When the City Paper met with Paul Brown recently, he had just sold 40 tickets to a single person for a single screening at his Charleston Film Festival. And, as he pointed out, this individual was in no way affiliated with the festival, whether as a featured filmmaker or as the obligated friend or family member of one. They were just some local, unbiased film buff.
Although it's the third year of CFF, which will be held at the Terrace Theater March 1-4, it's only the second under Brown's belt. He and his wife Barbara Tranter purchased the theater in 2010 from Michael Furlinger, the original founder of the festival, and as the space changed hands, so did the nature of the budding event. Brown's first foray was heavy with big-name films and big-name stars — like Paul Giamatti in Barney's Version and Rachel Weisz in The Whistleblower, both movies he picked up from the Toronto International Film Festival in his Canadian homeland. But noticeably absent was a strong local focus, with a few Charleston offerings confined to a single shorts block.
Turnout was high, but Brown still learned a crucial lesson: Spend more time considering your audience. Bring in entertaining films that touch and move your viewer, and that show them cultures from around the world — but that also reflect them in their own backyard. "I think there's a bigger connection of the movies to the community this year, and we're seeing what that means now," he says. "Not all the movies are made in Charleston necessarily, but a great number of them have a connection to what it is to live here and to be from here."
Fortunately, Brown wasn't afraid to ask for help. For this year's fest, he formed relationships with the film programs at the Art Institute of Charleston and the Savannah College of Art and Design and with Columbia's Indie Grits. And he brought in another local cinephile, the Greater Park Circle Film Society's Nicholai Burton, to curate three regionally focused shorts blocks. While the two men previously exchanged the occasional phone call and e-mail after Brown moved to Charleston, they didn't meet for the first time until CFF 2010, when Burton spent almost the entire weekend in the Terrace's plush red seats, averaging two screenings a day.
For 2012, the pair cast a wider net. Over the years, Burton has helped organize biannual shorts events at the Olde North Charleston Picture House, and he's become well acquainted with much of what has been produced in the region. "There's a lot of stuff that, unless you come to Park Circle or occasionally these special events, you never get to see really great stuff," he says. "I just wanted to showcase what we've got in the Lowcountry.
"I love shorts. It's a great form," he adds. "It takes a special skill to tell a story in a short amount of time, and when it's done right, it's amazing. It can be more touching than a feature film."
As Burton says, there's a culture behind local filmmaking, and when you see enough of it, you can start to get a feel for who made what and where they shot it. Attendees will see A Peculiar Kind of Sickness by Charleston's David Walton Smith, the dark story of a preacher who comes to town and promises to cure the epilepsy of a woman's child. Meanwhile, Myrtle Beach resident Ken Cohen's Dolls for Strangers has a lot of Wes Anderson influences. There are also some repeat CFF filmmakers, like Tyler Ilgen, who screened The Cookie Cake Sorrow last year and has Hidden Treasure this year.
One of the shorts will be chosen by Brown and Burton as the grand prize winner, which will be awarded a week of exhibition at the Terrace. "I've made movies my whole life," Brown says, "and it's a thrill to make a movie, but it's a greater thrill to watch an audience watch them." The winner will see their posters in the lobby and their name on the marquee. "That's why all these people start out. They all start out to try to do that."
Some of the feature-length films have a Lowcountry connection as well. Liz Oakley's Awaken the Dragon profiles Charleston's dragonboating community. Taken In, by Chris White, premiered locally in Park Circle, and the documentary Eames: The Architect and the Painter, narrated by James Franco, while not produced locally, will be presented by local designer Jay Fletcher and will be preceded by a short doc by Marcus Amaker. Brown also wanted to expand on what he showed last year, bringing in big-budget movies and low-budget indies, many again coming from Toronto: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Goon. Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In is the most recent addition to the program.
"This festival's all about the movies," Brown says. "We say that over and over again. What the two of us like so much is we both like movies a lot and we watch a lot of movies, maybe to a slightly obsessive compulsive state. We want people to see these movies."