Johnathan McFarlane on wanna-be celebrity hype, Festivus Film Festival

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When Johnathan McFarlane and his partner Tim DeMasters created the Festivus Film Festival four years ago, they had trouble attracting audiences to all of the screenings at the Oriental and Bug theaters. Since then, the event has picked up buzz and grown its budget. The 2011 festival later this month will feature submissions from across the country, as well as submissions from local directors and producers. Westword caught up with McFarlane to talk about the history of the festival, its recent designation as a nonprofit and the selections on tap for this year's film fest for the rest of us.

Westword (A.H. Goldstein): Can you give me a basic background about the Festivus Film Festival? Johnathan McFarlane: This is our fourth year. One of the other founders, Tim DeMasters, he and I had a film on the film festival circuit about five years ago. He and I realized that some of these festivals we were going to were really poorly planned and really poorly executed. As filmmakers, we were spending a lot of money to go out and present our films and travel to the festivals. I remember seeing one that we thought was one of the bigger ones that we got into in California. We went to our screen and we were the only people there in the entire theater [laughs].

There were some really good ones, but there were a lot of bad experiences. When we got back to Denver we realized that there's only one major film festival in Denver, and that one isn't really an indie film fest. It doesn't fit the kind of films that we're into. We thought we could take our experiences and all the things that we saw people doing wrong at festivals and create a new one.

We wanted to do all of those things right, with more of a focus on indie films rather than bigger budget Hollywood movies. For our brand and our festival, we wanted to go the indie route. That was four years ago. Fast forward to now; now we're a nonprofit and we're the biggest indie film fest in Denver.

WW: What has that development process been like? JM: It was really difficult. We always knew what we wanted, and we thought that we had something really valuable to the community. Just because we thought that, it doesn't mean that other people did.

It takes awhile, first of all, to even get the word out. It takes years before your crowd starts to build up. We had some good screens the first year, but we also had a lot of empty ones. Each year, that's been able to grow a little bit as we continue to spread the word. We're always talking about it, we're always pushing it. We go to other film festivals and see what films they're playing.

It's an ongoing process, and it takes a really long time to develop relationships with filmmakers and distributors, which is one way we get some of our movies. It's getting your name out there so the filmmakers know about your festival and want to be a part of it. The majority of our films are submitted to us, so we're constantly trying to make the festival look as cool as we can.

We're advertising basically to two groups: we're advertising to filmmakers, because we want them to be a part of it, and we're advertising to just the Denver audience in general. The filmmaker part, that's something that goes on year round.

WW: What about gaining the designation as a nonprofit? JM: We actually just got our nonprofit status about four months ago. That whole process took like eight months. That's kind of the newest development in the organization.

WW: How have the film submissions evolved in the past four years? JM: The numbers have gone up each year. That's positive. I would say, in general, the quality has as well. I mean, you always have a lot of films that for one reason or another are just not playable, but it's really nice when we have a bigger pool of better films that you can choose from.

People that came to our second year and our third year said, 'I didn't expect the movies to be so good. I want to come back next year.' It's a long process to try to improve the quality, but it's worth it if you just keep working at it. I think that this year is definitely our best program.

WW: Can you talk about some of the highlights from this year's program? JM: Some of the more notable ones, I would say "Boy Wonder," which plays at 6:45, Friday, Jan. 14 at the Oriental Theatre. That one has got a lot of buzz, it's done well at other festivals, but it's a Colorado premiere. They're actually starting their theatrical release in New York in the middle of April.

It's sort of a psychological thriller; I wouldn't call it an action movie. It's about a kid who witnesses the killing of his parents when he's really young. As he gets older he just sort of becomes obsessed with that. He starts to go out on the streets at night to take justice into his own hands. It sounds like a comic book; the storyline sounds like Batman. But visually, and the way the story is told, it doesn't feel like that, it feels like more of a thriller. The director and producer will both be there for that. If documentaries are your thing, "David Wants to Fly" will probably be our biggest film of the whole festival. That's at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 15 at the Oriental. That one is about a filmmaker who idolizes David Lynch, the director. He gets a chance to actually sit down and meet David Lynch at a workshop on transcendental mediation. Lynch is known for his really creative, bizarre films, and he tells the filmmaker that the source of his inspiration and creativity all comes from this transcendental meditation that he's done for 30 years.

The young filmmaker decides he has to figure out what this is all about because he wants to make movies like David Lynch. So he goes on a journey and tries to dig into the whole transcendental mediation movement. Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney are both in it. This is one of the first screenings in the U.S. We had to jump through a lot of hoops to get that film. It's funny, it's a comedy, as much as it doesn't sound like it is.

WW: From the beginning, the festival has taken place at the Bug Theatre and the Oriental Theatre in Denver. What's been the appeal of holding the festival at these venues? JM: We have good relationships with them. They want us there because we bring them business. At the Oriental, we're on our third owner, so we outlast some of the people who have worked there. They're both kind of indie-type venues, even if they're not traditionally movie theaters. They do a lot of music and theater ... they're willing to work with us on things like price. We can negotiate.

There's something to be said for both of those venues, because originally, they both were movie theaters. The Bug was built in 1910 as a Nickelodeon theater, it's been so many things since then. The Oriental, too, used to screen movies. I like being able to sit in a place like that where there's some history to it. It looks different, it feels different from a regular movie theater.

WW: How have you tried to keep the Festivus Film Festival a forum for Colorado filmmakers? JM: One of the ways we're doing that is on Sunday, Jan. 16, we have a short block that's 9 or 10 films that we call 'locals only.' It's exclusively Colorado filmmakers. We want to encourage local film and filmmakers as much as possible. Really, it's good for everybody involved. Actually, the screening right before that at 5 p.m. has a feature called "The Water Hole," and that's also by a Colorado filmmaker. We try to program as many local films as we can.

WW: You have some local music represented at this year's festival too, right? JM: John Common is playing at one of the events. Total Ghost is playing at our Saturday night awards party -- it will be one of their first live performances, ever. It's a project made by local filmmakers; we've been screening their movies for a few years now. Total Ghost is kind of like a fake band; they started it as a joke. They made a music video and people loved it. Now they have a six-song EP on iTunes, they're getting regular radio play in Germany, they're really starting to blow up.

We're really stoked to have them as a part of the festival. That Saturday night party is going to be awesome.

WW: So how big of a Seinfeld fan are you? JM: Well, I've been a Seinfeld fan for a long time, so the Festivus episode was one of my favorites. I always liked the "Festivus for the rest of us," and when I was trying to think of what I wanted a film festival to be, I wanted to sort of have a film festival that was stripped down of all the celebrity, or wanna-be celebrity hype.

I thought Festivus could be the film fest for the rest of us. That was the only connection. It just kind of rhymed and it worked out to be a good name. There's no really great story there, unfortunately.

The 2011 Festivus Film Festival will run from Jan. 13 to Jan. 16 at the Oriental and Bug theaters in Denver. Prices range from $8 to $10 for a single screening to $50 for a festival pass. For more information about the festival schedule, call 720-221-3586 or visit the festival website.

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