Vail Film Fest founders stick to their (indie) roots
It’s simple: People who attend film festivals love film. And maybe they like the chance they’ll meet a celebrity or two. At this year’s Vail Film Festival, taking place in Vail through Sunday, Krysten Ritter (“Life Happens,” “She’s Out of My League”), Blayne Weaver (“6 Month Rule”), Martin Starr (“Knocked Up,” “Party Down”) and director Fred Schepisi (“The Eye of the Storm,” “Roxanne”) will be in attendance. For aspiring filmmakers, there’s the opportunity to meet established directors, screenwriters and producers, and maybe get some advice on their own projects.
The festival’s in its ninth year and it’s been a wild ride for brothers Sean and Scott Cross, the festival’s founders and producers. Scott likens putting on a film festival to making a movie.
“It’s kind of like making an indie film every year,” he said. “We build from our past but in a lot of ways, we start from scratch every year. It’s kind of been like guerrilla filmmaking for nine years and in a lot of ways, we thrive on that. The festival keeps a certain magic to it because because every year we work on new things to make it exciting and we’re faced with these different challenges we have to overcome. That makes it more exciting for us and the filmmakers and the attendees – like we’re all going through this together.”
So why did they chose Vail to launch the festival?
The brothers, who were born in South Africa but spent most of their lives in New York City, have skied Vail for most of their lives and loved coming here, they said. The only thing the town was missing was a film festival, and they knew the community here was very supportive of the arts. Sean said the whole goal of the festival was to support independent filmmakers, many of whom they knew through their connections in New York.
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It hasn’t been smooth sailing the whole way, of course.
“We’ve had to deal with theater changes and trying to figure out the best way for people to get seats in theaters, but we’ve had time to streamline the process … and it’s something that we feel we’ve improved upon,” Sean said.
The festival is big enough to have drawn stars like Kevin Smith, Michael Imperioli, Kate Bosworth and Josh Lucas over the years, but small enough that you’ll likely run into familiar faces if you attend. Many of the screenings last year sold out – a good problem to have. Keeping that balance between being a heavyweight film festival and not getting too big for its own good has been a constant labor of love for the two. But for now, they’re thankful for how far the festival’s come.
“We’re really excited about where the festival is right now and what we’ve achieved over the years,” Sean said. “Where we set ourselves apart is we’re extremely accessible to everyone who attends.”
What he means by that is there’s no barrier between a big-name established director like Kevin Smith (who came to the festival to receive the Renegade Award two years ago) and the up-and-coming filmmakers, or cinema-loving attendees, for that matter.
That’s one reason why filmmaker Kat Coiro likes coming to the Vail Film Festival so much. Her feature film “L!fe Happens” starring Kate Bosworth is the closing night film this year and she’s had other short films screened at past festivals.
“I have such a love for the Vail Film Festival,” Coiro said. “It’s smaller, which makes it more accessible, but the quality is so high. … Every year I’ve gone back I’m just so impressed with the way it’s organized and by the location. I can’t say enough good things about it. I’ve gone every year for five years and I’ve seen nothing but an improvement in the quality. I think it’s hitting more of a nerve and it’s becoming more reputable for the level of films (it screens). The location of the festival gives you so much of that intimacy.”
Intimate is a good word to describe the festival. Classy and understated also fit.
“I think you really get a sense of the community at the film festival,” Sean said. “People want to be a part of this experience.”
Sean’s been been told by many of the attending filmmakers and stars such as Michelle Monaghan that what they notice the most is how welcome they feel. And how much the attendees enjoy themselves.
“One of the reasons that we’re able to carry that kind of community feeling is we’re not a business-focused festival,” he said. “We’re about the experience of seeing these unique, incredible films.”
More than anything, the Cross brothers are focused on maintaining their reputation.
“What we’re most proud of is that we’ve stuck to our vision,” Scott said.
That vision includes sticking to showcasing independent films and supporting independent filmmakers. To that end, in 2010 the Vail Film Festival showed Michael Imperioli’s somewhat experimental film “The Hungry Ghosts” when very few North American film festivals would pick it up because it was so dark, Imperioli himself admitted.
The Vail Film Festival has also screened movies like “The Living Wake,” a little independent gem that starred Jesse Eisenberg before he became a phenomenon in big budget flicks like “Zombieland” and “The Social Network.”
“For us, that’s what independent film is about,” Scott said. “I think that’s one thing we’ve done successfully for nine years and that’s something we’re proud of because a lot of festivals get away from indie films as they blow up.”
And loyal Vail Film Festival goers like Denver resident Margo Mertaugh couldn’t agree more. Rather than see it go the way of other festivals, with big budget films and celebrity worship, she prefers it remain small.
“I think they need to keep it really low key, indie films and lots of documentaries like they always do,” she said. “Just keep that local vibe, which I think is the draw for a lot of people. It’s intimate and low key but it has that world-class ambience while keeping that local feel for sure, which is the beauty of the whole experience.”