If it’s April, it must be time for the latest edition of WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, H-Town’s long-running, long-struggling, near-miraculously resilient showcase for independent cinema. The 2011 edition kicks off Friday for a 10-day run at the AMC Studio 30, with Exodus Fall – an award-winning ‘70s period drama starring Rosanna Arquette – as the opening-night attraction.
Once again, fest founder and director J. Hunter Todd is sounding indefatigably chipper and infectiously enthusiastic as he promotes the line-up for his annual event.
And, yes, once again, Todd is keeping his fingers crossed that this year’s festival -- his 44th – will draw crowds sufficiently large to ensure there’ll be another WorldFest next year.
It’s never been easy, Todd freely admits, to gain publicity and sustain support for “an all-independent film festival” (as he proudly describes WordFest) in a city where there’s so much else going on, and where it often seems that events such his live or die based on star power and/or heavy hype. But in 2011, he’s had to pinch pennies even tighter because there’s been a decrease in entry-fee income from awards competitions traditionally held as part of the festival.
Still, WorldFest continues to survive. And this year, with a program of 55 features and 107 shorts from throughout the world, Todd hopes it will thrive as well.
CultureMap: How has the current economic downturn affected WorldFest?
J. Hunter Todd: A great deal. Radical. The biggest drop was in television commercial entries – about 80 percent. We used to have about 1,200 TV commercials from all over the world submitted for our awards competition. This year, we got around 100. I called one of our biggest entrants from past years – and found their phone was disconnected. I checked with a friend, and he said, “Oh, Hunter, they went out of business last January, and put 2,000 people on the street.” So, overall, entries are down, even though certain categories are solid. Like features and shorts and student films haven’t changed. But the entries for corporate and industrial films – like the entries for TV commercials – are tremendously down.
CM: Any other problems?
HT: Well, no one would have ever thought that an earthquake and a tsunami would cost the festival a $50,000 sponsorship. But it did. We had a signed agreement with General Motors to showcase their Chevy Volt. We were going to display the car at the theater, at our regatta – even at the festival’s host hotel. But it turns out that a great deal of the Chevy Volt is made in Japan. The electric drive motors, the windshield washers, the power steering – all of that stuff is made in Japan. And needless to say, they’re not shipping anymore, because several of the factors that manufacture those things are in Northern Japan. By the sea. So GM, quite properly, exercised their “act of God” clause in our contract. And we had counted on that a lot.
CM: And yet…?
HT: [Laughs] And yet despite all that – we’ve still got great features, and great shorts.
CM: Is it true there’s been an uptick in Texas-produced films programmed for the festival?
HT: That’s very true. And what’s really good is – they’re better. We usually always get a lot of Texas entries. But the reason you’re seeing a lot more of them in the festival this year is, they’re better. Even the opening night movie, Exodus Fall, was partially shot in Texas. [Laughs] Actually, it all begins in Texas – and goes downhill from there.
CM: What are you expecting in terms of attendance?
HT: Actually, the audiences have been tracking upward the last two, three years. In fact, the audience last year was up about 20 percent. And for that, we credit our coverage in outlets like CultureMap – and the involvement of the Houston Film Critics Society. All the people in that group are writing for something like 30 different blogs, publications and magazines. Of course, we’re still waiting to get back to the attendance figures we had back in the day at the Greenway 3, back when the Houston Post and the Chronicle were competing to cover us.
CM: We know you don’t like to play favorites, but are there any sleepers on the program that we may not yet know about – that we should really look out for?
HT: Well, the Italian Panorama sidebar we’re having this year, with titles like The Thin Match Man and Hay Fever – really, some wonderful movies that people should check out. And Playing House – a Houston-produced film. It’s always great to be able to showcase local talent. Especially when the local talent has produced a really good film. And Renfield: The Undead – a Houston-produced horror movie. At midnight, of course.
CM: You’ve also got filmmaker Randal Kleiser coming in April 16 to conduct a seminar in film directing – and to host a “sing-along” screening of his most popular movie, Grease. You and Kleiser go back quite a ways, don’t you?
HT: Oh, yes. He won a prize for his student short, Peege, at one of our festivals back in the day. And he always reminds me: “Hunter, I got my start at your festival, I met my distributor at your festival – and I made more than $1 million off of Peege because of that.” And you know what? He’s flying in – and paying for his own first-class ticket. Now that is a gentleman.