Film fest works on national profile

The Baltimore Sun

Only the Maryland Film Festival could bring together everything from the chairman of 20th Century Fox's film arm to a suitcase packed by John Waters.

The occasion will be the festival's first-ever fundraiser, set for Sunday at the Charles. The chairman, Mount Washington native Tom Rothman, will be on hand for a brief discussion of the movie biz. The suitcase will be among a handful of items up for auction.

Dubbed "Everything Short," in honor of the festival's unique opening-night short-film program, the event is the first step in what founder Jed Dietz says is a push to give the annual gathering of films, filmmakers and film fans a greater regional and national identity.

"We would like to grow the festival, really push it to the top tier of film festivals," says Dietz, who has headed the event since it made its debut in 1999. "And when you want to do that, you very quickly get to the question of revenue."

Now that presents a little bit of a quandary for some of the festival's established fans (myself included). We like that it's a little intimate, that it's not a big, grandiose affair, that it affords us the opportunity to rub noses with the filmmakers, maybe even have a casual one-on-one conversation in the lobby. I've been to Cannes, and trust me, the filmgoing experience in Baltimore is far more user-friendly than anything the French Riviera has to offer.

So don't become too big, OK?

That said, it's hard to begrudge the festival some growing room and a little extra money to make the growing easier. The festival's finances, Dietz says, "are pretty much hand-to-mouth." Its annual budget, between $300,000 and $350,000, has grown little since it began. Of that total, $25,000 comes from the state. About a quarter of the budget comes from ticket sales, another quarter from Friends of the Festival memberships. The rest comes from corporation and foundation sponsorships.

This weekend's fundraiser should help, both directly - the 150 available tickets already have been sold, at $250 each - and indirectly, by raising the festival's profile.

"We've done a lot of programming that is a nice addition to the film community," Dietz says, "but we haven't had the mechanism in place to get the word out."

Sunday's fundraiser will also afford guests the opportunity to hear from a local boy who's made some serious good. Rothman, an executive at Fox since 1994, has overseen the production of movies that have raked in more than $23 billion in worldwide box-office receipts.

When it comes to the movie biz, he may have some insights to offer.

Joining him at the Charles will be his father, Donald, a founding partner of the law firm of Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger and Hollander and a founding force behind such Baltimore arts institutions as Center Stage, the Baltimore School for the Arts and Everyman Theatre. Also taking part in the discussion will be the elder Rothman brother, John, an actor who has appeared in movies as far back as 1980's Stardust Memories and as recent as the soon-to-be-released Disney film Enchanted. (You may not recognize the name, but I can almost guarantee you'll know the face.)

Tom Rothman, whose studio releases this year have included The Namesake and Live Free or Die Harder, recognizes the importance of an event like the Maryland Film Festival to both the city and the art form.

"It just contributes to our overall cultural vibrancy," Rothman says over the phone from his Hollywood office. "A film festival can bring in a much wider array of original, interesting, singular films than you can get in regular commercial distribution. It can also help breed a new generation of film lovers. And, ultimately, that's what we need most."

Coming up on its 10th anniversary next year, the festival has been a welcome addition to the local film scene, serving both as an annual rallying point and, with its Friends of the Festival screenings and events scattered throughout the year, an impetus to keep Baltimore's cinematic momentum going.

The festival has proved a boon for area filmmakers as well. Both Doug Sadler's Swimmers and Matthew Porterfield's Hamilton had their debuts at the festival and have gone onto wider releases (as you read this, Porterfield is showing his film in Europe, Dietz says). Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's The Boys of Baraka, tracking a group of Baltimore teens as they attended a school established for them in Africa, had an early showing at the 2005 festival. It was later up for an Oscar nomination and aired on PBS.

Dozens of other residents have had their documentaries, shorts and feature-length films shown at the festival. The festival has done nothing but add immeasurably to a vibrant local film scene. Long may it run!

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