Five years ago, Maryland Film Festival founder Jed Dietz was struggling for something appropriate to kick off Baltimore's annual celebration of all things cinematic. What he and his staff came up with has since become a tradition, something separating it from the scores of other festivals that dot the U.S. every year.
The 2002 festival opened with "10 Under 20," a program of 10 films, all running 20 minutes or less, on subjects ranging from dead kitties to body language to Cupid's misdirected arrows. The program proved a hit.
"We sort of stumbled into it," Dietz said yesterday from his office on Read Street, where programmers are busy planning this year's festival, set for May 3-6. "We were looking at a bunch of different things, and somewhere in that discussion, somebody said, 'I wonder if we could do a shorts program?'"
After returning to a more conventional opening-night feature in 2003 (Barry Levinson hosting a screening of On the Waterfront), the festival has stuck with its unique opening-night shorts program ever since.
The selections are chosen not to reflect a theme, as is usually the case with shorts programs, but to reflect the endless variety of subjects and techniques that filmmakers employ in making these two-to-20-minute bursts of creativity. This year, the festival has booked one short for sure, the Oscar-nominated Two Hands, Nathaniel Kahn's documentary on acclaimed concert pianist Leon Fleisher, a Baltimorean whose career survived the loss of the use of his right hand for nearly four decades.
Also this year, the festival will have an extra $50,000 to enhance the opening-night experience, courtesy of the Baltimore-based William G. Baker Jr. Fund. Dietz said the money will be used to both further publicize the event - raising the profile of the participating filmmakers and making the event more special for the participants, perhaps by adding some preshow events.
"We're trying to figure out what things will mean the most to the filmmakers," Dietz said.
Connie Imboden, a photographer and teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art, said pumping money into such a unique program dovetails with the fund's newfound commitment to arts projects. The fund was established in 1964 in honor of Imboden's great-uncle, a Baltimore businessman who founded the Baker-Watts Investment Co. (now known as Ferris, Baker Watts).
"We were convinced that [the shorts program] would be particularly good for Baltimore, would put Baltimore on the map," said Imboden, who chairs the Baker board. "We think the film festival is fabulous, great for the city."
The shorts program has proven a boon to the festival, giving it a national reputation and providing filmmakers who usually fly under the movie-going public's collective radar a chance to shine. Each year, the festival's opening night allows those filmmakers to see their work projected onto the big screen (either at the Senator or MICA's Brown Center) before an audience numbering in the hundreds. And it's not only the filmmakers who go away happy.
Audiences get to experience the thrill of discovery, of seeing inventive, often cutting-edge films by artists not yet afraid to try something new or different. And not all the filmmakers are newbies still looking for that first big break. Among the directors whose work has been shown on opening night are actors Matthew Modine (When I Was a Boy) and Aaron Ruell (Napoleon Dynamite), whose short, Mary, played the 2005 festival. Cartoonist Bill Plympton showed up for the 2004 festival with Guard Dog, which was later nominated for an Academy Award.
"Plympton came up to me later," Dietz says, "and told me that this was the place where he realized how special the film was."
If the past few years are any indication, the same thing can be said about opening night at the Maryland Film Festival.
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