You have to admire this about the four filmmakers who resurrected Oak Cliff’s Texas Theatre: they aren’t afraid to take risks. Open a movie theater with one screen in an age of on-demand new releases? Sure. Spend a bunch of money on a 35-millimeter projection system when even art house theaters like the Angelika are switching to digital? Done.
So I wasn’t exactly surprised when the announcement came early this year that the founders of the new Texas Theatre planned to launch the inaugural Oak Cliff Film Festival on June 14, promising three days of “brave and independent filmmaking of all stripes.” Why not? The Texas Theatre has carved out a place for itself as the home of “all stripes” filmmaking, staying afloat by riding the back of a successful bar business while screening films that aficionados seek out from as far off as Houston and Oklahoma City. And ever since the four men—Barak Epstein, Adam Donaghey, Eric Steele, Jason Reimer—took over the theater on Jefferson Boulevard in 2010, they’ve dreamed of starting their own film festival.
But can Dallas support another film festival? At last count, North Texas plays host to nine festivals—depending on the year and who’s doing the counting. In this crowded market, are there even any films left to show at the Oak Cliff Film Festival? And, more important, are there audiences to fill the venues and sponsors interested in backing another film-oriented event?
Reimer laughs off the question: “I don’t think if you flew to L.A. tomorrow and said, ‘We’re from Dallas,’ they would go, ‘Oh, there’s so much film there.’ ”
True enough. But Dallas isn’t exactly the film market that Los Angeles is. And Oak Cliff isn’t Dallas.
Then again, the Oak Cliff Film Festival intends to take advantage of those differences between Oak Cliff and Dallas. The programming includes challenging, innovative movies passed over by the other festivals, while focusing on the community in a way that organizers hope will both galvanize neighborhood support and help raise the profile of the Texas Theatre and a number of other Oak Cliff venues. The way the organizers describe it, the Oak Cliff Film Festival sounds like a cross between adventurous festivals like Cinequest and Fantastic Fest and regionally focused, hyper-local festivals like Indie Memphis and Birmingham, Alabama’s Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival.
“It all goes back to this idea of a curated existence,” Donaghey says. “Everything we do is cohesive and makes sense together, from the film to the art, the food, the music, the parties. They are going to be a curated experience, and people will walk away knowing what North Oak Cliff is.”
Among the approximately 80 features and shorts, there will be a mix of neighborhood-oriented and family fare (including a screening of Wes Anderson’s animated animal comedy, Fantastic Mr. Fox, in the big cats area of the Dallas Zoo) and more ambitious movies plucked from the festival circuit. There will be poolside screenings at the Belmont Hotel, a music video series at El Sibil studios, silent films with live bands performing newly composed soundtracks, and a program of art films and avant-garde cinema at Oil and Cotton. Another way the festival hopes to distinguish itself is through its newly installed 35-millimeter changeover projection system, which allows for the showing of rare and archival prints. In the case of a few of the films the organizers hope to show, the filmmakers themselves own the only existing prints, and they will only show their movies on the kind of projection system the Texas Theatre now has.
But programming the Oak Cliff Film Festival is the easy part. Selling it is another story. As of late April, the festival had lined up a lot of in-kind support but not much underwriting. Nor had a presenting sponsor signed up. But organizers say they will be able to cover the basic hard costs. “Two weeks ago, we finally realized we weren’t screwed,” Reimer says. “We were like, ‘Okay, we can take a breath. We are not going to completely bomb.’ ”
The festival also plans to exploit the synergy created by Oak Cliff’s urban bones. The fest will take place at a handful of venues—the Kessler Theater, the Bishop Arts Theatre Center, the Belmont Hotel, and El Sibil, in addition to the Texas Theatre—that will give the events a compact, bike-able layout. And the organizers have created partnerships with a number of neighborhood restaurants. They plan to offer Lee Harvey Oswald bike tours, bike valets at the venues, and pedicabs. They have secured a beer sponsorship from New Belgium Brewing Company, the bicycle-logoed brewers of Fat Tire.
The hope is that the locations and film programming will offer an excuse for new audiences to come find them, and the organizers hope they can draw on their already tuned-in and loyal audience.
“It’s also why it is a three-and-a-half-day thing,” Epstein says. “We’re not doing a 10-day thing. It is a weekend thing, so people don’t have to make that much of a commitment. We’ll get the word out, and next year we’ll bring in more.”
But if you are still finding yourself wondering if Dallas can support another festival, particularly one that prides itself on being, as Epstein puts it, “a little more obscure” and “hyper-small,” you’d be well-served to remember the Texas Theatre’s track record. Don’t underestimate these guys’ instincts. Over the past 18 months, they have not only managed to keep their theater open, but they have quietly brought to town a near-continuous stream of acclaimed filmmakers and celebrities. One thing they haven’t been good at, however, is documenting that success.
Epstein says, “We’re always like, ‘There’s a camera there. Does anyone want to turn it on?’ ‘Eh.’ ”
Maybe that’s why the Oak Cliff Film Festival won’t feature a red carpet, which Reimer says feels clichéd and corny. But they promise that there will be press, and the organizers will try to remember to take photos of their festival.
“And, anyway, people always just take pictures with their iPhones,” Reimer says.
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