Florida Film Festival Highlights Trends in Independent Filmmaking

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Among the industry professionals, film students, and cinephiles at this year’s annual Florida Film Festival, produced by Enzian Theater and sponsored by Full Sail University, people buzzed about more than just movies.

Located throughout several Central Florida venues for the past 23 years, the Oscar®–qualifying event screened films representing 26 countries, including 10 full-length narrative feature films and 10 documentary features in the American Independent Competition.

Decoded Arts interviews with several industry insiders at the 2014 Florida Film Festival noted these important trends in independent filmmaking: lower budgets allow more risk taking; documentaries have gained a wider audience; and festivals help promote a global community.

Independent Filmmaking: Lower Budgets Allow More Risk-Taking

The relatively low cost of independent digital filmmaking opens the door to riskier projects. Even filmmakers with severely limited funds are branching out to explore more diverse pet projects, ranging from spiritual and humanitarian quests to lowest-common-denominator humor and perversion, often found in midnight movie programming.

With less to lose, there’s much more incentive to pursue film projects that may not attract record-breaking crowds, but satisfy personal needs of the filmmakers and appeal to loyal niche markets, such as documentary buffs and horror fans.

Courtesy of Florida Film Festival

Ron Judkins directed the narrative feature Finding Neighbors. Copyright image courtesy of the Florida Film Festival, used with permission. All rights reserved.

“This has been going on for some time, but I find that mainstream cinema and true independent cinema follow two parallel but completely different paths,” Ron Judkins told Decoded Arts. Judkins is a two-time Academy Award® winner and writer-director of Finding Neighbors, which screened at Florida Film Festival, Newport Beach Film Festival, and others.

He goes on to tell us, “The budgets for mainstream movies (that you go see at your local cinema) get larger, and the budgets for truly independent movies are getting much smaller. With mainstream movies becoming more expensive, there is more risk avoidance on the part of movie studios and movie producers, so the subjects for these films are more broad based, and often, quite frankly, boring.”

The need for widespread approval, however, lessens with smaller independent projects. “With the budgets for the independent movies shrinking, they can take risks and appeal to smaller niche audiences, and can sometimes make back their production budgets,” Judkins continues. “Don’t get me wrong, there are some great mainstream movies and some very clunky independent ones, but I’m generally drawn to the smaller films.”

Film Festivals and Audience Appreciation

These smaller high-quality films find appreciative audiences at film festivals, if they can make it through the competitive selection process. Florida Film Festival received more than 1,500 submissions this year, from which  the organizers selected more than 170 films.

“This is an independent film festival so we get plenty of submissions from film students and young filmmakers, especially in the shorts category, but we also have many veteran TV directors and pros who want to work outside the studio system or have a personal vision,” Matthew Curtis, programming director for Florida Film Festival, tells Decoded Arts.

Curtis continues, “We want to push the envelope, and this year was even edgier than last year with darker, funnier, more violent, twisted, and perverse entries, in addition to some highly uplifting inspirational films. As an independent festival, we are all about exposure and discovery.”

Documentaries Have Gained a Wider Audience

Documentary entries continue to improve in quality and explore more wide-ranging subjects as audiences embrace non-fiction films for their educational and entertainment value. Moving past the old stereotype of dry, dull films focused mainly on nature, obscure subjects, or propaganda, today’s docs often attract larger audiences and more established directors, and may include humor, special effects, celebrities, and controversy.

“I think that we have entered into a golden age for documentary film,” Jonathon Narducci, director of Love Me, a documentary about the mail-order bride industry that had its world premiere at Florida Film Festival, tells Decoded Arts. “People are making films that were not previously possible due to budget restrictions. Also, the overall collective consciousness has changed to allow people to really watch a documentary and enjoy it!”

Although in the past, docs usually were not considered fun to watch, the direction of non-fiction films has shifted. “Now we see talent coming from all over the place,” Narducci continues. “Films from more established directors such as Sarah Polley about family [Stories We Tell] or Tim’s Vermeer [directed by Teller] are made, at the same time that films like Leviathan are made, both of which are enjoyed by numerous viewers!  And I don’t think we can ignore, what is in my opinion, the greatest documentary ever made, The Act of Killing.”

Courtesy of Florida Film Festival

Jonathon Narducci directed the documentary film Love Me. Copyright image courtesy of the Florida Film Festival, used with permission. All rights reserved.

So what’s the explanation for this newfound popularity of documentary films? Narducci theorizes that people are expanding their horizons and letting new talents and new styles emerge – and doing it all for less money.

“Because the consumer is now getting films directly from the filmmakers through digital distribution, such as Netflix and iTunes, the world of documentary film has changed,” he says.

“These outlets had to get content so they started getting the cheaper options, which were documentaries. Now documentaries have become something that people strive to make and to watch. We realize the real world is as interesting, entertaining, and provocative as any world a screenwriter can make up and this allows us to reflect on the current human condition.”

As Programming Director of Florida Film Festival, Curtis offers an additional reason for the rising interest in documentaries. “Documentaries are usually more inspiring than the narrative features,” he explains to Decoded Arts. “They lend themselves to those types of emotions, and are educational as well.”

He notes the inspirational message of trying to save the world through distribution of clean water in SlingShot, a film directed by Paul Lazarus and starring Dean Kamen that received the Festival’s Jury Award and Audience Award for Best Documentary, and the surprising artistry and human drama in The Final Member, a film about the Icelandic Phallogical Museum and its search for a human penis, directed by Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math, which enjoyed a week-long run at Enzian Theater shortly after the Festival concluded.

Festivals Help Promote a Global Community

Whether focusing on narrative features or documentaries, domestic or foreign, major releases or small indies, first-time filmmakers or long-time pros, festivals offer special opportunities for audiences and filmmakers to connect. Through these unique visions, filmmakers bring stories representing different lifestyles, cultures, and locations to film festival audiences around the world.

Sometimes the actual process of filmmaking unites cultures as well. During filming of Love Me (a documentary about American men dating Ukrainian women), Narducci witnessed this union first-hand when one of the film’s subjects became pregnant. “They [the woman’s parents] were so happy and we could see the happiness in their eyes despite the language barriers. After telling us, they gave us the best food we had in Ukraine and then we drank lots of Vodka together! It was a real celebration of life and how this strange type of dating works for some people.”

Curtis has observed an increase in submissions about Indian and African subjects, especially politics, religion, and poverty. “For Africa, it was mostly full-length doc features, and for India, it was a mix of doc features and narrative shorts, plus a couple of narrative features that weren’t as strong. Some we selected, but we had to turn away many good films, too. Our international reputation is growing.”

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The Florida Film Festival attracts independent filmmakers with a passion for their art. Copyright image courtesy of Florida Film Festival, used with permission. All rights reserved.

Most of the personal connections, however, occur directly at the festivals. During his 15 years of attending Florida Film Festival among other film fests, Entertainment Attorney Lawrence Haber says he has discovered many fascinating films and made new industry contacts.

Haber explains to Decoded Arts that, “The quality has definitely gotten better as the Florida Film Festival rank grows higher, and it appears to get better submissions. There are more industry people, and fewer people not connected to the industry.” He also notes the increase in festivals around the country provides more places for independent filmmakers to connect with distributors, audiences, and other filmmakers.

As independent filmmaking becomes more affordable, stories from around the globe screen at a growing number of regional film festivals and through other outlets. “There is a real audience for well-made independent films,” Judkins says. “This is demonstrated to us at every film festival where we screen Finding Neighbors! The film festival circuit becomes the theatrical release for these small independent films, and that word of mouth can pave the way for the digital releases of the films.”

2014 Florida Film Festival

The 2014 Florida Film Festival provides an excellent look into the future of independent filmmaking as well as highlighting the efforts of the filmmakers’ current efforts.

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