biggest challenges an aspiring festival producer faces.

To be a successful festival, he estimated that two or three people need to be working on it full-time, and the call for entries needs to be announced almost a year in advance for publicity.
“It’s not difficult to get sponsors. What’s difficult is to sustain yourself for the first couple years, before the sponsorships equal … pay for everyone involved, because they won’t for a while.”
He thinks that “for a small grassroots festival” limiting the submissions to movies made in the U.S. is a “terrific strategy,” but that to be one of the bigger festivals, it’s better to cast a wider net (by allowing international submissions).

Rhys also thinks film festivals can benefit the neighborhoods that host them. “If you can survive the first couple years, you’re gonna have a nice little business, probably. And what people are starting to realize is … they’re good little economic engines for their geographic domains.” People book hotel rooms and eat at restaurants in the area when a festival comes to town. “Service industries all benefit from active film festivals, so if you can get a film festival going, especially in an area that’s a popular destination … like Manhattan is … I think [you’ve] got a good chance.”
Ten years ago, there were only about 600 film festivals worldwide. Today there are 2,000. Even in Manhattan, they “were just a novelty,” Rhys said. “Right now, they’re considered a sort of must-have thing for a Chamber of Commerce.”

He does not agree that studio-backed films are shutting out independents from a large chunk of the festival circuit. “I think that depending on the quality … you’re never gonna get shut out … What you might be hearing about is that there’s so many new people making movies right now, that they might feel like they all deserve a place at a film festival. And guess what, they all don’t … I don’t mean to sound like a snob, because I think that everyone who makes a film that’s not really up to snuff can make a better film, and a better film after that.”

With the drastic drop in prices for video cameras over the last five years, a lot more people are out there “learning the language of film,” Rhys said. He thinks that new festivals will cater to this expanded pool of filmmakers, but that while it means more talent, it also means more films that are “not up-to-snuff” for audiences to “slog through.”

Wall Street Rising’s Rustie Brooke was “very impressed” by the answers O’Malley and Szczygielski gave her when they came to ask for sponsorship.

She made sure to ask them probing questions because they were “very young men working on a very, very, very intense project.”

She felt that their goals coincided with Wall Street Rising’s own objective, which is largely to boost the area’s economy.

Their project, “if it’s successful, [will] influence and broaden exactly what our mission is,” Brooke said.

“We don’t have a film festival downtown – not like this, where they’re catering really to young people, okay? The Tribeca Film Festival is very slick. It’s really like a small Sundance at this point. And the ACE Festival’s very different. They’re appealing to students and colleges and we like that. We like those kind of people.”

-- Matt Elzweig

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did anyone actually go to this? I saw nothing in the media.