Film festivals like Md.'s crucial for 'Hurt Locker'

  • Kathryn Bigelow, director of "The Hurt Locker" (left) and writer Mark Boal (right) were in town last year for the Maryland Film Festival.
Kathryn Bigelow, director of "The Hurt Locker"… (Sun photo by Barbara Haddock…)
March 14, 2010|By Michael Sragow | | Sun Movie Critic

The sweeping victory of "The Hurt Locker" at the Academy Awards wasn't just a triumph for American independent filmmaking. It was a championship moment for independent-film showcases like the 2009 Maryland Film Festival, which made the movie its closing-night presentation.

Kathryn Bigelow, the director, and Mark Boal, the screenwriter, maintained creative control of their audacious artistic enterprise from the first words Boal put on paper to Bigelow's final cut. They pulled off the feat of putting audiences in the boots of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. Then they faced an almost equally formidable challenge - attracting audiences without the help of big-studio marketers or a celebrity cast. They needed help. They got it from film festivals.

From Los Angeles on Friday, Boal said that a string of festivals that highlighted their movie, from Venice, Italy, in September 2008 to Sitges, Spain, in October 2009, "helped put the wind in our sails." Their trip on the festival circuit, from international gatherings to regional magnets like Maryland, generated coverage unusual for its quantity and quality.

"I think when you talk about a movie in the context of a film festival, it's not like a typical straight-up promotional interview," Boal said. "For a movie like ours, which didn't have a lot of commercial momentum, that was absolutely crucial. Of course, it's a risky proposition: a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword kind of thing. Most filmmakers don't do what we did."

Boal and Bigelow came to Baltimore for the film festival screening May 10, and he calls it "a terrific experience." Former Sun and current Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, who had been raving about the film since she saw it at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, conducted a question-and-answer session with them after the film.

"Full Metal Jacket" star Matthew Modine, who was attending the festival with a short ("I Think I Thought"), volunteered to help festival director Jed Dietz introduce the film because Modine thought it was "the best war movie I have ever seen."

"I don't know what effect it had on the audience, but it was certainly heartwarming to us," Boal said. "And in addition to exposing the movie to all the local press and local film fans, it brought us in front of the Washington, D.C., political press for the first time. Given the subject matter of this movie, that was extremely important."

The team's festival experiences were "all positive." But they knew there was "a real tough road ahead of us." Even after the 2008 Venice Film Festival, where "The Hurt Locker" won four awards and received a 10-minute standing ovation, the film still failed to find a wide audience in Italy during its first commercial release.

"We were acutely aware that a film festival audience is not necessarily the same as an audience at your local cineplex," Boal said. "But I can't imagine this movie making its way into other theaters without the film festivals - it just probably would not have happened."

Dietz said the "The Hurt Locker" sweep at the Academy Awards burnishes his festival's reputation in several ways. "There's a lot of stuff out there - you can just fill a weekend with films without any trouble. To be one of the best festivals, you have to select well, and the success of this movie, and its position as our closing-night film, reinforces the idea within the film community that we know what we're doing."

But it also solidifies his festival's reputation for filmmaker advocacy.

"Nobody has to explain why Cannes or Sundance or Toronto are desirable places to take a film. But when you're a festival of our age and size, you have to make a case. We are very good at making sure the right eyes get to see our films, and we try to help the filmmakers in every way we can."

After cartoonist Bill Plympton showed his hilarious short "Guard Dog" here, it became his trademark creation. "Homicide" producer Henry Bromell's first feature, "Panic," opened in several markets theatrically because of the stir it created at the Maryland festival. So did Doug Sadler's "Swimmers."

Maryland has had Oscar luck before - even this year. Anna Kendrick, nominated for best supporting actress for "Up in the Air" (for many of us, she was the best thing in that movie), was the female lead in another recent closing-night film, Jeffrey Blitz's made-in-Maryland coming-of-age film, "Rocket Science." And Dietz and his colleagues had programmed the 1999 short documentary "King Gimp" before it won an Academy Award.

The festival's 2010 edition will include John Waters' annual presentation of a favorite film (this year it's "United 93"), Steven Soderbergh's documentary about Spalding Gray ("And Everything Is Going Fine"), accompanied by Gray's widow, and Stanley Nelson's acclaimed documentary "Freedom Riders."

Most intriguing of all for this year's Oscar-watchers, Dietz long ago reserved a slot for "Music by Prudence," the 2010 winner for best documentary short. Baltimore audiences can see the movie behind the podium tussle between producer-director Roger Ross Williams and estranged producer Elinor Burkett.

"I'm like the Academy: I don't know who will show up," Dietz said, slyly.

More seriously, he said he hopes audiences will take advantage of the chance to applaud the local filmmakers behind the short, including cinematographer Errol Webber Jr. and co-producer/associate editor Patrick Wright.

Introducing filmmakers at their best to audiences who want the best from them - that's what festivals like Maryland's are all about.

That's why they were the secret weapon behind the breakout of "The Hurt Locker."

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