A famous capitalist once conjectured that competition is healthy, and the creators of the Orlando Film Festival have put that theory to a successful test over the last seven years, building their event into the second biggest film fest in Central Florida. The Florida Film Festival is still tops, but the presence of another major show has helped boost the reputation of Orlando's film community.
"We started [in 2006]. We had a film out there … and went around to festivals all over the country," chairman and co-founder M. Brett Jaffee says.
During his travels, people asked Jaffee about the Orlando festival scene. "We have the Florida Film Festival, which is huge and wonderful and awesome," he told them, "and actually I had a film in the Florida Film Festival, [but] we decided to plant our flag, have a film festival [of our own]. We knew [the Cobb Theatres Plaza Cinema Café] was coming [and would make a great home for the event]."
Until the Plaza Cinema Café was built, however, the festival spent a couple of years at CityArts Factory, with what Jaffee describes as just one-and-a-half screens, thanks to the obstructed view of one screen. From those humble beginnings, the festival has grown to a 12-screen, 142-film event that spans five days.
Jaffee and executive director Daniel Springen, whose first role with the festival was participating filmmaker, point to four factors that make their festival unique: the convenient downtown location on Orange Avenue, their treatment of the filmmakers, Q&As after most of the films and cheap tickets ($10 a day, $30 for the whole festival and $100 for a top-notch VIP pass that includes party access, priority seating and even free Stella Artois).
"I felt when I was a filmmaker in the festival that I was well taken care of," Springen says. "I know that my main focus coming in [as director] was, because I'm a filmmaker as well, was just making sure that when the filmmakers come in, that they are treated like royalty, because they created a piece of art that will live on forever and ever and ever, and they just – nobody will ever see their films, except at film festivals. Some of them, yes, will get distribution, but these short-film makers [won't]."
And for those who don't find distribution, Jaffee adds, "This is their Oscar, this is their world premiere. … What we found is we could treat filmmakers, because of our connections, to a style that they weren't accustomed to. … We also removed all barriers to entry. We made it free to attend … and we brought in really big films.
"We've evolved since then," he continues. "We can't be a free festival, … but what we can do is practically give away the seats. … And we have had over 100-percent growth every year we've had the festival."
So what can festival-goers expect, other than the rock-bottom ticket prices?
"The best part is we know that 99.9 percent of Central Florida has never seen any of these films because they are not mainstream-released," Jaffee says, theorizing that the number of national and Southeast premieres (though the festival does have some) isn't as important as the quality. "So it doesn't matter if they've played here or there. If they're a good film, we're gonna hold them up.
"Also, most of Central Florida hasn't seen these theaters," Jaffee says. "When people walk in, they're blown away with how comfortable it is. [Everything] is all right here. You can leave one theater and go into another. … It's the best location I've ever really seen for a festival."
But are the films any good? Critiques of all 40 features and 102 shorts (all digital for the first time) are beyond the scope of this article, so it's best to peruse orlandofilmfest.com, read the descriptions and try your luck. But for a brief taste, here are three of the most highly anticipated entries:
"It's a cute comedy," Springen says of Bad Parents, which is making its Southeast debut as this year's opening-night feature. It stars Janeane Garofalo, Cheri Oteri and Christopher Titus, and both Oteri and Titus will be in attendance. "It's not family friendly. ... It's soccer moms personified just to the point of absurdity." All of that is true, but the clever, dark conceit is not put to good use in this amateurish, unfunny clunker from director/writer Caytha Jentis.
The Story of Luke
Unlike Bad Parents, this film has its heart in the right place, though its brain is sometimes absent. It's an often touching, coming-of-age comedy/drama about an autistic young adult pursuing his dreams, but it's dragged down by an unpolished script and transparent performances, including a misguided Seth Green, who might be attending the festival.
Director/writer Debbie Goodstein's drama, stars the always-reliable Chazz Palminteri as a father trying to provide for his family while fighting his inner demons. It's got more to offer than the others, but it, too, is partially derailed by script problems and a single performance: Andie MacDowell, with the worst accent this side of Tommy Wiseau. However, festival-goers should take note of the debut of MacDowell's daughter, Rainey Qualley, who outshines her mom in both beauty and talent.
But no festival should be judged by just three entries. Most have their share of clunkers and fillers, destined to never see the light of day, or the dark of a cinema, again. Conversely, there will assuredly be a few flicks that, by themselves, justify the admission. And if you're lucky, you might just find one that reminds you why film festivals are culturally crucial. But if you can't, don't despair, as the festival is hosting a special event in honor of Milos Forman's 80th birthday. Man on the Moon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus will be shown on Saturday night. Although the master director is too ill to attend, the festival plans a Q&A with him by live feed. It promises to be this year's highlight.
Orlando Film Festival
Plaza Cinema Café
155 S. Orange Ave.