June 14, 2009
By Steven Zeitchik
CineVegas, the annual gathering of indie film powerbrokers amid the slot machines and black-jack tables, wound down Sunday after providing several breakouts -- and more than a few surreal spectacles.
Among the world premieres to make a splash were Jeff Mizushima's "Etienne!," Frankie Latina's "Modus Operandi" and Kyle Patrick Alvarez's "Easier With Practice."
Mizushima's "Etienne!" was a conversation piece for many over the weekend. The film, a spiritual cousin to "Lars and the Real Girl," centers on a pudgy loner who has only one friend -- the titular dwarf hamster -- whom he decides to take on a bike trip up the California coast after the critter is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
"Operandi," meanwhile, was the talk of the festival among media and execs after its premiere Saturday night. Nominally a thriller involving a revenge-bent CIA agent, it also bursts with campiness and odes to '70s movie outrageousness.
Perhaps the best-received movie of the fest was "Practice," an understated drama about a twentysomething introvert writer who develops an unlikely relationship with a woman who calls him randomly one day.
All three movies have U.S. theatrical rights available and were being circled by acquisition execs as the fest wound down.
On Sunday night, "Practice" took the grand jury prize, while "Etienne!" and Robert Saitzyk's Alaskan thriller "Godspeed" won special jury prizes.
In other categories, poker doc "All In" took the doc jury prize while Jessica Oreck's Japan-insect exploration "Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo" scored the special documentary jury prize. Jon Voight and Willem Dafoe were given achievement awards.
Execs from a range of companies -- IFC, Magnolia, Miramax and Fox Searchlight -- all turned out to the Sin City fest to scout for the next big indie thing.
"It's really one of the most enjoyable and even important of the boutique festivals," said one exec. "It's a chance to find a film or a filmmaker months or years before a lot of other people are going to hear about them."
While a number of pics were coming off Sundance debuts -- James Gandolfini political satire "In the Loop" and Sony Worldwide Acquisitions' "Black Dynamite" were two this year -- filmmakers with premiere pics could take heart in the fact there are always a few going the other way (especially since there is significant overlap between Sundance and CineVegas staff).
Five years ago, Andrew Wagner's indie fave "The Talent Given Us" premiered at CineVegas and went on to play Sundance, where it became one of the most buzzed-about titles that year.
A number of pics at the fest also contained Vegas themes, including Amir Naderi's well-received real-estate bubble feature "Vegas: Based on a True Story" and Doug Tirola's poker doc "All In," a Cinetic-repped pic which also piqued buyer interest.
But the fest also aims for edginess no matter the subject.
"We don't want to show movies that you can see at any other festival," said artistic director Trevor Groth, the Sundance programming director who, along with the recently-promoted programming director Mike Plante, curates CineVegas. "This is a city based on risk-taking, not only because of the gambling and casinos but because of how the whole city was founded. It shouldn't even exist. This place should be sagebrush and lizards."
There's also a SXSW-esque studio marketing element to CineVegas. While this year didn't bring the big summer world premiere the festival has had in past years with films like "Ocean's 13" or "Get Smart," it can still be a showcase for smart, youth-oriented summer comedies.
Fox Searchlight's "500 Days of Summer" got the gala treatment Friday -- with cast and filmmakers all turning out to promote the pic -- while Saturday night brought a gala for Mark Duplass-toplined off-center buddy comedy "Humpday."
With the Vegas setting came a mix of partying -- splashy fetes at the Palms pool and the Mandalay Bay's Morrea Beach Club anchored the weekend -- and, as the only filn festival to be set in a casino, plenty of other only-in-Vegas moments.
Fest headquarters and the screening theaters are both located in the Palms hotel, and a walk between the two requires a stroll through the casino, past the sportsbook area and right between the slot and video-poker machines.
Entertainment was often brought in to the laid-back headquarters space -- like a Billy Idol impersonator (who, oh yes, also stars in a fest pic), who vamped for festgoers.
And at one screening, the sound of a couple exchanging vows could be heard through the speakers before a movie began. A programmer got up to assure that there was no need to worry; there was simply a wedding on the red carpet outside. No one batted an eye.
The fest scaled back in this, its 11th year, going from a 10-day extravaganza to a more manageable six days. Part of the reason, organizers say, is a recognition that Vegas offers a few more distractions than the average fest.
"People come to this city and they want to party and they don't necessarily want to see movies," Groth said. "But we don't mind if people party. They could see movies all day and then party until three or four, and then see movies again the next day. That's why we condensed the schedule. We don't want people to pace themselves."