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'Happy New Year,' Baltimore's Michael Cuomo and the power of film festivals

For anyone who needs evidence of the power of film festivals, here's the testimony of actor-producer Michael Cuomo. This Baltimore-born talent stars in "Happy New Year," a dramatic feature set in the psychiatric ward of a remote veterans hospital, with characters who've been through Iraq and Afghanistan. It premieres this weekend at the South by Southwest music and film festival. It started life as a play, then became a short film which played at the 2008 Maryland Film Festival.

"We have some great people in the cast, like J.D. Williams [of 'The Wire']," Cuomo said while boarding a plane at Kennedy Airport in New York for Austin. "But in the case of a film like this, distributors will say, 'Oh, this is a dramatic independent film with controversial subject matter and without bona fide stars. It's really going to depend on audience response and word of mouth.' They'll look at film festivals, big and small, as a microcosm of the market, to determine what people think of the movie and whether it has a real shot. For us, the hope is to start out at South By Southwest, then move into strong regional festivals -- preferably in urban, multi-ethnic environments like Baltimore, because when you're doing a movie about veterans of the volunteer military, you're going to have multi-ethnic characters and actors."

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When the short version played in Baltimore at the Maryland Film Festival, it was a huge up for Cuomo -- a triumphant homecoming. Until he was five he lived in Guilford, on Juniper Road. (Then his family moved to Towson.) His parents are antique dealers. He grew up in "Cuomo's Antiques and Interiors," on Howard Street in "Antiques Row." As a tyke he would tumble around a playpen while film directors like Barry Levinson and John Waters and visiting stars like Whoopi Goldberg would shop there. When he got older he would help his mother with deliveries, including pieces they installed in Waters' house. "You could say I moved furniture for John Waters!"

Cuomo graduated from Dulaney High School and Loyola College. He interned at Baltimore Magazine, got his feet wet as a freelance writer, and dreamed of becoming a playwright. His parents hoped he would enter the family business. But a decade ago he moved to New York to study theater and acting with coaches and teachers like Joseph Chaikin. "I had never acted before, and I really wanted to cut my teeth on stage the way actors did in the 1950s and 1960s, before it all moved to film."

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In 2008, college friends and high school buddies and several college teachers showed up for the short at the Maryland Film Festival, including Johns Hopkins film professor Linda DeLibero, and, from Loyola, philosophy professor Dale Snow and Dickens scholar and film professor Brian Murray. Cuomo celebrated at the Brewer's Art after the Friday night screening. The next day, his parents arranged for 70 relatives and family friends to attend the daytime show and share "a big lunch" at Chiapparelli's in Little Italy. "It was the first time a majority of them had seen me in anything and it was tremendous -- I felt like a million bucks!"

When my colleague Chris Kaltenbach posted a story about Cuomo on-line, "Everybody went crazy."

Equally important, "Chris' story became part of the submission we were using to raise the money to expand the short to a feature. That's one reason you go to festivals: to generate 'buzz' and prove you're getting noticed and appreciated."

Will "Happy New Year" as a feature return to the Maryland Film Festival? "We'll see," said Cuomo. "[Maryland programming director] Eric Hatch is coming to the world premiere. And [festival director] Jed Dietz has been very supportive and a mentor in many ways. I'd say we have a good shot."

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