Georgetown Independent Film Festival founder Eric Sommer yields to no man in his enthusiasm for indie filmmaking. Still, he has to admit that the festival he first imagined was more of a Georgetown Hollywood Film Festival.
“I originally thought, There are so many movies that have been shot in Georgetown: Clear and Present Danger, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Exorcist. We were just going to screen those, but the price was out of control,” says Sommer of his initial plan, which was conceived as part of the neighborhood’s 250th-anniversary celebration this year. “So better to go and get short films from up-and-coming filmmakers.”
From that accidental beginning, GIFF has grown into an indie-film marathon that will screen more than 60 movies free of charge from Aug. 10 to 12, with roughly 12 hours of programming each day. When submissions were first solicited, Sommer requested flicks with a Georgetown connection; later, a press release described the event as “fundamentally an American film festival.” Along the way, programmers Jeannette Catsoulis, Tad Doyle, and Will Skolochenko got involved and threw the net wider. The final lineup, which was still being finalized the weekend before the fest, includes entries from Peru, Vietnam, and Iceland.
Sitting at M Street NW’s Old Glory with two identical cell phones on the table in front of him, Sommer seems a classic booster. Although for 15 years he played guitar on tour with such acts as Leon Redbone, David Bromberg, and the Cars (“I’d be in the back. Help fill out the sound”), Sommer now runs a Georgetown marketing and “creative-services” agency. He enthusiastically touts the fest’s many backers, including jazz club Blues Alley, which donated the adjacent (and long-vacant) warehouse that’s been converted into GIFF’s cinema.
Sommer hasn’t just enlisted local businesses, however. He’s also made a deal with Apple Computer, which will showcase its editing software at seminars during the festival. Five GIFF films that were edited using Apple software will then be burned onto a CD that “will be played at the new Apple retail stores around the country,” he brags. “Apple has no other relationship with a film festival like this. We’re the only one.”
Such connections make GIFF sound pretty businesslike, but Sommer is also something of an upstart. For one thing, he’s made the fest happen even though “nobody wanted to fund it. I don’t think anybody thought we could pull it off.” He’s also outspoken about other festivals, including some local showcases for indie films. “We really want to be an affront to the institutionalization of the major film festivals,” he says.
Filmfest DC and the DC Independent Film Festival, he elaborates, are “doing a good job, butthey’ll probably shoot me for thiswhen they get together and do this, it’s like making cookies for your family. Everybody knows what it’s going to look like. Everybody’s tasted it before. You have to open it up. A lot of these festivals have terminal myopia. They just focus on local filmmakers. Well, a lot of those local filmmakers aren’t that good.”
Actually, Catsoulis notes, there were many good local entries among the almost 400 films submitted to GIFF. But some of them didn’t make it into the fest anyway, either because they’ve been seen too often locally or because they were “extremely professional but had a PBS tone.” Catsoulis, who programmed the shorts for last year’s CineVegas International Film Festival, preferred submissions that were “not quite perfect but showed talent. We ended up with a large number of experimental films.”
The entries that made the final cut include features and shorts, animation and documentary, video and film (but no 35 mm). Next year, Catsoulis suggests, GIFF may be limited to shorts. And the programmers will definitely be allotted more time to cull the films. “I think it all started as a typo,” says Skolochenko of the July 31 deadline that gave him and his cohorts less than a week to finalize the program.
Next year? Does Georgetown need a film festival to mark its 251st birthday? “We had no intention of making it what it has become,” says Sommer. “But now it’s just too big to stop.” And if GIFF’s existence is a challenge to established local fests, Sommer thinks that’s for the best. “Other festivals will have to get a lot sharper if they want to compete with us. And that’s fantastic! Let’s compete!” Mark Jenkins
For more information, visit www.georgetownfilmfest.com.