Assessing the Charleston Film Festival 

The Verdict

There was a red carpet and a velvet rope outside the Terrace Theater Thursday night, and recognizable celebrities (Army Wives' Kim Delaney, etc.) wandering around the lobby randomly throughout the weekend. But if you were looking for something resembling a Hollywood scene at the Charleston International Film Festival last weekend, the place to find it was elsewhere.

In its second year, the CIFF is two related but separate events: A generally well-attended schedule of movies at the Terrace, and a series of quasi-public parties where the festival's filmmakers, writers, and producers spend the hours after those screenings conducting the well-lubricated but otherwise serious business of industrial networking. Which means the experience of attending this four-day event depends largely on when, where, and with whom you experience it.

Tracy Synder saw more of it than most. Synder, a Charleston receptionist, spent roughly 12 hours at the festival as a volunteer, taking audience ballots and working the door to the two screens that ran more-or-less non-stop from Thursday through Sunday. She also managed to take in one of Saturday's popular panel discussions — another aspect of this year's festival that expanded from 2008's inaugural run.

Synder gave the event generally good marks: "I like the small-town feel of it."

That isn't just a context-free platitude: Synder's introduction to film festivals came in 2002 as a volunteer with the original Tribeca Film Festival, working 12-hour shifts in a pressure-cooker atmosphere. Today, Tribeca is considered one of the world's great film festivals and the East Coast anchor of the annual circuit for aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters.

The circuit now sprawls across hundreds of festivals in the United States alone, offering film buffs a fleeting touch of the movie industry's hem as it brushes past their city. For filmmakers looking for a break, though, the circuit is work.

Take Colorado filmmaker Timothy Shultz. On Thursday, he stepped in front of the Block 2 audience to talk about his ghost-hunting documentary Chasing the Shadows. He did it to get noticed, find backers for his next project, and — he hopes — to find a TV buyer for his documentary, but accomplishing all that starts with fielding comments from audience members who advise him to seek angelic protection before filming in haunted places.

A made-for-TV documentary like Chasing the Shadows would have a tough time at Tribeca, but CIFF offers entry-level opportunities the big boys don't. Sometimes even the locals get a share: On Sunday, Charleston screenwriting partners Marcia Chandler Rhea and Margaret Ford Rogers took first-runner-up in CIFF's script contest for the second consecutive year. Last year's award helped them land a deal with a producer. This year's Sunday award's gala left them blinking and bleary.

"My eyes are still burning from the camera flashes," she said Monday. "It's all managers and producers and agents and after a while it's hard to keep it straight. It's like, 'Do you have a business card?' The next couple days should be interesting. We'll see who calls."

Stories like that are good news for the Lowcountry's nascent film industry, where everyone seems to be watching for the rising tide that will lift all the area's boats out of decades of pluff mud. And there were plenty of local independent filmmakers on display, too, including writers and directors whose projects didn't make the festival lineup. There's certainly plenty of indigenous support for the festival, which is produced by Summer Spooner and Brian Peacher.

Did the 2009 event portend optimism for 2010? Based on anecdotal evidence, the audience doesn't seem to be a problem: Several blocks sold out that weekend. Saturday's free panels and workshops filled up fast and ran long. Spooner had to turn one sponsor away at the door to one sold-out show, and Terrace owner Mike Furlinger seemed relaxed enough to joke around in the lobby with patrons and organizers on Friday.

"I think it was fun, because it's people who love the film industry," Synder said. "It's on a small scale, but I'd say it's a good event."


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