Once a year for 10 days, the deserted bowels of Tower City are flooded with life. More than 50,000 people descend on the mall's theaters, devouring greasy Sbarro and food-court General Tso.
They rent rooms at the Ritz, take the week off from work, drive up from Akron and fly in from Sweden. They stand patiently in line for hours to watch documentaries about displaced Chinese villagers, teenagers with muscular dystrophy, men who have sex with horses. In the hallways, you can hear lively discussions in Arabic and French, or accidentally bump into the director of that gay Latino love story you saw the night before.
This is the Cleveland International Film Festival, a 32-year-old institution that has stubbornly continued to thrive. For a town unaccustomed to an influx of geeky glasses-and-black-cardigan intelligentsia, it's something of a minor miracle.
Key to this success is a diverse slate of films, which manages to appeal to a wide audience without bowing to the mainstream. Many of the foreign flicks make their American debut here. According to Chris Gore, author of The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide, Cleveland's "lineup of international films is impressive and perhaps the best in the Midwest."
And the man behind it all is artistic director Bill Guentzler, otherwise known as the Guy Who Picks the Movies.
"He had stuff that was really unique and original and offbeat," says Carlos Portugal, whose East Side Story screened at last year's fest.
Amid the crowds at Tower City, Guentzler tends to blend with the other artist types. At 31, he's built like a cuddly hockey player — tall and slightly padded, soft-spoken and eminently huggable. But he doesn't have the ego to match industry stereotype. In a business known for pomp, Guentzler is a refreshingly Cleveland creation. He didn't go to film school, nor does he aspire to make movies. He's just a film junkie from Willowick, who joined the festival as a college intern and worked his way up.
"Bill is a very unassuming sort of guy," Portugal says. "People really seemed to like him."
With good reason. Guentzler's been picking the flicks for six years. In the last three, attendance has grown by 50 percent.
"You can show your home movies, and people will show up now," jokes Jonathan Forman, president of Cleveland Cinemas and the festival's founder.
To find his gems, Guentzler spends about half the year on airplanes, jetting from Vancouver to the Czech Republic. He averages seven hours a day in those folding theater seats, watching more than 600 movies a year. It's how the festival has come to have a reputation for screening international films — particularly from Eastern Europe — that you're not likely to see anywhere else.
"He's able to get things that aren't just sort of roaming around the U.S. festival scene," says Chris Clark of the St. Louis International Film Festival.
Guentzler's not picking to please himself. He's choosing for the die-hard fans who skip a week of work to buy all-access passes and watch as many of the 290 films as they can. Some like the quirky Napoleon Dynamite stuff; others go for period pieces or activist films.
"I don't think I ever want to define it," he says of his selection formula. "Or I would overanalyze it and go crazy."
He would also open himself up to a lot of hate mail. Already, he's been criticized for his youth, his lack of industry credentials, and his refusal to screen local movies just because they're local. The festival received nearly 1,100 entries this year. But only about 20 percent of the feature films are culled from that pool; the rest come from Guentzler's globe-trotting. And though all the entries are screened by a three-person panel before being presented for Guentzler's final approval, he still gets blamed if a movie isn't picked.
Perhaps that's why he's guarded in interviews, doesn't delve too deeply into his personal life, and never lets himself get too chummy with filmmakers. Around the end of January, he stops answering his phone in anticipation of the flood of directors' calls.
"Every year, it's me trying to prove that I know what I'm doing," he says.
But it's paid off. Filmmakers say they appreciate the prestige that comes with Cleveland's selectivity — as well as its hospitality. Not every festival flies them in, hosts receptions, and provides consistently packed houses.
"I was pretty selective about the festivals that I actually did end up showing in," says Susan Dynner, director and producer of the documentary Punk's Not Dead. "I think Bill programs good films."
And while it may not be on par with Tribeca or Toronto, Cleveland has a solid reputation for its diverse slate and staying power. Some audience faves here have gained celebrity status — think Mad Hot Ballroom, Spellbound, and Born Into Brothels. Younger festivals now look to Cleveland as a model.
"I think it's one of the true hidden gems of the entire festival scene," says St. Louis' Clark. "We want to be just as cool as they are when we grow up."
Sitting in his Ohio City office, stacks of freshly minted programs surrounding him, Guentzler doesn't pretend this is easy. He speaks with caffeinated speed, as if his mind's already rushing to the next task at hand. He's perched cross-legged in his chair, noting that watching too many movies takes a toll on your back.
But he's clearly proud of what Cleveland's fest has become. His mission is to please his audience, not industry types and celebs.
"We don't have to deal with egos and who's more important than whom," he says. "You just hang out and watch movies. That's it."