For film fest, is 'good enough' good enough?

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'Stand Up Guys'

The cast of 'Stand Up Guys' at the 2012 Chicago International Film Festival. (October 29, 2012)

Is the Chicago International Film Festival good, good enough or not quite that?

This is the question. This is the question to be asked of any festival, every perennial cultural mainstay in every city. It's the way to keep us all honest, whatever dog we have in the hunt for the next great artistic experience.

My own feelings about the Chicago festival, the 48th edition of which concluded Thursday, are necessarily shaped by individual taste as well as equally subjective notions of relevance. Does the event matter? Is it as vital as it could be, should be? Tough queries, tougher to answer.

This year's slate brought in some big names, to go by the red carpet-centric measurement of a film festival's buzz quality. Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin flew in for the opener, "Stand Up Guys." The Chicago-based Wachowskis, Lana and Andy, introduced their latest, "Cloud Atlas." Director Robert Zemeckis, a Chicago native, closed the festival with a presentation of "Flight," a terrific picture opening commercially Friday. Viola Davis, Joan Allen, Helen Hunt and others joined the festival at various points, picking up various awards.

The festival was founded nearly a half-century ago and overseen by Michael Kutza, who once upon a time survived a board coup and remains at the helm, a full generation longer than most other North American film festival honchos. Recently, Richard Pena stepped down as programming head of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the New York Film Festival. He held the job for 25 years. "Twenty-five? Big deal," Kutza says with a laugh, adding that Pena's "a terrific guy." "Try making it to 50!"

Chicago festival managing director Vivian Teng says that although the final tallies haven't been made for the 2012 festival attendance, signs point to a turnout in line with last year's 58,000 patrons.

The festivalgoing experience itself has its quirks as well as its benefits. Chicago's festival just finished its fourth year with the downtown AMC River East 21 as its home base. One of the peculiarities of this location is how the multiplex exterior looks on the outside during the festival.

It looks like nothing special is going on inside. Approaching the theater entrance from the west on foot, on the north side of 322 E. Illinois St., a festivalgoer spied a big SELF PARK sign for the building (OVERNIGHT SPECIAL $36) to the left of the sidewalk, followed by a smaller parking sign. And then on the other side of the sidewalk, a little further east, the festival banners — tall, but narrow — whispered to the passers-by. Hey, uh, there may be something of interest here.

If Kutza and company had their way, the street-level signage would do more to make people aware. But it's not their call. It's an AMC corporate matter, says managing director Teng, who's quick to acknowledge her appreciation for the River East multiplex as a home.

This year the festival vibe improved once you got up the escalators and saw some real signage. This was a step up from previous years at the River East. And once again, clear advantages came to the fore in concentrating the action at one location. If a 6 p.m. screening was sold out, you took a chance on another film starting at the same time, or in 15 minutes, and you didn't have to dash to do it. Or you grabbed a bite a block or two away, and got back in time for a 7 p.m. screening.

"Being in one building certainly gets people to see more films," Kutza says, adding: "Whether we like it or not, being at River East actually works."

There is, however, another way to look at the AMC River East festival locale.

"It's very hard at a multiplex to create the sense of an event, because people go there all the time, and they associate that space with 'passive viewing mode,'" says Gabe Klinger, freelance film programmer and a longtime critic of the festival. "Chicago's a city that's so much about neighborhoods, and there it is, stuck in a multiplex."

Kutza's film festival takes place during an exceptionally crowded period of the international festival calendar. Between August and October, several of the big dogs come out to play — festivals of widely varying missions in Telluride, Colo.; Venice, Italy; Toronto; and New York, whose best-known festival operates under the Film Society of Lincoln Center banner.

Programmers for these and other influential festivals jockey for the hottest international titles. These are festivals where distributors launch a monthslong awareness campaign for their work, some of which qualifies (or hopes to) as Oscar bait.

Many top-flight distributors such as Sony Pictures Classics (rarely a presence at Chicago's festival) see little reason to complicate their late summer/early fall schedules and get involved with the Chicago effort, for various reasons. Some feel they don't have a relationship with Kutza. Some don't like what they see as the festival's emphasis on the parties rather than the films.

"The Chicago festival has been irrelevant for many years as far as the marketplace goes," says Michael Barker, Sony's co-president. "When we have played the festival, we haven't seen any kind of effect in the marketplace when the film opens commercially. That's why it's not a major festival."

For decades, Chicago's festival has had to endure unflattering comparisons, especially to Toronto's, which exists on an entirely different planet of civic, corporate and governmental support.

Each time I mentioned to someone, either locally or outside Chicago, the amount of city and state financial support Chicago's festival receives (less than 1 percent of its approximate $1.75 million annual operating budget, under the auspices of the nonprofit Cinema/Chicago), the response was strikingly similar: silence, followed by pity.

"Wow," says Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls, a longtime festivalgoer. "That really is small."

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