Last April, cinema-loving Canucks Paul Brown and wife Barbara Tranter took over ownership of the Terrace Theater, Charleston's much loved independent film spot. The takeover was announced a month after previous owner Mike Furlinger stirred controversy by hosting the Charleston Film Festival, an event one month and one word removed from the already established Charleston International Film Festival.
A year later, Brown is taking the Charleston Film Festival at the Terrace into its second anniversary with a similarly startling decision: He's placing less of an emphasis on local films.
At first blush, it seems like a sure way to isolate Holy City moviegoers. However, having spent 25 years in the film business, even Brown's modus operandi is lifted straight from the big screen: "If you build it, they will come." Brown completely revamped the festival, and aside from one feature film and a few local shorts, he opted to screen out-of-state films Charlestonians otherwise wouldn't see.
"I love when movies take you to different places," he says. "It's not about seeing your own backyard. In fact, that's almost the opposite intention of a film. With this fest, we wanted not to show our own backyard, but everyone else's backyard."
The fest accomplishes that, screening films based in locales from Egypt to Newfoundland. Most of the movies are straight from the 2010 Toronto film circuit, including a few from Brown's friends. The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival selections have never been shown in Charleston, making them equally fresh. Aside from the Toronto selections, also included this year are selections from a recent circuit of Jewish-themed films. "We wanted to get the highest-quality movies we could possibly find that otherwise might not make it to Charleston. We contacted the filmmakers that we knew and used the weight of the Terrace to get products we otherwise wouldn't normally get," Brown says.
He ended up with several big names and award-winning films, including The High Cost of Living, featuring Zach Braff, which won the 2010 Best Canadian Film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Another movie Brown is particularly excited for is Toronto-producer Daniel Iron's Cairo Time, which Brown describes as "'Brief Encounter set in Egypt." Though it was distributed in more than 80 U.S. cities in 2009, the CFF screening marks the film's debut in Charleston, as well as its first post-Mubarak showing.
"The recent events shouldn't change the film too much, as the film isn't too political to begin with," Iron says. "I'm excited to show the film to a smaller audience. With the larger festivals like Sundance and Tribeca, it sometimes feels like filmgoers are just there to be seen rather than there to enjoy the films. This should definitely be a more intimate showing."
Besides the screenings, the smaller-scale festival should fare best during the Q&As. Attendees will have a chance to get into the filmmakers' heads via these organized sessions, as well as one-on-one chats in the lobby.
"When you go to a film festival and there are filmmakers there, people tend to get jittery. Toronto, Cannes, Sundance: it's a zoo," Brown says. "A smaller festival gives filmmakers a taste of the city the festival is involved with, because it allows greater intimacy between the people making the movies and the audiences watching them. We really wanted to bring in directors who are making films this very moment and give audiences a chance to talk to them while they're not distracted."
Initially drawn to Charleston because of its small size, yet fledgling creative scene, Brown knew he wouldn't be curating a giant festival. A film festival veteran, Brown says he's attended more than 50 of them himself. Brown was inspired greatly by Iceland's Reykjavik International Film Festival. "Some of the showings were held in cinemas, and some were held in gymnasiums, but ultimately it was all about connecting the audience to the filmmakers in as many ways as possible."
Though CFF is obviously geared toward film buffs, the Terrace owner wants to make sure there's something for everyone to see over the weekend.
"We're shooting for an audience that loves quality drama and documentaries that tell great stories," Brown says. "These films aren't completely without violence, but they're not high-budget explosion, in-your-face movies. For young and old, people want to see something a little more intelligent than the Hollywood fare that's out there now.
"At the same time, we don't want to just show high-brow, art-infused movies," he stresses. "It's equally important to show an intelligent family movie, which I think there's a lack of." He points to I Was a Rat, another film making its Charleston premiere and one that Brown helped produce. It's a big-screen adaptation of the Phillip Pullman novel of the same name, directed by Laurie Lynd.
"I'm looking forward to the Charleston premiere," Lynd says. "This is the first time in a while I've seen this movie with an audience, which is always great. It's easier for films in larger festivals to get lost in the shuffle, so this is great, as the films have a greater chance to capture the audience's attention."
Catering to all tastes, there's a fair-share of grown-up fare as well. On the end of that spectrum is Green Pornos, a series of short films in which Isabella Rossellini recreates the mating rituals of various animals via a variety of both realistic and over-the-top costumes and props. And there's a message about environmentalism somewhere in there.
"We want to cater to a variety of likes and loves," Brown says.
Though there's less emphasis on screening local films this year, Brown hopes the festival will function as a resource for both local filmmakers and the city itself.
"A big goal for us operating the theater and running the festival is to help the independent film scene grow," Brown says. "Let's face it, if you're not on Army Wives as a crew person, you've got no steady work. Sure, you have a movie that comes around every now and then, but that's it. What we need is one local smash hit, one Clerks or Juno that takes place in Charleston. Charleston as a city has to become a character, just like Baltimore does in John Waters' films, and Charleston is certainly capable of that."
Brown encourages local filmmakers to take advantage of the directors being in town and use the festival as a gathering of thoughts that will help build pride in the local film scene.
"When I graduated film school in Toronto, I was fortunate enough to have a community around me of other filmmakers and people that saw the area as a way to stay there and make it, as there was a whole bunch of you trying to make it. People would help each other out. There would be incentives, exchanges of ideas. The talent is here for sure," he says. "We need that one breakthrough, and those resources will continue to come."
Several shorts from local filmmakers will be shown throughout the festival, including Jade Sullivan's Drip, Jason Scott's The Cannon Street Boys, and Tyler Ilgen's The Cookie Cake Sorrow. Also showing is the premiere of Simpsonville director/writer Grant Skellinger's More Than Diamonds, an adventure film about a stolen heirloom. Brown stresses that showing these works wasn't just obligation.
"We wanted to make sure we didn't get caught in the trap of just showing movies because they were local. All of these films are of the same high-quality that we want the festival to reflect," he says.
As a Lowcountry exhibition of sorts, all local films will be shown on what Brown calls "the big days" a.k.a. Saturday and Sunday. "That's when the international filmmakers will be here," as he subtly puts it. Local filmmakers will have immediate access to three international directors and an international producer.
As far as any criticism regarding the lack of local talent being shown at the film festival, Brown says he's received none.
When asked about why he chose to keep the name of the festival the same after last year's controversy, Brown says he's run into no trouble. Previous owner and founder Furlinger continues to help out with the festival, operating as the theater's film buyer.
"The Charleston Film Festival at the Terrace Theater — it will always be called that," Brown says. "That issue is in the past, and I'm not getting into that. Sponsorship is up from last year, and the movies showing this year are of a better caliber, so we're pretty unaffected."
While CFF is unaffected, the Charleston International Film Festival, which previously happened in April, has moved its dates back a month to May.
When asked about his mission, Brown says he'd love to make the theater a better asset to Charleston. He'd love to take the best parts of all the festivals he's gone to until they coalesce into one perfect fest. Then he returns to the basics, letting his inner-movie nerd bubble to the top.
"Ultimately, I just want the audience to leave the theater feeling good about what they saw."