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By Andrew Mullen | April 14, 2005

As I approach the Harkins Scottsdale 101, I find myself in the grip of a strange anxiety. Part of it is due to my own personal bias about film festivals and “independent” cinema fans. Part of it is due to my complete lack of experience in covering a festival. I know no one here; I am entering the lion’s den alone and unarmed.

The Phoenix metro area is huge. Once you include the outlying burgs, such as Avondale, Glendale, Scottsdale, (Chippendale, Mondale … oh, wait) Gilbert, Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, etc., the entire area is roughly the size of Rhode Island. And that’s not an exaggeration. The fact that the entire festival takes place at one cineplex means no coordinating travel times between venues. Which, in a town this size, could have meant an hour or more commuting between theaters. The Phoenix Film Festival takes up eight of the sixteen screens at the Harkins Scottsdale 101. You could exit one showing and literally turn around to be in line for another.

Next to the theater is the Arizona Republic Party Pavilion (it’s not a tent!). Here’s where various musical acts play throughout the festival. Saturday night features a performance by the Bacon Brothers. Devastating as it is, I end up missing this performance, opting instead to take in Jesus the Driver. I think I made the right choice. Anyway, items up for silent auction are displayed on one set of tables. The only thing of interest to me is an autographed one-sheet for “Easy Rider.” The rest seem to be more promotional materials of the week. As I return to these tables throughout the fest, I am plagued by one question: “Why would you submit a bid lower than the one before yours? Do you really think you’re gonna win?”

Due to my own festival naivete, I miss several films I had planned on attending. You see, these things never run on time throughout the day; I had failed to account for this. A frequent “problem” was the number of people who wanted to attend a given screening. Most shows I attended ran fifteen to twenty minutes late due to prolific seat wrangling. “If there’s an empty seat next to you, please raise your hand.” These cinemas are equipped with wheelchair-accessible seating, which means there are pairs of seats with large open spaces next to them. In cases where there were no wheelchair-bound audience members, the festival staff would bring folding chairs in to accommodate as many people as possible. For a film festival, too many attendees is a good problem to have.

As the event progresses, I am more and more thrilled with everything transpiring around me. Tom Ortenberg, president of Lion’s Gate Films, is here to receive a special recognition award. He gives a seminar on the business of movie marketing. This talk (and many others) take place on the open-air patio of Buffalo Wild Wings (a festival sponsor) right next to the Harkins, so anyone walking by can stop and listen in. Other seminars cover writing, directing, pitching the script, and raising finances. All are very informative and well-attended.

Every staff member (an all-volunteer crew of about 320) is conducting him- or herself with courtesy and patience. It certainly helps that almost all the attendees do likewise; I don’t see any attitudes or unreasonable demands placed on these hard-working souls. In fact, it amazes me the staff remains as composed and friendly throughout the festival as they do. Personally, if I had to deal with that sheer volume of snafus, throngs, and logistics, I would have gone crazy. These folks are constantly busting their a***s to keep things running as smoothly as possible. They do a wonderful job.

Serendipity comes in many forms. There’s a fellow reporter, call him D, who ends up hanging out and chatting with me throughout the fest. He provides me an anchor in what would have been a stormy sea. Then, there’s Danny Trejo, who is in town to support the documentary about his life, Champion. I am struck by the sight of this man, wearing a blue work shirt, jeans, and a backwards baseball cap, floating around the Arizona Republic Party Pavilion (it’s not a tent!) unmolested by adoring fans, looking for all the world like any other moviegoer. His Q&A after the film is enlightening, with several excellent questions being put forth by the audience.

With the screening of The Latin Legends of Comedy comes all three comedians featured in the film: JJ Ramirez, Joe Vega, and Angel Salazar. A Q&A with three stand-ups who have known each other for 20 years is one of the funniest things I’ve ever experienced. Plus, Ramirez, unbeknownst to me, appeared in “Flesh Eating Mothers,” which I used to have on my video shelf. You can never go wrong with low-budget horror.

It isn’t until Saturday that I discover the American Spirit Smoking Lounge. I’m wearing the wrong shoes to remain on my feet for the entire day, so I need a place to sit. Unfortunately, the Arizona Republic Party Pavilion (it’s not a tent!) provides very little in the way of seating. I push aside a beaded curtain that hangs in the entrance to one booth and discover large, plush couches surrounding a table full of magazines. Three ladies sit, smoking, behind a display of American Spirit cigarettes. One of them asks me what I smoke, so I tell her. “Here,” she says, handing me a pack. “Try these.” What? Free smokes?? This booth becomes my home base for the remainder of the fest.

Floating around the crowds for four days, chatting up anyone I can, I come to realize several facts about this festival. (1) It’s bigger than ever this year, and only promises to get bigger next year; (2) almost everyone is here because they love film, not the prestige or the “scene” or any of that tired old hipster crap; (3) filmmakers LOVE to talk about their films, and if you can hold an intelligent conversation, they will remember and love you for it; (4) a good event planning company will always hire cute girls to tend bar, regardless of their mixology skills.

During the awards ceremony on Sunday, I find myself wishing I could stay in this atmosphere. The camaraderie and complete lack of pretension among so many filmmakers and filmgoers goes beyond refreshing. It’s inspiring. The ceremony itself plays more like live comedic theater than the awards shows we see on TV. It’s amazing how many awards can be bestowed in under two hours when you cut out the lame pre-written intros, overlong thank-yous, and useless production numbers. And, while all the award winners deserve all the accolades they receive, the most exciting moment for me comes at the very end. Chris LaMont, one of the festival founders, takes the podium to make a parting statement. “Next year,” he says, “we’re going to ten days, spanning two weekends. We want to beat Sundance at their own game.” Mr. LaMont, Golan Ramras, and everyone else, as long as you continue the way you have this year, you will succeed.

What have we learned from this experience? Well, let’s see. (1) Plan for delays and technical glitches. Give yourself about an hour between screenings if you want to have a decent chance of seeing everything you want. (2) Bring recording devices. A camera, tape recorder, whatever. Too often, I found myself wishing I could keep the comment/image I just witnessed. (3) Wear comfortable shoes. (4) Let filmmakers know you’re from Film Threat. Almost all these folks are familiar with the publication, and they’ll seek you out once they know whom you write for. (5) Get plenty of cash ahead of time. ATM fees are a bitch.

The 2005 Phoenix Film Festival Awards


Art Institute of Phoenix Award — Penguin’s Club

ICademy Digital Film Best Education Short — Little Billy Learns about Seeds and Plants

Best Grade School/High School Short — Baggage Claim

Best College Short — Natural Selection

Best Sci-Fi/Horror Short — Thanatos Road

Best Arizona Short — My Neighbor the Chicken

Best Animated Short — Red Planet Blues

Best Live Action Short — The Act


Arizona Screenplay Challenge: Outside Arizona — George Ferris

Arizona Screenplay Challenge: Inside Arizona — Kathleen McCarthy

Best Arizona Filmmaker — Brian Ronalds & Dean Ronalds

Board of Directors Award — Ted Anderson

Best Documentary — Champion


Best World Cinema Short Film — Superheroes

Audience Award for World Cinema — King of Thieves

World Cinema Best Picture — Far Side of the Moon

(Showcase Features were invited to the festival. All the other awards were bestowed upon films submitted to the festival.)

Best Performance — Kyra Sedgwick

Best Director — Kevin Bacon

Best Picture — Happy Endings


Best Breakthrough Performance — Eion Bailey, “Sexual Life”

Special Achievement in Music — Novem


Best Ensemble Acting — A Relative Thing

Best Screenplay — Checking out

Best Director — Ken Kwapis, Sexual Life

Independent Film Channel Audience Award — Novem

Best Picture — Checking Out

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