Take a look around at this year's Florida Film Festival, and you might feel as if you've entered a time warp to the turn of the last century. Hey, aren't those the Haxan guys? And Todd Thompson? And that kid Will ... Goss, was it? Somebody crank up the Smash Mouth and let's celebrate! We're going to party until Rich Crotty tells us to stop!
"I'm just looking forward to seeing everyone again in the only cinema that's ever felt like home to me," says Haxan co-founder Mike Monello via email. In the late 1990s, he was marketing director for that cinema, Maitland's Enzian Theater. That was shortly before he and a bunch of friends revolutionized the horror genre (and the very concept of media marketing) with The Blair Witch Project, which as the opening-night film of the FFF in 1999 amounted to a textbook case of hometown heroes made good.
"For me personally, the FFF screening 20 years ago was a huge moment," Monello says. "I learned so much about the film business on the job as Director of Marketing at Enzian and the festival, and all of it was put to use with Blair Witch."
This year's FFF includes an anniversary screening of the film, with its makers in attendance. That screening comes on the heels of a similar presentation at the most recent iteration of the Sundance Film Festival – an annual event that likewise holds a special place in the Blair Witch mythology.
"Playing Sundance was a major milestone for The Blair Witch Project," Monello says. "It told the industry and the world that this film was worth a look.
"[But] while Sundance was hugely significant to Blair Witch, Enzian and the Florida Film Festival are a real homecoming."
This year's opening-night film is likewise an inside job: Woman in Motion, a documentary profile of Star Trek legend Nichelle Nichols, was directed by Todd Thompson, a local who has been involved with the FFF on multiple levels over the last two decades.
"It's hard to believe it but the Florida Film Festival has been part of my life for 20 years now," Thompson says, also via email. "I've been there as a volunteer, I've been there as a passholder and I've been there as a filmmaker."
He's been making shorts since "Hollywood East" could still be said with a straight face. And many of them have graced the screen at the Enzian:
"Between Film Slam, Brouhaha and Florida Film Festival, I've had quite a few films screen there. My very first was The Paper Route in 1999," he recalls. Another, 2002's Time & Again, starred Seymour Cassel, the veteran Hollywood and indie actor who was a perennial guest at the FFF (and whose passing was announced the day this story went to press).
Will Woman in Motion amount to Thompson's Blair Witch moment? If not, it won't be for lack of effort:
"[The film] has been a four-year journey for us," he says. "We shot over 60 interviews for the film all over the country, and that just took time. But on that long road we've had the opportunity to meet and get to know a lot of incredible people. This is my first doc as a director, and the whole experience has been really humbling."
For filmmaker Will Goss, having a short film screen at the FFF this year will be the culmination of a love affair with the event that began when his dad brought him to opening-night film Love & Sex in 2000. Thus began a family festival-going tradition that included a memorable viewing of the Midnight Shorts program – and some concerned "grilling" from the festival staff as to whether its content was really appropriate for a father and his then-young son.
"We were ultimately allowed in – after all, we'd already purchased our tickets – but I still don't think it's a coincidence that the FFF team seemed to enforce an age limit on that program in the years that immediately followed," he says via email.
Since then, Goss has written about film for publications including the Central Florida Future, Orlando Weekly, the Austin Chronicle, Empire and Film.com. He's hosted some FFF screenings ("including the Midnight Shorts, ironically enough"). And he's directed four short films, with the latest, Sweet Steel, "the first to gain any sort of traction on the festival circuit.
"It was a thrill for us to have our world premiere for Sweet Steel at South by Southwest last month," he says, "but FFF still has dibs on my film-loving heart, and I really couldn't be prouder to bring things full circle after nearly two decades."
As a wise man once said, the years start coming and they don't stop coming. Yes, it was Smash Mouth. Now get your game on and go play, everybody.