Ahead of the pack

The Emerging Filmmakers Competition boosts the prospects of the industry’s newest voices

by Steven Snyder

One of the many series featured at this year’s Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, the Emerging Filmmakers Competition, highlights the work of the next wave of aspiring U.S. and Canadian directors.

To be included in the series, films had to be the first finished feature from their respective directors. And for the 14 films chosen to screen over the next nine days, they will be given the attention, publicity and recognition that few first-time independent filmmakers enjoy.

For Ben Wiggins, Emerging Filmmaker Competition program director, and Jamie Hook, Minnesota Film Arts executive director, the challenge of programming such a series was not entirely a glamorous one.

Wiggins, a University student and an intern with Minnesota Film Arts, said the organization received approximately 200 submissions for the competition, a number that was narrowed to a final schedule of seven documentary and seven narrative features.

“It was months of viewing, trying to watch every one and giving at least every film a 30-minute shot,” Wiggins said. “If it was really bad we turned it off.”

Hook said the competition was one of his priorities from the beginning, as he attempted to revamp the festival for 2005.

“I made a conscious decision earlier that we had to either abandon this completely or really buff it up,” Hook said. “I am an emerging filmmaker myself, so I really had a sense for what people are looking for.”

In fact, Hook won the festival’s emerging filmmakers competition last year, which he said contributed to his being hired as the head of the organization in 2004.

Winners of the series this year will receive $70,000 in cash, film, production services, studio time and even two furnished apartments to encourage them to film their next feature in the Twin Cities.

Only a part of the circuit

Directors participating in the series said they welcome the attention of Hook and Wiggins in getting the word out about their films. Also, they recognize the importance of the film festival circuit in generating buzz for their projects, they said.

“After spending two years, it’s actually harder to get people to see it than it was to make it,” said Kristian Fraga, director of “Anytown, USA,” screening as part of the competition. She said the festival’s support was critical for films that do not have a distribution deal.

Both Fraga and “Anytown, USA” producer John Sikes said they are extremely excited for the world premiere of their film Saturday at the Lagoon Cinema. The film also happens to be one of Hook’s favorite titles in the competition.

Sikes said, “It’s an invaluable way of creating buzz for the film, which then allows us to get to the distributor. This is all about creating demand for the movie.”

Both founders and partners of Sirk Productions, a New York-based production studio, Fraga and Sikes said festivals provide an essential circuit through which filmmakers can meet their peers and build an audience. They said it also helps them gain momentum to pursue national distribution and the confidence to begin work on their next project.

Attracting new energy and fresh voices

On the other end of the spectrum is director Chris Metzler, who has toured the national festival circuit extensively with his film “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea.” In fact, this weekend alone, the movie will screen at five film festivals between Friday and Sunday.

“I never thought festivals were as important as I discovered,” Metzler said. “In a way, I feel like I’ve gone to filmmakers’ camp. It’s summer camp, and the parents are away. And I’ve grown and learned all these things about myself and the industry.”

Metzler said he is particularly impressed with the competition’s judges, who include Neal Block, director of distribution for Palm Pictures; Lois Vossen, the award-winning producer of PBS’ “Independent Lens”; and Christine Walker, executive producer of “Factotum.”

This is a year of changes for the film festival, and the Emerging Filmmakers Competition is, in part, an attempt to revamp the event’s reputation among upcoming filmmakers.

Both Wiggins and Hook said they agree that beyond this year’s competition, the long-term goal is to promote a new image of the Twin Cities as a welcoming haven for directors of any stature.

“I wanted to bring these people out here. So we got bargain airplane tickets, and are having them crash on floors, and are introducing them to people so they’ll infect the city with energy,” Hook said. “That’s what these directors do; they’re infectious personalities.”