A Front-row Seat

Like any film festival, Baltimore's will be a feast for cinephiles, offering cutting-edge movies and classics. The challenge? Creating its own personality.

1999 Maryland Film Festival

April 18, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

On a snowy night in 1996, I sat in a cramped meeting room at the Yarrow Hotel in Park City, Utah. It was late; most of the 75 or so filmgoers were bleary and bloodshot from watching movies for days straight at the Sundance Film Festival and its outlaw stepson, Slamdance, which was sponsoring this screening.

After endless delays, the room heated to a soporific temperature, the lights finally went down and the movie came up. That's when the nightmare started: The projector heaved and fluttered; the sound was hopelessly loud and garbled.

As the film's mortified director looked on, his baby unspooled in fits and starts. But something odd happened: Nobody left. Indeed, most of the audience gave the movie, a sweet romantic comedy called "The Daytrippers," a rousing round of applause when the lights came up.

The director, Greg Mottola, a young, soft-spoken man as appealing and smart as his movie, hung back while the film's producer, Steven Soderbergh, answered questions about how he came to produce it, and how ironic it was that "The Daytrippers" was rejected by Sundance when Soderbergh himself had put that festival on the map with his film "sex, lies, and videotape" in 1989.

We tramped out into the drifts of Park City well past midnight, just a few hours before the next screening. But we were a happy bunch, having shared the unique film festival experience: Seeing a charming, adroitly crafted movie by a new director before anyone else on the planet.

"The Daytrippers" would go on to have a modest life in theaters around the country, but we had seen it first -- in rustic conditions, perhaps, and maybe not entirely in the way the filmmaker had intended, but we were there.

For film lovers, it doesn't get any better than that. And film lovers who live in the Baltimore area will finally have a chance to experience the same pleasures of discovery later this week, when the first films of the new Maryland Film Festival unspool at the renovated and expanded Charles Theatre.

Baltimore has had its share of festivals: the long-running Baltimore International Film Festival (formerly the Maryland Film Festival) brought to the city an impressive number of independent films, especially new European work, from the mid-1960s until its demise in 1995. And the two-year-old MicroCineFest, curated by filmmaker Skizz Cyzyk, has exposed fans of underground and experimental movies to new work by emerging artists.

But the Maryland Film Festival promises to be more visible and broadly based than those series. For one thing, it has been well- capitalized by organizer Jed Dietz, who has raised more than $500,000 from government and private donors (as well as in-kind services) to fund the festival for at least three years. And its program -- which includes new documentaries and features as well as gems from the repertory -- is more diverse than we've seen before, promising to draw more filmgoers.

And, in a happy case of the planets aligning, the festival's opening coincides with another benchmark in Baltimore film culture: The reopening of the Charles Theatre, which has expanded to five screens, making it the biggest -- and only independent -- multiscreen art house in the city.

Together, the Maryland Film Festival and the Charles, whose renovation and expansion cost around $1.6 million, represent a big gamble. The men behind both projects are counting on an audience that is large enough to sustain both.

On the upswing

To Gabe Wardell, programming consultant to the Maryland Film Festival, the two new developments augur a strengthening of a local film culture that has waxed and waned over the years. "I think now we're in a period where the interest is growing again," he says. "Part of it is trendiness, part of it is the fact that things like [boutique film distributor] Miramax are suddenly getting Academy Awards and moving what was once seen as kind of marginal film back into a mainstream environment. The Charles opening up again is hitting at the same time that independent films are popular again, so we're hopefully following a trend."

(In addition to the Charles, the Maryland Film Festival will screen movies at the Senator, the Orpheum, Shriver Hall on the Johns Hopkins University campus and the National Aquarium. Festival founder Dietz says the festival "absolutely" would have gone on had the Charles not been ready by April 22.)

Wardell points to the locally filmed "Homicide" as another important factor in a revitalized Baltimore scene, providing day jobs, technical experience and collaborative energy for emerging filmmakers like Darryl Wharton ("Detention") and Joy Lusco ("Louisville").

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