Skip Cannes, Baltimore's the place

Movies: Producer outlines ambitious plans to launch Maryland Film Festival in April.

February 18, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Baltimore will soon join cities from Cannes to Park City in having its own film festival, organizers will announce today.

The Maryland Film Festival will unspool over four days beginning April 22, festival founder Jed Dietz said recently at the festival's office on East Read Street. Dietz, a producer and fixture on the Baltimore film scene, said the impulse for the festival came from the city's burgeoning film industry, which has grown from the occasional John Waters or Barry Levinson movie to a more coordinated, year-round economic development effort.

The primary venue will be the Charles Theatre, which is expected to have four screens up and running by the time the festival gets under way. Screenings and panel discussions will also take place at the Senator Theatre.

Dietz and festival programming consultant Gabe Wardell said they were planning to show about 30 movies in all, most of them new features, documentaries and short films by emerging filmmakers who are making the rounds of the festival circuit.

But Dietz wanted to make sure the Maryland Film Festival would distinguish itself in being long on fun and accessibility and short on pretense.

"All other festivals are really about the film community," he said. "They sort of let people come in from the outside. And it's fun for people -- you go to Sundance and you get coffee and there's Steve Buscemi, or you're at [Quentin] Tarantino's first screening, and it's thrilling. But it's about the film community.

"What I felt we could do, without preaching, was something that would illustrate how far-reaching this art form is, and how accessible it is."

Toward that end, Dietz said about a half-dozen of the films shown during the festival will be presented by non-film-industry types who have a favorite movie that has affected their life. For instance, this year, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will introduce his favorite film, "The Godfather."

"I don't know what his take on it is going to be, but it should be fun," Dietz said.

Designer Alexander Julian and the bluegrass group the Red Clay Ramblers will also present their favorite movies.

Like all good festivals, the Maryland Film Festival will have its share of insiders, too. Waters will present his favorite bad movie of all time, "Boom!" a bizarre adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

And Robert Towne, best known for writing "Chinatown," will introduce "Without Limits," a movie he directed about runner Steve Prefontaine that barely made it into theaters last year. The movie came to Dietz's attention when he read a short item in The Sun bemoaning the movie's fate. "We want to have an ongoing series of critics advocating for films nobody ever saw," Dietz said.

The Maryland Film Festival will also feature the requisite panel discussions in addition to screenings. Producer Lynda Obst ("Sleepless in Seattle," "The '60s") will moderate a panel on writing in two media, with authors who have had experience in adapting their books to the screen. Washington Post film critic and novelist Stephen Hunter will take part, as well as historian Taylor Branch (who with Harry Belafonte and John Avnet is executive-producing the television movie of his book "Parting the Waters") and screenwriter and novelist Robert Ward.

Dietz said that one of the festival's missions is to plow some of the ticket proceeds into film restoration, and the program will reflect that. Wardell is looking at several newly restored classic films to bring in.

In a campy departure that's altogether appropriate for the home of John Waters and The Block, the first Maryland Film Festival will feature a program of films by 1960s exploitation director Doris Wishman, whose movies "Bad Girls Go to Hell," "Nude on the Moon" and "Double Agent 77" have recently been restored.

Wishman is also famous for her series of movies featuring the actress Chesty Morgan. "She's still alive and very interesting and fun, and a real whippersnapper," said Wardell, "and she's agreed to come."

Baltimore has had film festivals before, and two of them, the annual MicroCineFest and the Johns Hopkins Film Festival, have garnered healthy audiences for their programs, which veer toward the more underground end of the independent spectrum. (This year also marks the 11th anniversary of the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival.)

Perhaps the best-known local festival was the Baltimore International Film Festival, which the Baltimore Film Forum started in 1970. The weekly series, which first concentrated on short films, then moved into showing mostly foreign movies, ran for 25 years before folding.

"To anyone who remembers it, it felt very obscure," Dietz said of the International Film Festival. "One of the lessons I got from the [Baltimore International Film Festival] is that it doesn't matter how good you are, you have to be able to tell people about it."

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