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Wednesday, April 11,2012

When the Capital City becomes Cinema City

In its second year, the Capital City Film Festival reels in new ideas

by James Sanford

Sure, the Capital City Film Festival has movies. But it also includes a full day of speakers, courtesy of TedX Lansing and the Media Sandbox Capstone Series, as well as the dramatic poetry of Kinetic Affect and the retro rhythms of Lansing Unionized Vaudeville Spectacle.  And let’s not forget the nightly musical performances from acts like Greensky Bluegrass, Murder By Death, William Elliott Whitmore and Lights. 

“It got to the point where we considered a name change,” admitted Dominic Cochran, who cofounded the festival last year. “But we just decided we didn’t want to depart from being a film festival at heart. That will always be the heart and soul of everything we do.”

Besides, cofounder Jason Gabriel said, the different aspects of the festival are all tied together: “Hopefully, the music will help people find the films, and vice versa.”

In some cases, the lineup fell into place through what Cochran called “happy accidents.”

“For example, we had Greensky Bluegrass booked as the musical act for opening night,” he said, “and then we got a documentary submission about (the Lansing music store) Elderly Instruments. It just made sense to put them together and make the whole evening a package: See the movie, then go across the street and hear the music played live.”

Similarly, when Cochran and programming director Dan Hartley noticed that two of the festival submissions came from filmmakers taking part in the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, Cochran and Hartley decided to reach out to the program. That led to a Sunday afternoon showcase of AFI films being added to the schedule.

“Nothing was preconceived, but I think if you stay open to those kinds of things natural patterns sometimes emerge,” Cochran said. “Kismet? Is that what they call it when things naturally come together?”

The unofficial slogan for this year’s festival, according to Gabriel: “Lose the disc.” As much as possible, the CCFF is going to be all-digital.

“Last year, when we had a BluRay player we were using for some of the presentations, we killed it,” Gabriel said. “It was brand-new. It lasted two days. We also had a couple of discs that played erratically.”

So it’s goodbye to unreliable DVDs and hello to purer digital presentations. Even the 24 teams competing in the new Fortnight Film Festival, which gives Michigan filmmakers two weeks to assemble a short movie, were told to shoot their projects with a digital camera, make their edits and upload the file to the judges instead of burning it to a disc.

According to Gabriel, the Fortnight contest has attracted filmmakers from all over the state. They started work March 23, and their finished productions were due last Thursday. The top 15 films will be screened Sunday, with cash prizes for the first-, second- and third-place entries. A decibel meter will help determine the winner of the Audience Award at the screening, so Fortnight contestants are being advised to bring as many fans as they can round up to the showing.

Gabriel and Cochran are pleased with the growth of the festival in its second year.

“We had more than twice as many films submitted as we did last year — approximately 280 films,” Gabriel said. “Remember: We have to whittle that down to 35.”

That meant hours and hours of screenings for Hartley. “After last year’s festival I set a mandate for myself for 2012: to be overwhelmed with great submissions.” Hartley wrote in a blog post on the festival’s website. “So much so that narrowing it down to our relatively short, four-day program would  be a daunting task. … Maybe I should have been careful what I wished for last year.”

“We had to turn away so many great films,” Cochran noted. “It’s heartbreaking. But it’s a good problem to have.”

In the future, there may be more room on the schedule.

“This year, we’re already at the point where we can call the festival a financial success,” Cochran added. “Even if we didn’t sell another ticket — and the week before the festival is always the busiest week, sales-wise — we’ve got plenty of seed money for next year.”

So the tentative plan for the third Capital City festival involves expanding to two weekends, with a few films possibly screening on the weeknights in between. “We really wanted to grow slowly and smartly, and we think next year’s the time to do it,” Cochran said. 

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