“Excuse me. Are you… aren’t you Paul Osborne? The director of OFFICIAL REJECTION?”
I turn to the woman behind me in line. She’s staring at me with large, expectant eyes.
“Yes, I sure am.” As these words leave my mouth her eyes grow even impossibly wider. She grabs my hand and pumps it furiously.
“Oh, I simply loved your movie! I saw it when it premiered here and couldn’t get it out of my mind!” This “premiere” was three years ago, almost to the day.
As if I needed another reason to love the Phoenix Film Festival.
I’ve made no secret of my assertion that this is the best stop on the circuit. Sundance, SXSW and the other “premiere” festivals get all that crazy attention because of the big stars and exciting movie sales, sure sure – but in terms of the audience and filmmaker experience, I promise you will not find better. And if distribution acquisition execs were truly interested in the Kevin Smiths and Quentin Tarantinos of tomorrow, they’d be here. The competition flicks at this fest are made by truly new, outside-the-system voices.This is where indie lives.
Throughout the next four days I will report from these, the PFF trenches. You couldn’t make it here? Then allow me to you entertain you with this – the Phoenix Film Festival vicarious experience.
Let me say up front I have no new film this year. My latest movie, FAVOR, is still in the post-production oven, so this time I’m attending the festival as pretty much just a glorified fan. The positive slant on this is that I have little to no responsibility, so I can just see lots of movies and party myself sick. The downside is – hanging out with all the other filmmakers – I always end up feeling a little like a graduate lingering at his old high school. Or the only sober guy in a room full of happy drunks.
The 2012 edition of PFF compounds this feeling even more because there are so many friends with films here: my frequent collaborator Scott Storm’s searing music documentary WE RUN SH*T, Gary King’s breakthrough musical HOW DO YOU WRITE A JOE SCHERMANN SONG and Blayne Weaver’s darkly funny romantic character study 6 MONTH RULE. Blayne and one of the stars of SCHERMANN are also in my as-of-yet-unfinished new movie, and one of our production assistants, Bunee Thomlinson, has a short playing here as well. Hell, two other friends, Shane Free and Paul DeNegris, also have shorts!I’m officially now to PFF what Joe Swanberg is to SXSW. Except Joe always has another film ready, year after year. Me, I’m just the guy these friends all know will occupy at least one seat in all of their screenings. But again, there’s that upside: I get to see a lot of flicks.
After driving into Phoenix from Los Angeles, I head over to the festival ticket office. I’m joined by my wife (and producer) Leslie Wimmer and our 16-month old son Liam. My mother has also flown into town to watch the boy because a) she’s completely addicted to baby as only a grandparent can be; and 2) we simply can’t let Liam into the screenings because he’ll hog all the damn popcorn.
The ticket office doubles as filmmaker check-in, and – bless this fest – new flick or not, they’re always kind enough to grant us the passes. We pick these up and head over to Red Robin, our traditional PFF first lunch, where we connect with a score of other filmmakers as well as PFF grand poobah Jason Carney. Things are relaxed and casual – after all, there are no festival events until the evening.
At 5pm the whole shebang kicks off with a cocktail reception at the “Party Pavilion”. PFF no longer operates their famous “tent” in the parking lot outside the Harkins 101 Scottsdale venue, but instead takes over a large empty storefront within the same shopping structure. This year what was once a massive Circuit City is now an incredible, lavish party space. Huge tapestries displaying the posters of the 2012 official selections hang from the ceiling as guest mill about eating different foods from about six different restaurant “stations”, including chocolate-dipped strawberries from Melting Pot.In the midst of all this I find SCHERMANN SONG director Gary King, looking like a starving child let loose inside the belly of Willy Wonka’s candy factory. It’s his first time at the Phoenix Fest and he insists I didn’t oversell it.
The crowd then flows into the Harkins to see the opening night film, ROBOT AND FRANK, a pretty good man-n-machine relationship dramedy. It’s a smart get for the festival – just enough of a pedigree to attract the mainstream local press and keep the higher-end sponsors happy. After all, ROBOT AND FRANK has A-list actors and was a Sundance pick. But it’s also a bone fide indie. PFF isn’t launching with a studio handout, and that’s important for setting the tone. The sizable local audience for this festival – and it’s grown to massive numbers in recent years – come for the works here they may not see anywhere else, made by those aforementioned new, distinctive voices. If the opening night film had been a preview screening of, say, AMERICAN REUNION, it wouldn’t have sat well with them.
There are no official afterparties on first night, but that doesn’t stop an informal one from invariably forming at the Tilted Kilt, a bar which is best described as a British pub version of Hooters. This establishment sits right next to the official hotel, the Sleep Inn. And after a couple of wee hour Irish Carbombs, “sleep in” is what a lot of these filmmakers may try to do next.
Paul Osborne is the director of film festival documentary OFFICIAL REJECTION & screenwriter of cult thriller TEN ‘TIL NOON. His latest movie, FAVOR, is in post-production. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulMakesMovies.