|photo credit: Chris Zendano|
Meira Blaustein, co-founder and executive director of the Woodstock Film Festival, has fond memories of the first film festival twelve years ago. On a shoestring budget, community centers and art galleries around Woodstock were retrofitted to screen films. Blaustein remembers Barbara Kopple’s My Generation, a film documenting the three Woodstock music festivals, as a highlight. The first year also celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert movie directed by Jonathan Demme. It was screened at the legendary Bearsville Theater in Woodstock where organizers removed the seats to create a dance floor. Confused audience members, not knowing what to do, chose to dance.
This embodies the magic of the festival where passion, spontaneity and creativity thrive. The festival is known for its exciting panel series where one can see some of the top professionals in their respective fields and get a serious crash course on the various topics being presented. Each year, Academy Award nominated animator, Bill Plympton, co-curates the world-class animation program. Originally conceived as part of the 1999 Woodstock Music Festival, the film festival continues to pay homage to its musical roots with live concerts that are tied to the movies being shown. Past performers include Levon Helm, Bela Fleck, Arlo Guthrie and Donovan.
Actor Vincent D’Onofrio, a strong supporter of the festival, says, “You meet the most interesting filmmakers; every time I go I end up having a two or three hour conversation with people in a room somewhere, impromptu conversations with filmmakers from all over the world.” Diverse programming showcases film professionals from Russia to Mexico to right here in our own backyard.
Now in its thirteenth year, the festival has become a premiere regional event where actors and filmmakers abound. You may run into celebrities at local restaurants, coffee shops, panel discussions and, yes, movies. Past attendees include Steve Buscemi, Melissa Leo, Ethan Hawke and Mark Ruffalo. The festival recently moved its operations to the new Film Center on Rock City Road. “We spent an enormous amount of time, energy, and a ton of money scrambling to find and renovate space each year to fulfill our needs, so the new Film Center offers us the opportunity to consolidate and grow to continue providing extraordinary programming and economic benefit to the region,” says Blaustein.
There is an ongoing capital campaign in conjunction with the Hudson Valley Film Commission to complete the center. The Film Center will host filmmakers, film- related workshops, classes, special events and serve as a hub for the film festival and film commission events such as casting calls, screenings and board meetings.
The festival is a non-profit organization with zero commercial drive other than showcasing worthy independent films and filmmakers. It relies on grants, sponsorships, philanthropic efforts and the residents of the surrounding Hudson Valley communities for support. "The Film Center will enhance our ability to continue creating, assisting and promoting sustainable, clean, economic development by bringing jobs, educational opportunities and revenue to the community via film, video and media production," says Hudson Valley Film Commission Director Laurent Rejto.
The festival now receives about two thousand film submissions a year. Only one hundred and twenty-five films are selected. Blaustein also attends movie festivals around the world cherry picking film for possible inclusion. She likes filmmakers who may not have reached their peak but show promise. The selection process is highly competitive so Blaustein turns to the advisory panel and established filmmakers for their expertise.
Last year, for the first time, the festival expanded its reach by screening movies outside of Woodstock at the Rosendale Theater in Rosendale and Upstate Films in Rhinebeck. Festival organizers want to correct a misnomer that the Woodstock Film Festival is only for Woodstock. The festival is an artistic and economic generator for the entire Hudson Valley that highlights a region rich in location and talent. The festival works with the Hudson Valley Film Commission to foster and support the film industry in the Hudson Valley.
There is no doubt that the festival has grown, but, even so, Blaustein has not wavered in the festival’s mission. “We have a specific personality that has to do with fiercely independent films, singular vision, subject matter that is of value and groundbreaking styles.” Blaustein understands that there is a balance and getting too big would undermine the character of the festival. “Intimacy is one of its strengths.”
Blaustein has mixed feelings about recent trends in filmmaking such as the propagation of digital filmmaking. “Now anyone can readily make a movie, which democratizes filmmaking but also saturates the landscape with mediocre films and makes it harder for truly worthwhile films to stand out,” says Blaustein. “I think we’re in a transitional period with digital,” added D’Onofrio. “The bigger budget films are all shooting digital, everybody is shooting digital and everybody is using the economy as an excuse to pay people less.”
With less pay and tighter movie budgets, the delineation between independents and blockbusters has become blurred. “It will be interesting in five years when the economy gets better", says D’Onofrio. “The only true independent films that are made right now are made for $100, 000 or less and are shot in someone’s backyard.”
Regardless, Blaustein reminds us of what’s most important. “Storytelling hasn’t changed. In order to make a good movie you have to tell a good story.”
D’Onofrio started attending the festival as a fan and now wouldn’t miss it. He is impressed with the genuineness and artistic integrity of the festival. “Actors don’t need to be nervous about going to the Woodstock Film Festival because nothing is ever asked of you that’s in any way exploitive.” He is a member of the advisory board along with other actors like Ethan Hawke and he does anything he can to help promote the festival. A couple of years back, his movie Don’t Go Into The Woods was screened at the festival. It’s a horror/musical shot on his farm (backyard) in the Kingston area. Screened at an outdoor venue, the mix of Woodstockian night, gore and musical numbers made for pleased, if terrified, moviegoers.
D’Onofrio continues to work as an actor with five new films in post-production, but now devotes time to developing films from the ground up. He has several of his own projects in the early stages of development. “I think everything I make will be shown at Woodstock,” says D’Onofrio.
This year’s festival runs October 10th to 14th and tickets go on sale mid-September. Tickets will be available earlier at the Woodstock box office so make sure you check the website regularly for festival lineups, musical performers, ticket info and travel accommodations. There are a limited number of tickets available to the public for The Opening Night Party, The Friday Night Filmmaker Party and The Maverick Awards Ceremony and Gala. Merchants in Woodstock, Rhinebeck and Rosendale will have special offers for ticket holders and there are special lodging packages for weekenders up from the city.
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