Though it's stacked with boxes of schedules and T-shirts, the back room of the Cleveland Film Society offices includes a timeline printed on the wall that covers the Cleveland International Film Festival's 33 years. Some highlights: Robert Altman's The Player opened the festival one year; the Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor premiered on opening night in 2003; and Jim Jarmusch's cult classic Stranger Than Paradise closed the 1985 series. Through the years, the Film Festival has showcased the work of significant directors like Todd Solondz and John Sayles as part of director's spotlights series.
Artistic director Bill Guentzler and executive director Marcie Goodman went through 1,200 films before selecting the 143 features and 170 shorts that make up this year's festival. Several years ago, the festival's selection process was more arbitrary and not everyone on the selection committees saw every film; now, the process is far more rigorous.
"Three people watch each movie and grade them," says Guentzler one afternoon from the Film Society offices. "The highest rated features go on to me and I try to find a place for them. The highest rated shorts go on to a six-member programming committee, and they watch all the selected films and make their picks."
The program this year is a typically strong one that includes a selection of art films that will receive theatrical releases later this year, including Half Nelson director Ryan Fleck's new film Sugar (March 22), the murder mystery Surveillance (March 27), the Mike Tyson documentary Tyson (March 29), Rian Johnson's farce The Brothers Bloom (March 29), the Sam Rockwell vehicle Moon (March 29) and the Mexican comedy Rudo y Cursi (March 29). Jeffrey Balsmeyer's Lightbulb, a quirky movie about a guy (Dallas Roberts) whose misguided inventions cost him his girlfriend (Ayelet Zurer) and turn him into an obsessive gambler, opens the festival with a screening at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 19. Producer/writer Mike Cram, executive producer Greg Goodell and Roberts will be in town for the opening festivities. Guentzler, who attends festivals around the world looking for international features, says his favorites this year include It's Not Me, I Swear! (March 20 and 23), a Canadian movie he calls "a cute coming-of-age story," and The Way We Get By (March 24 and 25), a documentary about troop-greeters in Maine that he says "isn't pro-war or anti-war."
"We just want there to be something for everybody," he explains. "If there's more international one year and more American another year, so be it. We want to make sure everybody has a choice. Every film is going to be someone's favorite and someone's least favorite."
This year's festival also includes returning programs like the student FilmSlam, the Audience Choice Award for Best Film and the "Someone to Watch" series on rising filmmakers. This year's outing spotlights U.S. writer-director-producer Ramin Bahrani, who has three films in the festival, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo and Man Push Cart, which screen on March 20 and 21. Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo is also a "Someone to Watch" award recipient and his Drama/Mex and I'm Gonna Explode screen on March 24 and 25.
"Our focus is always how to make things better for our audience," says Goodman. "We have a new program we're attaching to our film forums, which are our moderated panels. We have 11 of those, and at the end of each one, we're launching something called 'Lights! Camera! Action! Steps!' and there will be handouts for the audience on what you can continue to do to make a difference [as an activist]."
While the film festival prides itself on breaking attendance records every year (even last year, when a snowstorm virtually wiped out the first weekend), it will be a tough task this year in such a bad economy. "We are always very positive and optimistic about attendance," says Goodman. "Thank God our art form is film, because everyone loves movies. We remain very affordable and accessible. Our ticket prices are $10 and $12. There are also coupons out there for $2 off. It's a reasonable price for everyone. We've had to work harder than ever this year, but that's fine because we love what we do."