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the omaha film festival has become a go-to staple on the local culture scene for its premiere screenings, top-notch panels and special events
In 2005 three filmmakers frustrated by the metro's sparse independent cinema offerings took matters in their own hands to launch the OMAHA FILM FESTIVAL. As the March 7-11, 2012 event approached, the founders expressed satisfaction at having made it this far and growing the area's film culture.
FILLING A GAP
It's expected OFF will screen as many as 90 films from dozens of countries at the Great Escape Cinema 16. All the movies will make their Nebraska premiere. In its short history the event's presented some 500 films from around the world and hosted award-winning filmmakers working in features, documentaries, shorts and animation. Upwards of 4,000 moviegoers attend each year.
MOVIE MAKER MAGAZINE named the OFF among the “top 25 film festivals worth the entry fee" – high praise for a still young event.
"I knew it was something we could do and do great," says OFF director JEREMY DECKER, an Omaha native now based in Austin, Texas.
The vital film scene Omaha enjoys today simply didn't exist before. When OFF began, Film Streams was still two years from opening. When it came to indie art films, documentaries and shorts, cineastes had few options to feed their fix.
JASON LEVERING, executive director for OFF, says, "The things that Film Streams and the festival offer are things that just weren't readily available to the community before. Without those two entities I don't think Omaha would have an outlet for it."
Omaha Film Festival’s Program director MARC LONGBRAKE says the festival filled "a gap" no one else seemed willing or able to fill at the time. Decker says the prevailing thought behind the fest was, "Wouldn't it be great if people here could get the same experience people get in many other cities across the country?" Besides, he says, everyone he and his comrades talked to agreed "it would be good for the city and for film lovers and for people who want to learn the craft."
A festival is often the only theatrical screening filmmakers get for their work. Decker says there's nothing like the thrill of seeing your baby on the big screen.
As the organizers are both film buffs and filmmakers, they designed a festival that not only screens pictures but presents film artists in Q&As and panel discussions. Its annual conference devoted to craft has featured many notables, including Oscar-winners MIKE HILL (editor) and MAURO FIORE (cinematographer), screenwriter SHANE BLAKE, producer-writer-director DANIEL PETRIE Jr. and script guru LEW HUNTER.
Producer-director DANA ALTMAN, whose midtown Image Arts Building is where the OFF offices and parties, has also been a panelist. Filmmaker NIK FACKLER, too.
"The conference is a huge part of what we do and it's got to be a special event every year," says Levering. "So we do our best to fill those professional seats with people who really understand the business and who are exciting to hear."
Putting established film pros in the same room with emerging or aspiring filmmakers sparks a certain creative synergy and fosters connections and collaborations. Establishing more of a film community or collective is just what Decker, Levering and Longbrake hungered for. They got a taste of it attending other festivals and decided to make it happen here, where filmmaking circles once isolated from each other have grown more inclusive.
"It’s a like-minded thing,” says Longbrake. “We all have this common thing centered around filmmaking. We all bring that passion. That was a big impetus to do this. We've seen people meet at our festival and then a screenwriting group springs out of that or you see five people who didn't know each other last year working on a film together this year. It's a point of pride for us to see that.
"The quality of locally made films has gone up significantly. If we've had a small hand in that with our conference then were proud of that and glad."
~ MARC LONGBRAKE
In an industry all about relationships, every advantage helps. It’s about who you know and networking to get a foot inside the door for a pitch or meet.
"You get a chance to meet producers, directors, screenwriters. It's an opportunity and a handshake that could lead to future business. We're connecting those dots for the local film artists," says Longbrake. "I'm always struck by a statement producer Howard Rosenman made here: He said, 'You cannot make it in this business unless you know somebody and right now you know me. So, if something happens and you find yourself in L.A., you now have an in.'"
Longbrake says one such connection led to a Hollywood gig.
"We had a young filmmaker here in town who met Dan Petrie Jr. at the festival. They talked, shared a beer at one of our parties, and within six months he was out in L.A. working on a project with Dan. We hear stories like that every year."
This exclusive, in-the-know aspect of a festival is “a huge part” of the appeal, says Longbrake. People naturally like attending premieres and being privy to behind-the-scenes tidbits, not to mention rubbing shoulders with film veterans.
“Screenwriter TED GRIFFIN last year talked about Tower Heist. He railed on how horrible this film he wrote was going to be. We got to interact with him, ask him questions, and then when it came out nine months later we knew some insider stuff about this movie,” says Longbrake.
“Three years ago we had Mauro Fiore talk about how this movie AVATAR he worked on was going to be awesome. He went on about JAMES CAMERON creating a whole world with blue people...and then of course Avatar came out and smashed all the records,” says Decker.
Levering says, “I think one of the biggest highlights was when we had Shane Black come back last year for a second helping of the festival. Shane talked about an upcoming project, IRON MAN III, that’s highly anticipated, and he actually shared some insight he hadn't shared with anyone before. We got some notoriety because no one else had heard that yet. It was kind of a cool thing that he felt comfortable enough to tell the audience.”
~ JEREMY DECKER
THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
Guest appearances by select cast and crew from featured films are another festival tradition, along with opening and closing night parties. Indeed, there’s an official party every night. Pre-release and Oscar parties in February whet film buffs’ appetites for the March fest. Special preview screenings in the summer give the fest a year-round presence. It’s all part of adding cinema value and extending the OFF brand.
“We’re trying to create more memorable moviegoing experiences than just going to TWILIGHT and going home and talking about it with your friends,” says Longbrake.
Then there are those films whose profile subjects attend: the parents of teens lost in the IOWA BOY SCOUT tornado tragedy; MADONNA Rehabilitation patients who survived trauma; and a young woman abducted by North Korean agents and held in servitude before her release.
The months-long process of screening entries finds organizers and judges discovering their personal favorites and championing them for selection. A festival finally emerges from all the politicking and debating.
“You get excited about a particular film and you just want other people to see it,” says Longbrake, “and then months later there’s a crowd of people watching the film and having a shared experience."
He says he and his co-directors go from theater to theater as movies play to gauge response. Nothing's better than the thumbs-up or nods or approval appreciative audiences give as they file out.
To make all the moving parts work smoothly the OFF relies on volunteers. Sponsors help underwrite OFF and its prizes.