Dream film award has its nightmarish side

Special to The Times

The Nashville Film Festival bestows an unusual honor on the winner of its juried Dreammaker Award: The top prize offers a theatrical release in Los Angeles -- and thus a qualification for Academy Award eligibility.

Yet, ironically, none of the previous winners has taken advantage of the prize, said Brian Gordon, the artistic director of the weeklong festival that gets underway Thursday in Tennessee. Regal Cinema guarantees a one-week play on a Los Angeles screen for free. But to draw an audience that reaches beyond family, friends and co-workers, the filmmakers would need to spend thousands of dollars on prints, marketing and advertising. And so far, no one has been willing to do that.

"A lot of filmmakers don't know how to self-distribute or have the mechanism in place to take advantage of an award like that," said Isil Bagdadi, producer of "Under Hellgate Bridge," which won the award in 2000. "A lot of them are creative people. They just want to go out and make the next movie."

The festival was founded in 1969, but the screening offer only dates to 2000, when the festival's executive director at the time, Michael Catalano, was looking for a way to build the event's reputation. He took his idea to Regal, which is headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn. The theater chain currently controls 18% of all indoor screens nationwide, and it hosts the Nashville Film Festival at one of its multiplexes.

"I thought, 'Why not call it a Dreammaker Award, since it opens the door for qualifying for an Academy Award?' " Catalano said. "You still have to do the politics and make the right film, of course, but the light switch has been turned on."

Yet there can be reasons to look a gift theater in the mouth. What's more, the plethora of film festivals in Los Angeles means Dreammaker winners can often find a much cheaper way to draw a Los Angeles audience, if not a longshot Oscar bid.

Bagdadi and "Under Hellgate Bridge" director Michael Sergio were greeted by so much enthusiasm during their film's Nashville screening that they decided to self-distribute it through their CAVU Pictures -- but in New York, not L.A. They reasoned that the crime drama, which was set in Queens and featured several cast members from "The Sopranos," would play better there. "Being from New York, it made more sense to open there first," Bagdadi said.

They raised about $65,000 to market the film and played it on 17 screens -- five of them owned by Regal. It earned about $100,000. It also played several cities in Florida, but it soon became clear that a Los Angeles run was out of the question.

"At that point we were broke," Sergio said. Lions Gate Entertainment ultimately purchased "Under Hellgate Bridge" and released it on video.

Craig Brewer won the Dreammaker Award the following year, in 2001, for his low-budget, digital-video "The Poor & Hungry," about a Memphis car thief's relationship with a cellist. "The Poor & Hungry" had already screened at the Hollywood Film Festival in 2000 and subsequently was sold for broadcast on Independent Film Channel, so Brewer decided to move forward on his next film, "Hustle & Flow." That gambit paid off big: The story of a Memphis pimp who becomes a rapper, "Hustle & Flow" was picked up by Paramount Pictures/MTV Films for $10 million at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is slated for release later this year.

The 2002 Dreammaker Award winner, "Paradox Lake," went on to win the best dramatic feature award at 2002's IFP/Los Angeles Film Festival. It was then broadcast on the Sundance Channel. The 2003 winner was a Japanese film, "Doing Time," that also was a part of that year's Los Angeles Film Festival.

Last year's Dreammaker Award winner is shaping up to be the first to take advantage of the Regal offer. Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou's "Take Out," about an illegal Chinese immigrant in New York, has been purchased by Bagdadi and Sergio's CAVU Pictures and is slated to open in L.A. this fall.

"We'll use that first week almost as a freebie to launch the film," Bagdadi said. (It already screened at last year's Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film & Video Festival.)

This year's Dreammaker contenders -- culled from some 250 submissions -- are split between foreign and American releases. The foreign entries: "After the Day Before" from Attila Janisch of Hungary; "Revolution of Pigs" by Jaak Kilmi and Rene Reinumagi of Estonia and Finland; "Hank Williams First Nation" from Aaron James Sorensen of Canada; and "A Midwinter Night's Dream" from Goran Paskaljevic of Serbia-Montenegro. The American entries: "Dear Mr. Cash" by Wendy Cooper-Porcelli; "Loggerheads" by Tim Kirkman; "Mutual Appreciation" from Andrew Bujalski; and "The Nickel Children" from Glenn Klinker.

For first-time director Cooper-Porcelli, who is from Claremont and has worked in the movie business for two decades, a guaranteed Los Angeles theatrical release would be especially sweet, one she'd be happy to take advantage of.

"It'd be extra validation to invite all the people I've worked with for 20 years," she said. "To actually be able to play in a theater is a dream for any independent filmmaker."

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