For the past nine years, the Waterfront Film Festival has turned the west Michigan resort town of Saugatuck into prime celebrity gawking territory for one weekend a year. Sure, it's no Cannes or Park City, but it is filled with moments of "Hey, isn't that the dude from the Apple vs. PC commercials hanging out with the dude from Super Troopers?"
This year's installment of the four-day festival runs June 7-10 and will screen more than 30 feature-length films and 40 shorts in five venues around the beachfront resort town and artist colony.
"There are so many variables that go into making a successful film festival," says festival founder and indie filmmaker Hopwood DePree. "Saugatuck always popped up as a place that would thrive with a film festival because it's already a destination. It has such a strong artistic base and it's an enthusiastic party town. It's fun for everybody to come here."
Last year's festival was solid, selling more than 14,000 tickets. It featured the adorable Sasquatch Dumpling Gang, the hilarious I-See-You.Com, the creepy cinema verité-style In Memoriam, and the mind-bendingly claustrophobic The Descent. The worst of the films were pretentious. But even the bad films were enjoyable when compared to the fetid sequels and TV show adaptations showing at the megaplexes across the country.
This year's fest also looks promising, with Jared Leto's biopic of John Lennon's murderer, a new comedy from the producer of Napoleon Dynamite, a documentary of Simon Wiesenthal and a Ken Watanabe feature about Alzheimer's disease (see sidebar).
Over its history, the festival has shown critical darlings like Napoleon Dynamite and the Academy Award-winning documentary Born into Brothels. But while it continues to attract an impressive number of quality films from elsewhere, an increasing part of the festival is focused on nurturing and supporting Michigan's homegrown talent, according to festival founder Hopwood DePree.
"We're doing a big pro-Michigan push with a separate Michigan's Own section of the program that is focusing on Michigan-made films, Michigan talent, Michigan special guests," says DePree. "We're doing a panel that focuses on Michigan and the film incentives and how we can actually take the film industry and boost it up."
DePree says Michigan is a great place to make films even more so now with a concerted push for the industry from Lansing.
"I think it's an unbelievable opportunity, because it's an area that hasn't been investigated too much," says DePree. "So many things that Michigan has to offer we haven't seen on film yet. It's unique in the fact that it has so many miles of coastline that could be used in films. There's also a really positive energy and a strong backing in the Michigan state government that really wants to see this happen."
The festival led Holland native DePree to start his own studio, Tic Tock, in his hometown. The company was largely fueled by the reactions he got to the festival from visiting filmmakers.
"It was so hard to get them to come here, and then once they got here, they were like 'this is unbelievable. I had no idea Michigan was like this.' Seeing that kind of enthusiasm for this state and what it had to offer was something that made me realize that it is unique and it is special. Even though I grew up here, sometimes you forget that stuff when it's right around you.
"We realize what kind of talent base there already is here. It's really exciting when you realize that you don't have to be in Hollywood anymore if you want to make an industry like this work," DePree adds. "That's really what our focus is as a company, to really push that and try and combine what we're doing in L.A. and what we're doing in Michigan."
Tic Tock already is tentatively bringing production of two feature films to Michigan this fall. It has also established a film fund that can finance film productions in the state.
"It's an opportunity for people to get their movies made in Michigan," DePree says.
The festival's creative director, Rebecca Green, says the things for filmmakers are particularly good these days in Michigan. Green a Dearborn native has worked in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and California. But she says Michiganders have a certain collective spirit that's missing in some of those other places.
"There's a different vibe here than there has been in other states. I never experienced this in Pennsylvania or North Carolina, in terms of people really rallying around their home state, especially in the middle of a crisis, and wanting to make it better. That's what we're hoping to do is come back to where we're from and really see if we can make an impact on the economy, which then makes an impact on the state as a whole."
The story of filmmaking in Michigan is, out of necessity, also in part the story of filmmaking in Detroit, Green adds, noting that the Detroit area is home to a lot of post-production houses and equipment facilities. "The focus of that is how we can bring more business and more production to Michigan, to Detroit really, because that's where a lot of the facilities and equipment and crew is already established," she says.
But, ultimately, DePree finds himself working to boost Michigan's film industry for partially personal reasons.
"That is who I am. I grew up here," says DePree. "That's why I continue to return over and over, and now why we're doing this company here."
The 2007 Waterfront Film Festival runs Thursday through Sunday, June 7-10. For more information, call 269-857-8351 or visit www.waterfrontfilm.org.
These are some of the more than 30 feature films playing at this year's Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck, which runs June 7-10. For more information, visit www.waterfrontfilm.org.
American Fork: A story of the life and times of a well-meaning but socially awkward fat grocery clerk from the producer of Napoleon Dynamite.
Eagle vs. Shark: Wacky tale of two socially awkward misfits who find a strange mutual love connection through revenge on high school bullies, burgers, and video games.
Memories of Tomorrow: Ken Watanabe won the Japanese Academy Award for best actor in this wrenching tale of a businessman whose family is shattered by Alzheimer's disease.
Chapter 27: Jared Leto plays John Lennon's murderer Mark David Chapman in this biopic that also stars Lindsay Lohan.
I Have Never Seen You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal: Documentary of famous Holocaust survivor-turned-Nazi hunter, narrated by Nicole Kidman.
On Broadway: An aspiring Boston playwright deals with an unexpected death by writing a play and attempting to stage it with a group of misfits in the back of a rowdy Irish pub.
Blue State: Romantic comedy about a disgruntled Democrat who makes good on a drunken promise to move to Canada if George W. Bush gets re-elected.
Golden Days: Rock band The Damnwells who play the festival's opening night star in this documentary about the struggle against the record company that signed them and then nearly destroyed the band's career.
Hellfighters: Documentary on Harlem's only high school football team, the Hellfighters.
Vanaja: Shot in rural South India, this coming-of-age film explores the chasm that divides classes.
It's Happiness: A Polka Documentary: A bouncy look at the Wisconsin polka scene.
The Life of Reilly: Charles Nelson Reilly performs his one-man show.
Dirty Country: Raunchy doc about Larry Pierce, a small-town factory worker and family man who moonlights as a singer of country music with dirty lyrics.
When a Man Falls in the Forest: Timothy Hutton and Sharon Stone star in this film about personal struggles and self-destruction.
Brian J. Bowe is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]