Coney Island Short Film Fest attendees Garret Savage, John
Carmichael, Jessie Hutcheson and Lisa Perry tour the neighborhood.

Pay a visit to seattle’s coffee
messiah, with its blue neon sign declaring “Caffeine Saves,” and the image probably
won’t spark thoughts of independent cinema. But for three days
last summer, the tiny coffeehouse doubled as a makeshift movie
theater for the second annual F4 (short for “F***ing Fabulous Film
Festival”), an energetic showcase of features, shorts and experimental
films, drawing largely from Seattle’s pool of underground talent.

Underground film festivals are akin to off-off Broadway plays.
Unpolished, unpretentious and often locally aimed, they are the
community theater of the film world. While they may lack the prestige
of their more established counterparts, these fledgling events
can be invaluable to the not-ready-for-Sundance moviemaker seeking
exposure, audience feedback and a network of supportive peers.

In Seattle’s case, a film festival void may
not have been readily obvious. After all, the city already hosts
the largest cinema showcase in the United States. But the F4
offers an alternative to the major circuit, which can often seem
impenetrable to developing talent. It has a lenient selection
process, no entry fees (though that may change next year) and
no format restrictions. The goal, according to event coordinator
Joel Bartenbach, is simply “to give anyone
with a camera and a vision a chance to express him or herself.”

A longtime supporter of Seattle-grown cinema,
Bartenbach gave the F4 its colorful name in part to make sure
it always stays a few blips under the mainstream radar. As a
promotional strategy that may be self-defeatist, but it falls
in line with the festival’s non-competitive, art-for-art’s-sake
philosophy. “It’s impossible
for art to compete,” Bartenbach says. “There’s no way to compare
two pieces, when oftentimes it’s apples and oranges.” He firmly
believes that underground festivals should strive to maintain a
comfortable environment for the artist.

Adam Rocha, festival director for the San Antonio
Underground Film Festival, agrees. “Idealistically, underground fests cultivate
an encouraging atmosphere for artists showcasing their films,” says
Rocha, who started the SAUFF as a means to bring Sundance-type
films to Alamo City. “Most film festivals are businesses/markets
where filmmakers sell their movies. We’re not a market. We’re more
comparable to a ‘zine.”

Market or not, Rocha has a do-it-yourself ethic
that’s kept his festival running for nine years. He’s seen the
rise of digital technology put moviemaking into the hands of
the general public, accounting for the recent wave of what he
calls “mom and pop” festivals
like SAUFF. So how does a mom and pop festival get noticed in Texas,
amid heavy hitters like Houston and Austin? Easy, says Rocha. “Our
fest takes great pride in offering the most unique prize worldwide:
a low-rider bicycle.”

Intimate Stepping Stones

A crowd grows in Brooklyn to catch a glimpse of some “emerging
and radical new voices” at the Brooklyn Underground Film

Larger festivals, billed as international events,
often favor entries from afar. A common complaint among independent
moviemakers is that the closer you live to the festival you’re
submitting to, the harder it is to get accepted. Rick Danford,
co-founder of the Saints & Sinners Film Festival, saw this
as a problem in the Tampa Bay area and in Florida as a whole.
A one-day festival held three times a year, Saints & Sinners
was initially a Florida-only competition. Though mounting interest
from beyond the state has prompted organizers to open their doors
to everyone, Danford and his cohorts—who also run the St. Petersburg-based
Renegade Films—still largely cater to  local talent. “I feel
this state could be the ‘Hollywood South’ that so many people have
predicted,” he says. “And we want to do everything in our power
to help make that happen.”

For Saints & Sinners, like many smaller festivals, length
is a primary factor in deciding what films get shown. With a one-day
event, that means a feature will sometimes have to be turned down
in lieu of four or five shorts. A full program, in fact, takes
precedence over whether or not the judges personally like the films.
Explains Danford, “If someone spent the time, money and trouble
to put it together, then we feel it deserves an opportunity to
be played.”

Of course, carte blanche screenings can sometimes
backfire on moviemakers, especially in the guilt-by-association
category. The approach is still broader in scope than many of the
big players who often try to weave a thematic connection between
offerings. For the Coney Island Short Film Festival, diversity
and unpredictability are always key considerations. “The most important
thing is never to bore an audience,” says CISFF director Rob Leddy. “We
try to add an element of the bizarre and risqué to our selections.
We don’t just look for one genre.”

Complete with sideshow performers and a burlesque
orchestra, CISFF is a showcase worthy of the neighborhood’s amusement-rich
history. Leddy, who started the event with help from Coney Island
USA (a non-profit arts organization), had been disappointed by
the stolid nature of festivals he had attended in the past. “Many
of them had this impersonal vibe,” he recalls. “I wanted to create
something that made the filmmakers and audience feel like they
were bonding.” Echoing the view of his fellow underground festival
directors, Leddy shares the opinion that these events should be,
first and foremost, intimate experiences.

Ultimately, for career-minded movie­makers, underground festivals
will be seen as a stepping stone. Chances are, they won’t lead
to major distribution deals or Oscar considerations, but their
growing numbers mean a new wave of outlets for artists. As a moviemaker
himself, F4’s Joel Bartenbach recognizes the value of having more
accessible options. “In working together, all of us indie filmmakers
can go into our projects knowing there are countless venues to
tour and broader audiences to reach.” MM