First there was Sundance. But that got too commercial. Then came Slamdance. But that got too commercial. Then came Nodance. We’re still waiting to hear about that.
As films become cheaper and easier for anyone to make, the world of independent film festivals has gotten bigger and meaner. But in the eyes of its organizers and participants, this weekend’s New Haven Film Fest is the anti-Cannes — in a good way.
The film festival, in its seventh year, will show about 50 juried films this year as part of its regular program. Artistic director Nina Adams sees a niche for the festival in its intellectual audience and intimacy.
“Sundance, Cannes, Toronto — those are actually filmmakers,” Adams said. “Many films already have distributors, so they’re just there to ensure hype when they get released.”
In contrast, Adams said, the New Haven festival is more about the “raw process of making films.”
Part of that atmosphere comes out of the high numbers of filmmakers who attend the festival. This year, 30 of the 50 films in the main festival will be represented by their directors and producers. The chance to talk to filmmakers draws significant audiences from as far as New York and Boston.
“The conversations continue out into the lobby and onto the streets,” Adams said.
The film festival; also benefits from its attraction for filmmakers with connections to Yale. Of this year’s crop, alumni projects include “Glissando,” directed by Chip Hourihan ’84, “The Tower of Babble,” directed by Beau Bauman ’99, and “Made-Up,” which was directed by Tony Shalhoub DRA ’80, who also stars in the USA detective show “Monk.”
“I didn’t care wherever else, but I wanted ‘Glissando’ to play in New Haven,” Hourihan said.
When the New Haven Film Fest says it shows independent films, it means it. Adams said that of approximately 300 films it has screened over the last five years, only a handful have had budgets in the $1 to 2 million range. Most are under $500,000, and a few under $100,000.
Michigan filmmaker Douglas Schulze’s “Dark Heaven,” which will show on Saturday night, was among them. “Heaven” cost $80,000 to make, most of which came out of his own pocket. Schulze was drawn to New Haven by its reputation for accepting movies without name stars.
“At this point, most festivals are all about who you are and who you know,” Schulze said. “The name ‘Coppola’ will get you in, but that’s about it.”
No one is in it for the money. Over the last five years, only about a half-dozen Film Fest features have gone on to commercial success, usually through sales to premium channels like HBO; other, smaller cable providers; or distributors of movies for international flights.
“Independent filmmakers are today’s starving artists,” Adams said.
According to Schulze, the much-touted success of low-budget films like “The Blair Witch Project” has obscured the fact that for every “Blair Witch” there is — by his estimation — 500 or more that do not find a niche and never get seen.
“It’s difficult to screen even high-quality films unless you come from Miramax or other pseudo-independents,” Schulze said.
The festival’s format is also highly unusual. One of the most distinctive characteristics is its domination by short films. Thirty-three of the 50 films in the regular program are shorts. The shorts are shown in groups and alongside feature films chosen for thematic connections.
The focus on shorts is partly nostalgia, partly artistic agenda. “When I grew up, short films with features were part of the experience — whenever you went to a film, it was preceded by a short,” Adams said.
Now including shorts counts as activism.
“Most big film festivals, dominated by features, which are what sells,” Adams said. “But we have an audience that loves them, especially since they haven’t experienced them that much.”
Screening shorts at Film Fest and other like-minded festivals is part of a broader strategy, Adams said, to reintroduce them to a commercial audience. She predicted that within a year distributors will regularly be packaging shorts together and getting them into video stores and onto screens at art theaters in the Northeast.
Experimentation is another essential part of the festival. For the first time this year, a Saturday afternoon “Young Person’s Program” will feature films for kids ranging from preschool to young teenagers. It’s still early, but Adams said the response to early publicity has been strong.
“Parents are hungry for more interesting fare,” she said. On Saturday night, in another first, a special program will show selections from last February’s Boston Underground Film Festival. Asked to choose her favorite among the festival’s selections, Adams compared the choice to choosing among her children. The 50 films in the festival have already been narrowed down from 250 entries. But Adams did mention a few notable works, including a documentary of Faith Hubley, a former Yale professor and pioneering animator, and “Zero Day,” a film about a school shooting that she called “the most difficult film we’ve ever screened.”
Will New Haven ever go the way of Sundance? Even Schulze said one of his long-term goals is to one day “have a budget.” Maybe selling out is inevitable. New Haven’s street credibility may be fleeting. But in the meantime, New Haven will remain a home to the starving artists of the film world.