Small fests draw auds and sponsors

Low-profile events sharpen focus on the films

As film fests grow bigger and more ambitious and squabble over a limited number of available films, it’s easy to forget the end user in all of this: the audiences. They, by and large, just want to watch good movies and don’t much care if that thriller they just enjoyed had its premiere a month earlier in Dubrovnik, Auckland or Shanghai.

Looking to offer auds something more intimate and different than typical A-list sprocket operas, the fledgling events like to keep matters simple: a compact program, a small, mostly volunteer staff, and modest amounts of coin from a broad array of low-level, local funders. In March, Brussels’ Offscreen Fest offered its second edition of cult cinema. This year’s lineup saw a well-curated array of retrospectives (a showcase of “post-apocalyptic cinema,” a selection of ’70s Italian gialli and a spotlight on Australian exploitation pics) alongside a smattering of new U.S. and foreign-language features — all housed in a rep cinema with a feel halfway between a student bar and a fallout shelter.

There were panel discussions, live rock bands and, most noticeably, healthy crowds. More than anything, though, it was something organized out of a genuine passion for the movies.

“It actually grew out of a video library here in Brussels,” says Offscreen founder Dirk van Extergem. “A very specialist thing, for cult movies. That was where we found most of the people who now work for the festival. And we knew that there was a market out there for this kind of filmmaking, because people were constantly renting films from us. So we had a staff and an audience, and then we found a venue. It was,” he laughs, “as simple as that.”

And in contrast with the brand-driven ambitions of most fests, Offscreen has no immediate ambitions to grow bigger: “We’re not trying to take over the world,” says van Extergem. “Ours is a small, local festival. We just want to show movies we love in a cinema environment, and make the experience as special as we can.”

With its dedicated, up-for-anything aud, cult and genre cinema lends itself easily to this kind of thing: Berlin’s Fantasy FilmFest, held each August, is another noteworthy example. But it’s precisely the same philosophy as Roger Ebert’s Ebertfest (formerly the Overlooked Film Festival), held in the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Ill.: a haven for ordinary filmgoers wanting to look beyond the multiplexes.

“It’s just much more straightforward, overall,” says one North American sales agent. “There’s not the platform issues you get with Cannes or Toronto, and so there’s not the same political lobbying to be done — for either side. It’s done for a local audience, and so it becomes a simple cash transaction: They pay a screening fee, you deliver a print. Really, it’s no different from a traditional exhibitor-distributor relationship.”