Live theater part of 20th California Independent Film Festival
By Lou Fancher
Original 15-minute screenplays presented as live theater along with a program of films and events at the 20th annual California Independent Film Festival represent a cinema-centric version of the American Dream.
The idea that anyone, given enough talent, can successfully create significant, uplifting and often groundbreaking movies is on display Sept. 8-14. Festival film screenings and events take place at Rheem Theatre (Moraga), Orinda Theatre (Orinda) and Castro Theatre (San Francisco).
The four winning plays Sept. 12 in the final round of the first-ever California Playwright Competition come from writers Scott Cornfield, of Pleasanton; Kurt Weitzmann, of San Francisco; Joseph Hughes, of Tracy; and Kim Doppe, of Lafayette. The presentation will culminate in selection by Hollywood producer Kim Waltrip and audience vote of the 2017 CAIFF Playwright of the Year.
“We accepted 12 submissions,” says CAIFF founder and president Derek Zemrak, about the new competition. Playwrights submitted screenplays with only the set design predetermined: a living room with a baby grand piano.
Local actors, directors, media, Waltrip, Zemrak and CAIFF executive director Leonard Pirkle judged the semifinal round that included audience votes weighted as 25 percent of the final tally.
The playwrights chosen are all Bay Area-based, a point of pride Zemrak notes along with heralding the diversity of the works.
“There were no heavy dramas, interestingly,” he says. “The comedy was well-written and they were all different, one from the next.”
Other competitions at the festival — the fourth annual Composers’ Film Scoring and 24-hour Iron Filmmaker contests — flesh out Zemrak’s philosophy that independent films are grounded in essential elements. Technological advances, he says, have sparked a boom in the making of independent films.
“In some aspects, filmmaking is easier. It can cost you $3,000 to develop a film with current technology. It’s spawned people who have the creative aspect and can make independent films without studio backing. Seventy percent of the films winning awards today are low budget compared to things like ‘Spider-Man,’ a nearly $100 million film.”
Diversity in films is organic. With 250 submissions in the film scoring contest — the first contest four years ago had 100 — Zemrak says, “This contest shows how music influences a film. We give each composer the same short film, minus the sound. Audiences will see in the five we screen, five different films. It completely transforms a film when you change the score.”
There’s good reason to celebrate local enthusiasm for independent filmmaking: CAIFF has held 20 festivals in 18 years. “Others have come and gone,” Zemrak says. “We’ve been able to weather the storm through the slow times. It’s an accolade for local audiences, California Independent Film Festival Association (CAIFFA) and our board of directors.”
Selecting the opening and closing films each year is an increasing challenge.
This year’s “Class Rank” is a Wes Anderson/John Hughes-style coming-of-age story of two kids in a quirky town. Starring Bruce Dern, Kristin Chenoweth, Olivia Holt and Skyler Gisondo, the 101-minute feature is light and charming, according to Zemrak.
The closing film in the East Bay is equally fun: “The Congressman” adds satire and is also set in a small town. “Start quirky, end quirky,” says Zemrak.
But in between there’s plenty of celebrity glitter and heft: “As Good as It Gets” and a Q&A with Oscar winner Helen Hunt; Animation Night with Pixar director Dave Mullins; Top 20 Short Films over 20 Years hosted by Zemrak in a two-part showcase, documentaries and dramas; a Sapporo Shorts showcase; and the late Martin Landau starring in “The Last Poker Game.”
“It’s his final film and it’s only playing at the Tribeca festival and with us,” says Zemrak. “It’s a heavy film about two gentlemen who become friends in their advanced years. It’s remarkable because it’s made by a 72-year-old first-time filmmaker.”
Perhaps the easiest aspect of the films and competitions this year was the invitation to Hunt to be the festival’s VIP headliner. The Oscar recipient, four-time Golden Globe winner and four-time Emmy Award recipient represents the full arc of the filmmaking industry.
“From child actor to adult actor to producing her feature films independently, she knows it all,” Zemrak says. “She can talk about it and inspire young filmmakers around the world. Basically, we asked her to come and she said, ‘Yes.’”