Columbia filmmaker looks for next Spielberg in festival contest

He has worked in television, film and stage in London, Los Angeles and points in between, and now spends a fair amount of time lecturing on a luxury cruise ship. But the biggest constant in Robert Neal Marshall's life could be filmmaking.

His grandfather's career in newsreels was catapulted by footage of Charles Lindbergh's historic flight to Paris in 1927, and Marshall's mother was a television and stage actress in New York, so the Columbia resident comes by his flair for visual and performing arts naturally, he said.

Lately, he's been putting that creativity to use as he edits his latest documentary film, a biography of ocean liner authority Bill Miller called "Mr. Ocean Liner." He will preside at its debut July 1 on the Queen Mary 2 as it sets sail for England from New York.

But on Monday, he will be in Kings Contrivance to judge "Cinema Columbia," among the new elements of the annual Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Six film entries were received in an open call for submissions and will be screened at 7 p.m. at Howard Community College, where the audience will vote for a Viewers' Choice award.

"I've never seen a community so inspired to take on the arts at a local level," said Marshall, who just completed his fourth consecutive gig last weekend as emcee for LakeFest, a three-day celebration at Lake Kittamaqundi that begins the festival each June.

"Columbia is a very diverse and embracing place, so open-minded and creative," he said.

The graduate of New York University's film school said he's excited to take part in the new event, a competition that he and festival organizers view as a way to bring attention to filmmaking as an art form.

"Filmmaking is not necessarily all about making it look slick," said Marshall, who knows firsthand what it takes to be a one-man production company.

"A film can be a bit rough around the edges if it hits an emotional chord with the audience," he said. "A competition like this is all about the heart of a film and whether it draws you in and moves you in some way."

Marshall brought his talents and a desire to find a home base to Columbia in 1992, after getting to know the vicinity during family trips to Maryland beaches. He had been living in Los Angeles during the riots over the police beating of black motorist Rodney King and felt Howard County offered a respite from the tumultuous and expensive California lifestyle.

"I drove around the area and just thought it was a beautiful environment," he said. "And being located near an airport and between Baltimore and Washington worked well for me."

Though he's built a career working across multiple platforms, filmmaking remains one of the most important outlets of expression to him, especially since today's technology makes it possible for amateurs to turn out a professional film.

And this competition has proved that, even before Monday's screening.

"I've seen the films, and they are all wonderful," Marshall said Wednesday of the contest entries.

"It will be tough to make a final decision, because there are such strong contenders and they're all very different," he said. "Audience reaction will be very important."

That's what organizers had hoped would happen in the third phase of Cinema Columbia, said Chester Stacy, a self-described film bug who oversees the event but has not viewed this year's entries.

In 2008, several films were screened to test the waters. Last year, an all-volunteer group of actors, editors and others worked with an online script-writing program to create and shoot a film during LakeFest. This year, the call for individual entries was intended to raise interest another notch.

"The current generation is so visually connected," said Stacy, whose day job is as art director for a Columbia graphics firm. "This [competition] provides another outlet for a growing body of aspiring filmmakers to have their films exposed to an audience."

Stacy also heads an amateur film company, whose members have entered competitions in Frederick and Annapolis, as well as the 48 Hour Film Project, a two-day competition held in cities around the country, including Baltimore and Washington.

"Everyone can use a little encouragement," he said. "We want to provide that.

"Most of the time these films are well thought out and pretty darn serious, not aloof or done for the sake of whimsy only," he said. "Filmmakers have an intense connection to their subjects and a desire to make their films better."

One of the contestants is local college student Kalil Zaky, who said he's been interested in photography and filmmaking since he received his first camera for Christmas in 2007.

"I became inseparable with it," said Zaky, who will bring family and friends to Monday's event.

Zaky, a 2009 graduate of Long Reach High School and a rising sophomore at Morgan State University, directed and acted in a film two years ago for the student-run HoCo Film Festival about a man haunted by his dead twin. That entry earned him fifth place and an invitation to work on last year's LakeFest documentary.

"I'm even thinking about switching my major to film," he said, adding that his favorite director is Spike Lee. "I know I'll be making movies for the rest of my life, no matter what."

Stacy said guidelines are "very loose" for the competition, with submissions required to be on DVD, no longer than six minutes, including credits, and with a "wink" at the festival by embracing some element of it.

Dave Bittner, co-owner of a multimedia company in Columbia, will work with Marshall to judge the films. Stacy will vote only if there's a tie, he said.

"The good news is, there are some talented filmmakers around here, and that's very exciting," Marshall said. "They have the technical skills, but they also have the heart."

If you go

What: Cinema Columbia

When: 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, June 21

Where: Monteabaro Recital Hall in Howard Community College's Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia.

Admission: Free and open to the public.

Information: columbiafestival.com

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