Event's condensed format rallies indie filmmakers

While few American cities have been spared the hardships of the current recession, the impact on Las Vegas — which counted the housing surge, corporate conferences and tourists’ disposable income as its very lifeblood — has been especially cruel.

Often seen as a living symbol of America’s boom years, the Strip now stands as a potent illustration of its reversing fortunes, an eerily quiet thoroughfare of empty hotel rooms, anxious merchants and massive new developments halted midconstruction.

In other words, it’s a particularly awkward time and place to hold a film festival. But CineVegas is determined to carry on.

One year after a celebratory 10th anniversary, the fest now finds itself in an uneasy position: Despite maintaining a steadily upward trajectory in past years, with increasing ticket sales and star power, CineVegas has yet to fully establish itself in the festival firmament. So, while old-guard events can hunker down and try to weather the economic storm, Cine-Vegas has the added challenge of maintaining its momentum in order to survive.

“I initially suggested that maybe we shouldn’t have it this year,” says Dennis Hopper, who has served as the festival’s public face and chairman since 2004. “But, thankfully, everyone else voted me down right away.”

Far from closing its theaters, the festival is using the crisis as an opportunity to get back to basics, streamlining programming and scaling back from 10 days to six. And while no one involved would suggest that external circumstances are ideal, the fest still has a few key cards up its sleeve. 

“Shortening the festival was actually an idea we had discussed since the first year I came onboard,” says artistic director Trevor Groth, a Sundance veteran who joined the then-moribund fest in 2002, along with president Robin Greenspun and programming director Mike Plante, and who was instrumental in establishing its momentum and legitimacy.

“On the one hand, the (10-day length) was great because we could program all the films we wanted,” he explains. “On the other, it became like two festivals” — one for all the premieres and competition films, and the other for honorees and special events — “and most people only had the stamina to stay for half of it.

“In a very peculiar way, all of the budget tightening could be an opportunity to create a better overall experience,” he continues, “particularly to have all the guests, honorees and filmmakers around at the same time, all hanging out around the theaters, instead of diluting them across 10 days. I hope it will provide better opportunities to connect, which after all is one of the things I love most about film festivals.” 

Consolidating the fest did require some tough choices, he admits. Some pics had to schedule fewer screenings — though all competition entries will unspool twice — and the fest was forced to excise its Mexican film section, La Proxima Ola.

One vital factor still in the fest’s favor is its commitment to locals. Unlike so many of Vegas’ fly-by-night, tourist-targeting attractions, CineVegas organizers had always planned to be a permanent player in the city’s cultural life, reaching out to local cineastes through year-round independent film programs, and to local businesses via sponsorships.  

“In a city like this, without local support, you’re just another convention,” notes longtime Vegas resident Greenspun. “Every film festival is suffering in (regard to sponsorships), and thankfully we’ve built a really solid reputation. Had this happened six years ago, it would have been very hard for us, but we have very loyal sponsors.” 

On the programming side, Groth and Plante have assembled a slate to inspire optimism, upping the number of world premieres while continuing the fest’s modus operandi of using movie-star lures (such as closing-night film “World’s Greatest Dad,” with Robin Williams) to draw attention to a bevy of buzzy indies such as “Humpday,” “500 Days of Summer” and “Black Dynamite.”

All of these films premiered at January’s Sundance, of course, where Groth was recently promoted to director of programming. Despite the added responsibility, he still sees his position at CineVegas as a long-term engagement.

“Fortunately, there’s a lot of overlap between my two jobs,” he notes. “They both require me to watch a lot of movies.”

Hopper is in it for the long haul as well.

“I’ve seen it get better every year, and I don’t see it stopping now,” he says. “I think it’ll just keep rolling. We’ve got too many great minds and too many egos for it not to.”

TIP SHEET

When: June 10-15

Where: Palms Hotel and Casino

Web: cinevegas.com

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