Fest splits the pot with indies, sure studio bets

Now entering its 10th year, the CineVegas Intl. Film Festival is still a newcomer to the festival circuit. But considering its provenance, a city in which the sounds of demolition form something of a leitmotif, its longevity is singularly impressive.

Impressive, too, is its ability to grow steadily throughout the decade. Last year the fest attracted 25,000 attendees. Media attention reached a crest last year as well, with a program heavy on both left-of-center indies and lavish red-carpet screenings.

While the fest has certainly made its name, carving out a niche is still a work in progress.

“I think that it’s finding its identity, year by year,” says Dennis Hopper, who serves as chair of the fest’s creative advisory board. Though he cautions, “In Vegas, it can be hard to make an impression on people.”

Indeed, the fest’s Las Vegas setting can hinder as much as it helps. Thanks to the city’s inherent luxuries, attracting talent isn’t such a hard sell. But the Vegas reputation for kitschy spectacle, as well as the schism between locals and visitors, makes establishing roots tricky.

“A lot of cultural events have a hard time attracting attention here,” opines Las Vegas Weekly film critic Josh Bell. “There are no arthouses; there isn’t much of a moviegoing culture. But CineVegas convinced people that this is a big deal, and people who would never during the year pay $10 to see some arty indie film will go to this because it’s an event.”

It’s easy to forget that at the beginning, the fest was almost a nonstarter.

CineVegas made its four-day debut at Bally’s Hotel and Casino in December 1998. By the time its second year rolled around, the festival had changed location and seen its executive director resign, only to then fire his replacement. Local press was often harshly critical of the fest, and attracting residents to screenings was a challenge.

“Every year they seemed to have a different idea for what they wanted the fest to be,” Bell remembers.

New deal

CineVegas might have become just another Vegas casualty, were it not for a complete overhaul in 2002. The fest moved to the Palms Hotel and Casino (strategically located away from the Strip, where many locals dread to tread, yet still easily accessible from it), and Robin Greenspun took over as president, bringing with her the sway of Vegas’ most prominent publishing family. On the programming side, Sundance veterans Trevor Groth and Mike Plante came onboard as artistic director and associate programming director, respectively.

“It was clear that the festivals that had happened prior weren’t working,” Groth remembers. “By that time it had just collapsed on itself. They approached me to just completely reshape it.

“I wanted to look for films that were more unconventional in their approach,” he explains, “and those over the years have been the ones that have popped at the festival. The city of Las Vegas has so much going on, that for films to make a splash, they have to have a certain excess to them, or take a genre and skew it in some way that will catch people’s eyes.”

With that as his guiding principle, Groth’s inaugural year saw world premieres of “Bubba Ho-Tep” and “Spun,” as well as a rough-cut screening of Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s docu “The Weather Underground.”

Hopper entered the scene two years later. Fortuitously meeting Greenspun and her husband Daniel at a Guggenheim function in 2003, the actor soon joined the fest’s board to help establish a larger Hollywood presence.

“They were really showing some edgy stuff,” Hopper recalls of his first year at the festival, “but also some stuff that I thought had tremendous commercial potential. So we started making more effort — I’d throw parties at my house with Dan and Robin, and I’d try to bring as many producers and agents and studio people as I could, to try to get some sort of networking connections going.”

Hopper’s networking paid off big last year, when the fest gave the red-carpet treatment to “Ocean’s Thirteen,” attracting heretofore unseen hordes of press and onlookers.

Indie spirit

While such paparazzi-bait gets the festival’s name mentioned, Groth acknowledges that it’s “not what the festival is really about, but it did work out great for us, just because it brought so much attention to the festival. Then people come check out the other independent films”

This year will again see ample star power, thanks to a charity screening of “Get Smart.” But as in years past, the main program remains thoroughly indie, with help from Groth’s day job at Sundance. The fest is frequently the second stop for pics that broke big at Park City (such as “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Hustle and Flow” and this year’s “Choke”), which can open it up to criticism of piggybacking on its bigger, older brother.

“A lot of the best films I’ve seen at CineVegas have been films that played other festivals first,” Bell says. “But movies like that don’t define the festival.”

For his part, Groth is hardly one to apologize for utilizing his connections.

“I mostly look for new films,” he says, noting that submissions for CineVegas reached an all time high this year, with more than 1,500 entries. “And Vegas is the polar opposite of Park City. The same film will play very different in those two cities.”

And considering his results, it’s hard to quibble with his methods.

As Hopper summarizes: “The local people have become habituals. There are quality films that studios are seeing. Our theaters are full. It’s really come a long way from the beginning.”

TIP SHEET

What: 10th CineVegas Film Festival

When: Thursday through June 21

Where: Brendan Theaters at the Palms Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas

Marquee Award: Anjelica Huston

Half-Life Award: Don Cheadle, Rosario Dawson, Viggo Mortensen and Sam Rockwell

Vegas Icon Award: James Caan

Web: cinevegas.com

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