Cure for the common blockbuster
The Route 66 Film Festival, Nov. 1 and 2, opens a local window on the world of independent movies
For more than 10 years, the Route 66 Film Festival has been screening independent films from around the world for Springfield audiences. Not that local filmgoers have always been aware of it. “I wear my festival button all the time,” says Route 66 executive board member Lana Wildman, “and I almost always have to explain to people what it’s about.”
What it is about, according to Wildman’s fellow board member Hugh Moore, is both simple to put into words and a challenge to achieve. “We are trying to bring high-quality, independent new directors to central Illinois.” Moore points out that, unlike Champaign’s annual EbertFest, founded by the late film critic and University of Illinois alum Roger Ebert, the Route 66 Festival regularly shows films from the international market. This year alone, 14 different countries will be represented, including Bulgaria, India and Spain.
One of the festival’s promotional challenges, along with an epidemic phobia of subtitles among large numbers of moviegoers, is the preconception that “independent” films will by definition be shoddily made. “Someone asked me the other day why they would even come to a festival of just independent movies,” recounts Moore. “I had to explain that independent movies aren’t what you remember from 30 years ago.”
He goes on to explain that, due to miniaturization and reduced costs for technology, the visual quality of independent movies has risen precipitously. “Good equipment is so accessible now, anybody can make a good-looking film. Even the most awful films we auditioned and refused to include this year at least looked good. It’s not like the old days when independent filmmaking meant a kid, a lot of beer and an 8mm camera. We want to dispel that myth. These are good movies, and we went through a lot of films to find the best ones we could.”
Changes in technology have also helped make the auditioning process, though still painstaking, relatively easy compared to the days of cumbersome film reels or VHS copies of prospective films being sent through the mail, thanks to streaming audition sites such as withoutabox.com, which for a fee allow festival organizers to view film submissions in the comfort of their homes. According to the festival’s communications and web specialist, Springfield resident Thea Chesley, “it’s sort of nice to sit at home in your pajamas with a glass of wine and look at these films online. Some of them are extremely good.”
The festival had its start back in 2002 as a project of a film club at Lincoln Land Community College, with a $10,000 grant from the school to hold student workshops. That first festival ran for two consecutive weekends. The first was well attended, boasting a personal appearance by square-jawed Evil Dead and Burn Notice star Bruce Campbell. However, an appearance by the star (and car) of the old Route 66 television series the second weekend failed to attract many people and Lincoln Land pulled out. The following year, festival founder Linda McElroy reconvened the financially depleted festival, using her credit card. Family members, friends and other volunteers contributed in various capacities and the 2003 and 2004 festivals were held at the Springfield Hilton, featuring films from Illinois, New York and California.
In 2005, McElroy began soliciting film submissions via the Internet, at which point the number of entries began to increase greatly. The festival, expanded into a three-day event, began breaking even financially and found a new home at the Hoogland Center for the Arts, where it stayed until 2011, when an increase in the facility’s fees made it necessary to move. During this period, the festival was named one of the “25 Festivals Worth the Fee” by Moviemaker Magazine and was one of five featured festivals at the International Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas. In 2012, Linda McElroy resigned as director and moved out of state, at which point the current board was formed to run the festival. It ran for two days at the Legacy Theatre in 2012. This year the festival will take place on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 1 and 2, at Capital City Bar and Grill, 3149 S. Dirksen Parkway, a venue boasting many advantages, including what promises to be a fun and informal “brew and view” atmosphere.
“Linda McElroy left us with a really good foundation,” says Hugh Moore, one of six Route 66 board members. “This is only our second year running the festival and there were some things both years that we’ve had to fix.” The board has found that running the Route 66 Festival is a painstaking year-round endeavor, merely culminating in the two days of screenings. The festival has an operating budget of around $4,000 and makes its money through donations, ticket sales and entry fees for films, according to outgoing festival director Tom Szpyrka. (Siobhan Johnson, the board member currently in charge of film acquisition, will take over as director for 2014.) This year alone there were 118 submissions, with only 51 movies – both short subjects and longer features, with running times ranging from three minutes to 112 minutes – making the final cut. Of these, 34 potential entrants hailed from other countries, with 84 from the United States. All filmmakers whose work is accepted into competition are invited to attend the festival, which provides two free tickets to each attending filmmaker and offers discounted lodging for those who make the trip. It is often surprising who does and doesn’t show up. “We’ve had filmmakers from Illinois who don’t come and filmmakers from India who do,” says Moore matter-of-factly. Directors and performers often show up just to be involved, including Silver Surfer actor Doug Jones, who appeared one year.
An element of the board’s learning curve that is still being implemented is the need to ensure that screenings are limited to age-appropriate audiences. Entries cover a spectrum of content from family-friendly films to others that are more intense and potentially controversial. The schedule on Saturday aims to address this disparity by starting the day showing all-ages material at 10 a.m., with the work “gradually evolving in maturity as the day goes on,” according to Chesley. This means, sensibly enough, that “G” and “PG” films will screen earlier in the day, with more “R-rated” material appearing later in the evening.
One innovation by the festival board during this past year was the choice to increase the event’s public profile through occasional screening events under the Route 66 banner throughout the year at various local venues. This week on Halloween night, the day before the festival proper begins, Z Bistro, 220 S. Sixth St., will be hosting a free screening of a sci-fi horror comedy with the promising title They Will Outlive Us All.
Entries to the festival are divided into several categories, including Animation, Comedy, Drama, Experimental, Foreign Language, Abe Lincoln or History, Student Showcase, and Made in Illinois. This year there is a special Military category, which will screen Friday night. Awards are given in several categories, including Best of Festival, Best Student Film, Best Illinois Film and the Audience Choice Award.
In the words of Hugh Moore, the Route 66 Film Festival represents “a chance for people to spend an afternoon or two in Springfield in a way they would never get to do otherwise.” As to why the average moviegoer might just be better off attending the festival than heading for one of Springfield’s three AMC multiplexes for a Hollywood blockbuster, Moore is blunt. “If you give anyone with an I.Q. over 120 a budget of $20 million, they can make a decent-looking movie. An independent filmmaker, though, has had to be clever, has had to be resourceful. These directors work that way because they have a story they need to tell. And that’s what’s fun!
“I mean really,” he laughs, “how many car chases do you need?”
Contact Scott Faingold at email@example.com.
Scott Faingold will be posting updates to and previews of the Route 66 Film Festival’s roster throughout the coming week on his blog at http://tinyurl.com/l2pu9yc. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.
A full schedule of films is on the next page.