Annual Jewish Film Festival: big opportunity for small works

April 01, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Baltimore's annual Jewish Film Festival may seem small, but it's become quite the player over its 16-year history.

Tonight through April 25, nine films - all Baltimore premieres - will be screened at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills. All have Jewish themes or are the work of Jewish filmmakers. Most will likely never be shown on the big screen in these parts again. And many, made on a small budget and without big-time promotional campaigns, are counting on festivals like this to spread the good word, paving the way for a theatrical run or increasing interest in a DVD release.

"With the awareness that the festival is raising, we will come out better in the long run," says Linda Duchin, a vice president of New Yorker Films. Her company has two movies on the schedule, the opening-night feature, Taking Sides (also screening Sunday), and Tycoon: A New Russian (April 15 and 20). "You're going to get free press and great publicity, it's in the program, it gets seen by the many people who attend the festival," Duchin says.

In the cutthroat world of film promotion and booking, distributors who don't have big names like Warner Bros., Paramount or Miramax are anxious for any help they can get. While big-studio releases like Walking Tall and The Prince & Me (both opening nationwide tomorrow) appear on thousands of screens simultaneously, the smaller, independent-studio releases tend to open city-by-city over a period of weeks or months, depending on good reviews or word-of-mouth for their success.

Events like the month-long festival, with its audience of movie lovers anxious to embrace films that don't show up on most people's radar screens, present opportunities that distributors can't pass up - especially if a film seems suited for a particular niche audience.

The idea that a movie may play well at festivals where all the films share a common theme is often a factor when distributors go out looking for films in the first place, Duchin says.

"We always have to ask when we buy a film, `Who is the audience for this film, and how can we market the film?' " she says. "With this film, we made the decision to go with the festival, to wait to open [theatrically], because we thought that the festival was the best place to play the film."

Showing a movie to an audience predisposed to finding its subject matter interesting is just smart business, says Emily Woodburne, a booker for New York-based Zeitgeist Films. "It's a targeted market, people who you're keeping an eye on."

Zeitgeist's festival entry, James' Journey to Jerusalem (April 8), about an African who makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and, thanks to a case of mistaken identity, gets thrown in jail, has already opened in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, to excellent reviews. So far, the JFF screening is its only scheduled appearance here.

"In some cases, a good festival run will lead to a theatrical run," Woodburne says. That proved true last year, when Zeitgeist's Nowhere in Africa premiered at the festival, then played later at the Charles. Of course, it didn't hurt that Nowhere in Africa won the Oscar for best foreign-language film just before its Baltimore premiere, but the warm reception it received at a festival with a growing reputation for quality films and perceptive audiences certainly helped the process along.

"When I looked at the roster of films that are playing at this festival, I thought it was great," says Stuart Sender, who will be in town April 17 to present his documentary Prisoner of Paradise. "It's a real range of material - funny, dramatic, some of it's taking some risks. I really appreciated the program."

And he understands that festivals like Baltimore's are perfect for films like his, the story of a well-known German-Jewish actor and director who, during World War II, was ordered by the Nazis to make a film that showed them in a good light.

"You know you are going to have an appreciative audience," he says. "If we were [later] to go into Baltimore, and there was already some good word of mouth, that wouldn't hurt."

All screenings are at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills. $8 per film. For more information, call 410-542-4900, Ext. 239, or visit www.baltimorejff.com.

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