This is a momentous year for Arkansas's two spring film festivals. Both the Ozark Foothills FilmFest, scheduled for March 23-27 in Batesville, and the Little Rock Film Festival, set for June 1-5, celebrate milestone anniversaries that are all the more impressive considering how much each has defied expectations.
The Little Rock Film Festival, which turns five this year, appears perched on the edge of becoming a regional juggernaut. In four years, it more than tripled its audience, jumping from 3,000 in its opening year to around 25,000 in 2010. After introducing a $10,000 Oxford American-sponsored award for Best Southern Film last year and attracting Southern standouts like "Winter's Bone" and "American: The Bill Hicks Story," the festival is settled on a focus.
Now, according to festival director Jack Lofton, the LRFF is set on becoming the "premiere" film festival in the South.
"With the Oxford American Award, with the buzz that's now on the film circuit with MovieMaker magazine saying we're a top 25 festival with an entry fee, we're able to make the argument a lot easier this year to filmmakers that this is the place to be and that they should come here first before they go anywhere else."
The Ozark Foothills FilmFest, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, doesn't draw the crowds like the LRFF. FilmFest founder Bob Pest said he hopes for around 3,000 to climb Batesville's foothills to see this year's slate, which includes about 50 films, fewer than half the number that LRFF will show.
But Pest makes a quality over quantity argument for his event.
"We're not the biggest, in fact we may well be the smallest, but we're indisputably one of the best film festivals in the country," he says in a statement on his website.
As he proudly points out, Pest's is the smallest festival that receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which last year gave the festival $10,000 and $2,500, respectively.
Cinephiles should be salivating at Pest's big get this year — an original cut of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." The silent masterpiece bombed with audiences upon its initial release in 1927, so the studio recut it, shaving off about 30 minutes of footage. That the original cut survived was considered the stuff of urban legend until 2008 when an Argentine museum turned up a copy, which has been screening at major festivals and theaters throughout the world since 2010.
To add to the allure of seeing the original "Metropolis," Pest has secured Boston's Alloy Orchestra to play its new score to the film live on stage in Batesville. The three-man ensemble, which also appeared at the third and fourth festival, scores silent films using a wide array of percussion instruments, found items and state-of-the-art keyboards and other electronic gizmos (Roger Miller, front man for post-punk royalty Mission of Burma, is responsible for keyboards and other gizmos).
Other highlights of the FilmFest line-up: "When I Was Younger: A Weekend with the Beatles," a short documentary on the time The Beatles flew into Walnut Ridge that first screened at the festival 10 years ago; a program of independent French shorts that marks the festival's second year working with the French cultural attache in Houston, and a (sold-out) workshop with screenwriter Gordy Hoffman ("Love Liza"), the brother of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The Little Rock Film Festival has announced that "The Last Ride" — Harry Thomason's feature film on the final days of Hank Williams, shot largely in Arkansas — will be its opening night film at a new venue, the Argenta Community Theater. The rest of the schedule will be announced May 1.
Festival director Lofton expects to bring around 120 films to town, about 20 percent more than last year. Ensuring that the festival has room to continue to grow is a priority, according to Lofton. He and the festival co-founders have been working since year one to entice city leaders in either downtown Little Rock or North Little Rock to build the LRFF a multi-screen permanent home.
"It will happen," Lofton said. "It's just a matter of how soon and where."
In the meantime, Lofton is taking on two LRFF-tied projects, the Arkansas Film Society and the Arkansas Film Institute.
The former will begin presenting monthly screenings of films of all type, often with an accompanying panel discussion with the director, starting in April. Lofton said the series will always show at least one film in Central Arkansas (at Argenta Community Theater for at least the first few months), but he also plans to take screenings throughout the state and, possibly as soon as this year, package a best-of-the-LRFF to screen around the state post-festival.
Ultimately, the Arkansas Film Institute will be the umbrella organization under which the festival and the film series operate, Lofton said. Its primary aim will be to bolster Arkansas's film community — by helping grow the film industry, providing education, providing venues and giving out grants to filmmakers. Funding for the institute will come from grants, donations, sponsorships and state funding, Lofton said.
ORIGINAL IN BATESVILLE: Ozark Foothills Film Fest scored the uncut version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."