SIFF News: Local Filmmakers Try to Crack Hollywood

Most of us locals merely attend SIFF to watch movies. A few actually get to see their own efforts—like this year's Outsourced—projected before friends, family, and investors. And then there are those in the middle who go to the panels and workshops and networking cocktail parties in the hopes of learning how they might one day make a movie in the Northwest and eventually debut it at SIFF. It's for these aspiring filmmakers that SIFF offers four panel discussions as part of the Northwest Production Market, a confab essentially guaranteed to attract only the most die-hard optimists.

You could count producer Larry Estes among that number, but his optimism is tempered by some 10 years of local experience since relocating from L.A. to Seattle to make Smoke Signals, written by Sherman Alexie. That picture was a SIFF '98 breakthrough that, of course, inspired much wishful thinking about a local film boom. Which still hasn't come to pass, though not for lack of trying. Estes' expertise is in packaging indie films for distributors, and he'll speak on that subject during the Saturday afternoon panel. His most recent success was the basketball documentary The Heart of the Game, a homegrown crowd pleaser at SIFF last year. So, I asked during a recent phone chat, how does the state of local film production compare to a decade ago—are we better, worse, or what?

"If you work here, you're mostly working on local, indie stuff," he says. And it's not steady work: "We don't seem to be there yet." Beyond recent local indies like Zoo, Brand Upon the Brain!, or Iraq in Fragments, studios might visit a few times annually to pick up some quick exteriors—as with Grey's Anatomy or The Ring Two. On the positive side, says Estes, "It appears the flight to Vancouver is not what it once was." Shifting exchange rates have made the Canadian dollar less of a bargain, and last year the Washington State Legislature established a new incentive program to help cut costs for film crews. "There really wasn't anything at all before," he notes.

For aspiring locals who shoot here, then try to get their films in theaters, Estes continues, "There are really two ways to do it. I come from the finish-it-and-show-it school." That means arranging your own financing, shooting it your way, then shopping it to festivals—SIFF included, though it's several tiers below Toronto, Cannes, and Sundance. The other school is to take the script and certain other elements to the distributor in search of money. "That invites all kinds of help—some you welcome, and some you don't. It's so much less real; it's theoretical. I don't know any [local] movies that have raised money from distributors—off the top of my head." Plus, it takes a long time. And there's no guarantee of getting a name (A-list, B-list, whatever) to help break through the clutter at Blockbuster or Scarecrow.

That's another thing that's changed, says Estes: "Video is no longer wagging the dog the way it was 10 years ago. It has to work in a theater." Which, again, makes a recognizable name awfully helpful—if the Seattle filmmaker can get that name to come up here to work on the cheap. Still, Estes remains the optimist: "I encourage people who have the resources to make their first movie independently to do so."

Whether that gets you a distributor or into the festival...well, that's another panel discussion, perhaps another year, perhaps following another breakthrough we can cite from SIFF '07.

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