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Where Filmfest DC 2011 fits in the wider movie festival landscape

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In any given month, Washington audiences can’t swing a popcorn bag without hitting a film festival.

Consider: Since January, editions of the Washington D.C. Independent Film Festival, Environmental Film Festival, New African Films Festival and Our City Film Festival have unspooled. This week, Filmfest DC and the Korean Film Festival will take up residence in local venues before making way for the Politics on Film festival and G.I. Film Festival in May and the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival in June.

The surfeit of festivals is a function of the city’s unique cinematic culture: For one thing, Washington boasts multiple museums, embassies and cultural organizations that show movies — often for free — creating many more venues than the repertory houses found in New York or Los Angeles.

Tom Vick, film curator at the Freer and Sackler galleries, also cites “this spirit of grass-roots, almost political organizing . . . where people have an idea or cause or place they want to celebrate and they just start a film festival.”

And yet, with one or two exceptions, few of the more than 70 festivals that cram the city’s theaters and museums throughout the year exist on the radar of the global film festival community.

In that world, there are just three must-go festivals: Cannes, where filmmakers are treated like minor deities and their movies reap valuable international media coverage; Toronto, whose program plucks the best from that year’s festival circuit and has grown into a launching pad for awards contenders; and Sundance, still the hunting ground of choice for distributors eager to bag films by unknowns.

To be sure, several highly regarded festivals draw huge audiences outside the Cannes-Toronto-Sundance gravitational field. Berlin, Rotterdam and Venice represent prestigious destinations for filmmakers, programmers and buyers. Small but doughty American festivals such as Telluride, South by Southwest and Tribeca have developed their own personalities and cachet, combining attractive locations with strong programming and cool, filmmaker-friendly vibes to create distinctive “destination” festivals.

Although different in size, scope and mission, these festivals share certain essentials: Most of them are the babies of long-term artistic directors whose strong curatorial visions create a reliably distinct personality for each. The resourceful directorial debut “Another Earth” (by Georgetown alum Mike Cahill), which won a distribution deal and jury prize at Sundance this year, would likely be out of place at the grander, more veteran-friendly Cannes.

Then again, the glittery red-carpet scrums and black-tie ballyhoo that define the Cannes experience would seem dreadfully gauche in Park City, Utah.

Distributors go to Sundance to sniff out product on the cheap; the stars attend to support their films and get a little reflected prestige and buzz; and journalists follow them all, in the hopes of star sightings and a juicy Cinderella story about a million-dollar deal for a film made with mom’s credit card.

To borrow from the title of a popular Sundance hit this year, it’s a win-win-win.

And it’s a matrix that Washington’s local festivals largely exist outside of, none more so than Filmfest DC. Now celebrating its 25th year, Filmfest rarely snags the year’s hot premieres; with the exception of a Charlize Theron here or a John Malkovich there, relatively few stars show up for sashays down the red carpet.

And that’s just fine with Filmfest founder and director Tony Gittens: “We’re not in the buying and the selling of films. That’s not what we do, even though films have been bought from our festival,” he says. “We’re a festival that tries to bring the best of international cinema and make it available for people in Washington, D.C. The festivals that serve as markets serve a purpose. We do it for people who love movies.”

Filmfest DC has come in for criticism in the past for not harboring ambitions commensurate with the signature film festival of the nation’s capital. But seen through a different lens, Filmfest DC is part of Washington’s singular cinematic ecosystem, in which each festival — large or small — knows its mission, its audience and its place.

The Environmental Film Festival, for example, invites its embassy and museum venues to choose the films they show, resulting in a program that’s carefully curated and tastefully crowd-sourced by partner institutions. For its part, Silverdocs has earned pride of place among such important nonfiction festivals as Sundance and Toronto’s Hot Docs, maximizing local industry ties with Discovery, the political world of think tanks and Congress and national media outlets.

At Filmfest DC, Gittens and his programming team have filled a niche of international films that (mostly) haven’t played yet in Washington and are unlikely to return in theatrical release. It’s a difficult balancing act — the program often seems to navigate the cracks between the foreign-language movies that regularly play at AFI, the Goethe-Institut, the Freer and the National Gallery of Art.

But Gittens insists that there are plenty of films and audiences to go around, even when their programs occasionally overlap. “Our audiences tend to be different,” he says, adding that even if a film has played at AFI or an embassy, “the audience we attract tends to be much broader. We’ll still turn people away.”

With festival hype rewarding celebrities and deal-making, it’s easy to forget that for the majority of regional film festivals in the country — of which Filmfest DC is one of the oldest and largest — the primary focus is the audience. Quiet as it is kept, even at such behemoths as Toronto and Sundance, journalists, stars and business insiders are often outnumbered at screenings by local film fans and cine-tourists. Over the years, Filmfest DC’s audience has grown to more than 20,000 dedicated locals who, as longtime festival-goer Karen Schneider recently put it, “can stay in Washington and see the world.”

The strength of Filmfest DC, and surely one reason it’s been around so long, is that Gittens has never sacrificed that mission in favor of flashier distractions. He and his brethren in Washington’s film festival scene understand that audiences can be built without red carpets and lucrative deals. In fact, they’re often better served without them.

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