A festival that encompasses performances by Van Dyke Parks, Corey Harris and Lydia Loveless, movies about the Jesus Lizard, Big Star, John Fahey and the Rolling Stones, a Melvin Peebles tribute, a Wax Trax roundtable and a presentation by punk-provocateur Martin Atkins? That's the enticing, mixed-media menu at CIMMfest, which launches its fifth year next week.
CIMMfest surely deserves points for establishing itself as a different kind of festival – one that combines movies, music and conversation in a way that aims at the discerning culture disciple. But high-minded intentions and astute programming only go so far. For any festival to survive, it needs cachet, buzz and money – not necessarily in that order. Chicago hosts dozens of festivals annually, most of them niche events that draw small, clued-in audiences, but never really grow from there. Despite countless attempts, Chicago has never been able to nurture a festival on par with the annual South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, which draws huge audiences each March from the music, technology and movie industries.
Josh Chicoine, a longtime musician (formerly in a terrific band, the M's) and CIMMfest cofounder with documentary filmmaker Ilko Davidov, says he's confident that his festival can get beyond the just-glad-to-be-here stage into something a bit more long-lasting. "It's always a challenge to shout as loud as we can that we exist," he says. "But I think we're well-positioned to that idea of a South by Southwest type event for Chicago to bear fruit."
CIMMfest attendance has risen slowly, to about 8,500 people last year from 6,000 during its 2009 inception, Chicoine says. This year, he's aiming higher as the festival has expanded its capacity and programming with 25,000 tickets available for four days of events, Thursday through April 21, at 22 venues, most along Milwaukee Avenue between Division Street to Diversey Avenue. The lineup includes more than 100 music-centric movies from 20 countries, as well as live performances.
"The goal is to get people from out of town," Chicoine says. "There are enough film venues, enough clubs, enough music possibilities, enough hotels. We have never thought small about this."
Louis Black, who cofounded the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, in 1987 and now sits on CIMMfest's advisory board, says the festival's growth impresses him. But what prompted him to get involved was the feeling that he was among genuine movie and music enthusiasts.
"There are so many film festivals now, but this one had an organizing sensibility, a vision," Black says. "When I first got involved with it a couple years ago, it was liberating to see the way they embraced music and film and how they related to each other. South by Southwest was created by music, film and new-media fans, and the CIMMfest people are fans first and foremost."
South by Southwest dominates Austin for the first half of March, but CIMMfest shouldn't expect to do the same in Chicago, Black says. Chicago is simply too big. "But the emphasis on quality, the superior taste – they have it and that will serve them well," he says.Chicoine hopes that partnerships can become a way forward, not only for CIMMfest but for other well-intentioned festivals with similar goals. A few months ago, yet another attempt at a citywide music festival was announced: The Chicago Music Summit on Sept. 20 at the Cultural Center, sponsored by a new music office in the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. A tie-in with CIMMfest would seem logical, but as yet the two festivals haven't discussed anything.
Chicoine says it's a meeting he'd like to see happen, and Dylan Rice, director of creative industries in the city music office, says he's open to it.
CIMMfest "looks like a great multi-disciplinary program and one that connects local musicians and filmmakers," Rice says. "I am willing to meet whenever they would want to meet. I would love to talk to (CIMMfest) further about ways we can work together."
Black says it took several years for the City of Austin to join forces with South by Southwest. "Dealing with the city was often a pain," he says.
"I don't think it's essential to have city support. When government gets involved in the arts it's never a completely good thing. You need discriminating taste, above all. But money is always helpful."
CIMMfest cobbles together funding from a variety of sources each year to keep the festival rolling. "It's a real matrix," Chicoine says. "That's basically what I am doing each year, figuring out where the money is coming from. But the attitude the whole time is that we're doing it because nobody else is, and we can do it best."
The question is, will that be enough to keep CIMMfest thriving for another five years?