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Reprinted with permission

Hollywood Ending

The West Virginia Filmmakers Film Festival Brings the Dreams of Local Filmmakers to a Wider Audience

by Erika Celeste
Wonderful West Virginia magazine
October 2004

From October Skies to Win A Date With Tad Hamilton, the movies often portray West Virginia as a sort of Utopia tucked away in the hills, untouched by the frantic pace of modern urban life, a place where dreams always come true. While dreams by the thousands fill the heads of West Virginia's filmmakers, the reality of creating movies is a bit more difficult to come by. The problem is writers, producers and photographers have some of the best scenery in the world to work with, but it is often difficult to convince natives of the importance of West Virginia films.

Five years ago Kevin Carpenter, a movie buff from Sutton, West Virginia decided to see what he could do to change that perception. "I wanted to know why there weren't more West Virginia films being made and I wanted to promote and show West Virginia films to folks that didn't realize we are making some great films in the state." Carpenter, who is also the President of the Landmark Studio for the Arts in Sutton had the perfect place to hold a film festival, but he needed something more. So he went to see 25 year film veteran Steve Fesenmaier, who was the Director of Film Services at the West Virginia Library Commission and now serves as Data Coordinator. Fesenmaier co-founded the West Virginia International Film Festival back in 1984, however board members decided it didn't have room for any more West Virginia films. "Kevin and I thought there should be a place that always had room for them," said Fesenmaier.

The two came up with a list of West Virginia filmmakers, willing to showcase their latest works, and the West Virginia Filmmakers' Film Festival, often referred to as the Sutton Film Festival was born. "I knew there were some WV film makers, but I was surprised at how many started coming out of the woodwork," said Carpenter. Unlike other film festivals which offer a venue of student, independent or Hollywood flicks, the Sutton Film Festival is pure West Virginia. Movies can be features or documentaries. The only requirement to be considered for the festival is they have to be made in West Virginia, about West Virginia, or have strong West Virginia ties, ie: the writer or director must be a West Virginian.

"The fest is about West Virginia films, but it's also about the film makers and telling their side of the story. That's a real bonus actually, with each film we try to have the filmmaker there. It helps us gain greater insight."

The Sutton Film Festival, which is held the first two weekends in October has grown bigger with each passing year. The main screen is located at the Landmark Studio for the Arts. Though the studio was founded in 1988 as a non-profit organization to promote the arts, the building has a long history as a community gathering place. Originally constructed as the Presbyterian Church in the late 1880's, it often doubled as a social hall for picnics, quilting bees and graduations. It sat empty for a number of years and fell into disrepair before being rescued and turned into a fine arts facility. It still has all its original woodwork, high gabled ceilings and large stained glass windows but in addition the interior was painted a studio black, a backstage area was constructed and there's a giant state of the art movie screen. The festival has three additional venues as well. The Elk Theater on the opposite end of Main Street doubles a second show house, so that there is always a movie playing. The Elk Hotel-rumored to be haunted-provides lodging and an after hours meeting place for many of the filmmakers. Cafe Cimino, an elegant, family-owned restaurant across from the Landmark, keeps festival goers well fed. Last year it also served as the meeting place for the West Virginia Filmmakers' Guild- an organization which made the WVFFF its home.

"The West Virginia Filmmakers Guild has been revitalized by this gathering," said Charleston Filmmaker Jesse Johnson. "Attendance numbers have grown to the largest in Guild history. It's expanded the scope of the Guild. Now there is more than one meeting a year, attendance is better, legislators and administration appointees have now shown up. That helps bolster the infrastructure of film in West Virginia. That gives outside producers greater incentive to come and film."

"That's exactly what this festival was suppose to be about-filmmakers networking, getting together, sharing ideas, and learning from one and other," said Carpenter.

Others, such as Morgantown filmmaker, Larry Dowling enjoy the laid back atmosphere of the festival. "The Sutton Festival is another outlet for our story-telling. There are tons of festivals out there...even a few in West Virginia. But Sutton is very impersonal...meaning one can casually chat with another filmmaker without having to deal with all that Hollywood mumbo jumbo. I don't like *!#- kissing...and Sutton is a place that one doesn't have to pucker up."

Unpretentious to say the least. At only six dollars a person, every one is welcome. Novices can be seen talking amiably with seasoned veterans, critics, film buffs and the occasional movie goer mix with ease. Educational documentation Greg Harpold recommends the festival to students. It's just another great avenue to learn the craft." While a variety of filmmakers showcase their works during the festival, one is chosen as a featured guest to show a body of his or her work. This year it will be Jesse Johnson, who's credits include roles in Hook, The Malevolence, and Maximum Security. In addition he has just finished a three year grant program with the National Endowment for the Arts called Talkback; Children Respond to Violence in the Media. The trilogy of features centers around a fifth grade bully named Jason McDaniel who learns alternative ways of dealing with violence in his school, community and the media.

"I'm honored," said Johnson. "I think that it's extremely important for West Virginia to honor itself. There have been a lot of people with international film careers to come out of this state. The children of West Virginia in most cases are not even aware, that many of the people they respect and admire are native to the state. So a festival honoring West Virginia and film is only a logical first step to promote this vital industry in the state."

On the last Saturday night of the festival, awards that recognize the best feature film, short, documentary, historical, and event documentary are distributed. Last year the festival added the Filmmaker of the Year Award. The honor is especially meaningful because it is chosen by other filmmakers from all over the state.

"Danny Boyd from West Virginia State College was the first recipient," said Carpenter. "He has continuously produced West Virginia films for the past 25 years, both feature and documentaries. He's taught a lot of the new generation of filmmakers in this state." On the last Sunday, there's a film competition. Entries are judged in three categories; a student competition, open to college students or below, an open competition for professionals, and a competition for one minute shorts.

The Sutton Film Festival isn't just helping to educate students and film buffs in state it has also helped promote great West Virginia Films out of state. "I have recently programmed the first WV film week at the Pioneer Theater in New York City, showing 17 films made by West Virginia filmmakers," said Fesenmaier.

Fesenmaier and a group of West Virginia filmmakers attended the event where he had the honor of introducing the series. "Thanks to the Sutton-based WVFFF, the world now knows something about our state's many fine and creative filmmakers."

While the Sutton Film Festival is helping to promote recognition of West Virginia's filmmakers, it is still fighting an uphill battle when it comes to advocating the film industry in the state. In 2003, the Humanities Council- a highly used grant resource in the past-decided not to fund any of the state's independent filmmakers. Instead it used its funds for in-house productions.

Limited financial resources, not only stop West Virginia filmmakers from producing work, but also discourage larger Hollywood and Independent productions from shooting in West Virginia. These days most production companies want an investment of 1 to 2 million dollars to shoot locally.

"It's actually a very wise investment," said Jesse Johnson. "When you consider the fact that a production spends 30 to 50 percent of its production budget in the local economy and an average movie costs 55 million dollars, well you do the math. The only problem is convincing West Virginia to invest in itself."

Johnson may have a point. A quick study of the Independent Film Quarterly website shows 80% of big budget films are no longer being made in Hollywood but on location throughout the country in places just like West Virginia.

Larry Dowling says there is a good base of filmmakers in the state, but West Virginia desperately needs more. "To train people to be good filmmakers from riggers to clappers to directors of photography, there have to be films to work on to get them the experience. Therein lies the catch 22. No films equals no experience. No experience leads to no films." But a lack of resources won't discourage these filmmakers, if anything it strengthens their resolve to try even harder and continue to educate West Virginia and the rest of the world.

"West Virginians should come away from the WVFFF learning a bit more about the long and successful tradition of West Virginia filmmaking. They should learn that Clarksburg native, Pare Lorentz was the father of American social documentary filmmaking, and who is honored by the Pare Lorentz Award given out annually by the International Documentary Association. They should learn that there are many new indie feature filmmakers like Mike Lilly, Ray Schmitt, and Mickey Fisher and many great documentary filmmakers like Gerry Milnes, B.J. Gudmundsson, and Robert Gates. They should also learn the existence of Appalshop, the leading regional media arts center in the world, which has made many fine films in West Virginia," said Fesenmaier.

"I hope that it continues to bring recognition to West Virginia films and West Virginia filmmakers. I hope it also continues to generate the filmmaking industry in our state. The whole purpose for the festival was to get filmmakers together to talk about films and it seems to be working out quite well," said Carpenter.

Note - I supplied the photos for the story since I am the graphic artist for WVFFF, designing posters, flyers, tickets, etc. - Steve Fesenmaier

Website for 2004 festival:
Thanks to webdesigner Lydia Mong for creating a very nice website for our 2004 festival.

Copyright © Wonderful West Virginia 2004

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