Houston crowds fatten up on film fest’s leaner sked

After the disappointing turnout for last year’s greatly expanded WorldFest/Houston Intl. Film Festival, founder-president J. Hunter Todd promised “a lean, mean movie machine” for 1993.

And that’s exactly what he provided during WorldFest ’93, which ended a 10 -day run Sunday with barely half the number of the features showcased at WorldFest ’92.

Evidently, festivalgoers agreed that less was more — Todd said early estimates indicate an audience increase of “between 200% and 300%” for the 70 features shown at the AMC Greenway 3 Theatre and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Last year’s fest offered nearly 140 features at three sites (the now-shuttered Bel Air Theatre was the third venue). For WorldFest ’93, Todd reduced the frequency of screenings, virtually eliminating 5 p.m. weekday screenings and weekend matinees.

More important, Todd admits, WorldFest staffers instituted higher quality-control standards to delete “marginal” films from the lineup. Quite a change for a fest that, in recent years, has been notorious for scheduling such questionable fare as “Revenge of the Radioactive Reporter” and “Nerds of a Feather” in prime evening slots.

WorldFest ’93 kicked off April 16 with a sold-out gala premiere of Alfonso Arau’s “Like Water for Chocolate” at the Museum of Fine Arts. Other sell-outs and near sell-outs during the festival included Yurek Bogayevicz’s “Three of Hearts,” Stan Lai’s “The Peach Blossom Land,” Gillian Armstrong’s “The Last Days of Chez Nous” and the world premiere of J. Douglas Killgore’s Houston-produced historical drama “The Trust.”

Michael Lessac’s “House of Cards,” which received strong audience response during two festival screenings, won top honors from the festival’s awards jury, earning best picture and best actress (Kathleen Turner). The best actor prize went to Corbin Bernsen for his portrayal of a Confederate Army officer who battles a supernatural foe in George Hickenlooper’s “The Killing Box.” Alan Rudolph was named best director for “Equinox,” and Laura Esquivel won best screenplay for “Like Water for Chocolate” (which she adapted from her own novel).

Special jury prizes of merit went to “The Trust,” Michael Steinberg’s “Bodies , Rest & Motion” and Anthony Drazon’s “Zebrahead.” As usual, the festival also presented dozens of gold, silver and bronze awards in categories ranging from TV commercials to music videos, dramatic shorts to public service announcements.

Star power at lower wattage

There was a noticeable decrease in the star power at this year’s WorldFest, particularly during the Saturday evening awards ceremony. (Festival program director Nancy Mercado said WorldFest ’93 was unable to find a suitable luminary to honor with a lifetime achievement award.) Among notables who did show up throughout the festival to promote films: director Paul Bartel (“Shelf Life”) and Sam Bottoms and Karen Black (“The Trust”).

Todd said the fest “plans to continue in the direction of similar selectiveness in the feature film area, perhaps screening even fewer films.”

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