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Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010 02:55 am

An independent obsession

The behind-the-scenes process that brings foreign and indie films to town

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Man On A Wire

Molly Schlich knows movies.

She has organized the Springfield Art Association’s annual film festival for the past 18 years. The event, she says, was started not as a fundraiser, but as a way to offer greater variety to Springfield’s movie audiences. “We thought we could add a little more culture and a little more choice,” she recalls.

Originally, independent and foreign films screened in 16 millimeter at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine — but the art association actually lost money on the endeavor. Even so, Schlich was encouraged to continue, buoyed by a belief that the festival would eventually catch on. Now, the annual event is in its 19th year and has a loyal following.

Schlich says the festival’s film selection process initially requires the work of one person — her. She sees each and every film, and is the sole member of the screening committee. This year, however, marks Schlich’s last as curator. “As much as I love doing it, I decided to reclaim my life and stop letting the festival take it over,” she says, adding that she has mentored her successor: SAA executive director Betsy Dollar.

While Schlich ultimately picks the titles alone, she gets help from some of the world’s best film critics via their New York Times reviews. She reads daily issues, looking for especially strong film remarks. Then Schlich hits the road, hunting down well-reviewed indie and foreign films at festivals in St. Louis or Champaign.

The film series moved to Kerasotes from SIU for the opportunity to show 35 mm prints. Movies were first screened at Fox, Esquire and White Oaks theaters, and then finally at Parkway Pointe. Once potential festival movies have been identified, Kerasotes reviews Schlich’s list, removing titles they plan to show. A festival committee that includes Jim Huston, Paul Povse, Chris Chapman, Steve Rambach, John Bucari, and Philip Locascio votes on Schlich’s nominees.

Next comes what Schlich calls the frantic part — locating each distributor, making inquiries, and negotiating rental agreements. Most movies rent for $350 to $700, and their availability must be guaranteed in time for the art association to advertise its lineup before Christmas.

When all is said and done, Schlich and her colleagues will have brought to Springfield 35 mm prints of seven remarkable films not often available to capital city viewers. And this year, the group has done exceptionally well, picking some of the most acclaimed films of 2009. The films are so good, in fact, that Schlich can’t choose a favorite. “This year’s films are an outstanding group. I cannot say enough about the excellence of every one of them,” she says.

In the past, the film series has shown documentaries like the popular Man on A Wire. The industry, however, no longer offers docs in 35 mm — a fact that precludes their inclusion in the Springfield festival.

As she steps down, Schlich seems happy to have brought these films to central Illinois. She often distributes programs to patrons at the theater door, and has come to recognize returning faces each year. “Language students come for extra credit, UIS reimburses students who go, real estate agents use it as a selling point for Springfield,” she says. “After 18 years, it seems like a tradition…as if in the cold, dark days of January, people have just been waiting for the festival to begin anew.”

Zach Baliva is a filmmaker living in Springfield.

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