James Johnston considers the best thing about making films in the Dallas/Fort Worth area to be the amount of experienced, knowledgeable people who are willing to lend a hand, or some advice, simply because they are passionate about film and like to see local filmmakers succeed. This is not an attitude he believes exists in Los Angeles, where everyone is primarily concerned with how their involvement will be compensated or will further their career. The biggest disadvantage locally, he says, is the difficulty in finding money for films that aren’t perceived as marketable.
Which films do people perceive as marketable? Genre films for the most part; B-style horror or action flicks a la Rodriguez and Tarantino. Inexpensive to produce and generally relatively lucrative at the box office and in the DVD after-life, these types of films dominate the local production scene. Truth be told, this isn’t my favorite type of film, however, I can appreciate the value of the genre. Still, I can’t help but think that the difficulty in finding financing for films outside of this realm is more than indirectly related to the overall lack of diversity in film programming in Fort Worth, Dallas, and the surrounding areas. When the overwhelming majority of what makes it into our theaters relies on the same, tried and true devices (pornography and violence, with a pinch of crude humor, to put it simply), its no wonder that potential film financiers have a limited perception as to what a successful film might be.
Enter the film festival. Festivals have the potential to shine a spotlight on films that may otherwise never see the silver of any screen within 200 miles of our culturally sophisticated, but content-deprived city. They are a significant and dynamic supplement to the extremely laudable efforts of Tina Gorski and the Modern Art Museum’s Magnolia program, as well as the Angelika and Magnolia in Dallas. Still, these venues are restricted to showing films with relatively significant distribution deals, and the festival therefore provides a much needed channel for a diverse slate of films that exhibit few of the traits that commonly make films attractive to audiences such as well known actors, high budget effects, or tired stylistic devices and storylines (…porn, violence, crude humor).
Johnston agrees that the festival is the nerve center for the independent filmmaker. It provides a place for artists such as himself and his friends to have their films be seen as well meet the people that will help them make their next one. He’s not sure how it would work, but at some point he would like to see festivals provide more assistance in financing independent productions. In light of recent discussions regarding festivals becoming a distribution channel to compensate for the lull in theatrical acquisitions, Johnston cautions against a model that would encourage screening films for the benefit of the box office, rather than those that festival programmers felt were important and needed to be seen.
It is this latter concept that Johnston agrees likens festivals to museums and he looks forward to the day when, similar to the Kimbell or the Modern, people in North Texas go to see a film simply because it’s exhibited by a particular organization, such as Lone Star, or a particular theater, such as his. Considering all the success that the vegan Spiral Diner has enjoyed despite it’s Cowtown location, it’s no wonder that Amy and James would be the ones to attempt an arthouse theater where others have failed. The plan is still in its very early stages, but they do know that they want it to be in the south side of Fort Worth. Johnston sees it as a perfect environment for eating a good, casual, and inexpensive dinner with friends before moving on to a good film.
Every film will be introduced, its selection explained, and the theater will stay open afterwards so that audience members can gather and discuss what they just saw. Hopefully, it’s a discussion that would continue on to a nearby live music venue. It’s all about creating a culture of watching film, similar, and no doubt related to, the culture of viewing art that supports our world renowned museums. It’s certainly a movement that myself, and everyone here at Lone Star, can get behind and we hope that our efforts will carry the momentum gained by those that came before us into the vision of Amy and James.
Johnston, again with the help of the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund, recently finished a new feature with David Lowery titled St. Nick about two young teenagers surviving on their own in rural Texas. The film was shot entirely in Fort Worth and the surrounding areas in about 18 days using rented equipment from MPS to supplement their own. For the principal roles, they used a brother and sister from Midloathian who had never acted before. The film recently screened at the Austin Film Society rough cut lab and they will take it to New York in September for the IFP Lab in New York in September where, among other things, they hope to find distribution for the film.