Breaking into the movies

The Twin Cities’ newest film festival gives local filmmakers a chance to be seen.

Tom Horgen

While there is rarely a film festival not worthy of your attention, University students and Minnesotans alike should take particular pride in this one. Its name is the Strictly Midwest Movies and Short Hits Film Festival – or simply, the SMMASH film fest.

The third annual event will screen more than 40 films from Friday through Oct. 23 right here on campus at the Oak Street Cinema. Each night will usually pack in two features and two shorts. Festival-goers will be given a wristband enabling them to re-enter as they please.

“We have a two-pronged goal,” said John Swon, the festival’s director. “One is to have a lot of fun. We want to try to appeal to the college atmosphere and not have this be your typical artsy-fartsy kind of film festival. And then the other part is to promote and celebrate Midwestern filmmakers.”

SMMASH intends to flip the script a little by injecting some feisty intermissions into each screening night. Festival-goers will be able to compete for prizes in hotdog-eating contests and Sprite-chugging melees, among other events.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said filmmaker Tim Vandesteeg, whose off-beat comedy, “Mulligan,” plays Saturday. “I’ve heard of other film festivals that want to do this but don’t succeed. And it looks like they’re succeeding. They’re delivering on their promise.”

Indeed, and in maintaining this success the festival will once again host an awards ceremony to give some prestige to its best films. The “Tastie Awards” will be held Oct. 26 at the Doubletree Hotel, where guests will watch the presentation of the Tastie statues, a la the Oscars, and also munch on a three-course meal. Craig Rice, the director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. The cost of the event is $35, with a portion of the proceeds going to the American Red Cross.

“Anytime a filmmaker can put an ‘award received’ down on their resume, it just helps the filmmaker along the way,” said James Byrne, a St. Paul director whose film, “Great Lakes,” plays Tuesday in the festival.

Of course, the primary reason for wanting such prestige is to get noticed by a studio, which in turn might garner a theatrical run. But that’s not always the case.

“There’s more than just getting distribution from a festival. The film’s name gets out, my name gets out, people see it – reputations are being built. It’s just a building block for the next one,” Byrne said.

The filmmaker, who teaches screenwriting at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, said indie films usually have a two-year lifespan on the festival circuit. While this is the third fest in which Byrne has entered his film, he’s already finished shooting and is editing his next one, “99 Pages.”

Some of the fest’s films that avid moviegoers might recognize are “Ole and Lena,” “Bill’s Gun Shop” and “Homo Heights.”

Swon, a filmmaker himself, understands the Midwest is not Hollywood, but he still sees it as a fresh breeding ground for some good filmmaking.

“It’s the difference between being a little fish in a little pond where you can prove yourself and you can develop contacts with people who want to work with you,” he said, “versus being a little fish in the Atlantic Ocean.”