Would there have been the worldwide smash hit “Barbie” if there hadn’t been indie-studio-produced “Lady Bird”?
Emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, multiplexes have gone back to premiering blockbuster movies. Streaming services Netflix, Prime, Apple+, Hulu, Disney+ and others provide entertainment on demand. With the end of the writers and actors strikes, there will be a fresh flow of new movies and series.
With all this competition for eyes, ears and dollars, Bellingham’s Pickford Film Center and film festivals on Orcas and San Juan islands and in Bellingham are celebrating the popularity of independent films.
True to life
The Pickford Film Center, a two-screen, nonprofit, independent cinema, was founded n 1998 by a small group of local film fans. The mission then and today is to provide a place where independent film can thrive and strengthen the community.
Marketing manager Gray Gordon said people recognize that something special exists at independent theaters, and being able to watch the kinds of films that the Pickford programs is unique for a town like Bellingham.
“It’s just important to support people that are creating things outside of a commercial context and motivation,” he said. “We’re only naturally going to get more interested in stories that are true to life.”
In the San Juan Islands, the Friday Harbor Film Festival showcases films that represent real-life people and the realities individuals may face. Founded by Karen Palmer and Lynn Danaher, the festival is dedicated to documentaries and their filmmakers.
Palmer said the honesty of independent films brings in the audiences, especially documentaries that weigh all sides of an issue.
“Who knew anything about these topics?” she said. “The documentaries are informative and thought-provoking, and inspire us to learn more and take action toward positive change.”
Independent films engage the audience in ways that mainstream films would not, said Ellen Roberts, public relations manager for the festival. Palmer said that, if their films can get two people out of the audience to be advocates for the issues addressed in the films, then advocacy grows from there.
“That is our mission, to entertain audiences with compelling storytelling that inspires them to be a force for positive change,” said Palmer.
Risky material, honest voice
The big studios work to avoid offending people, said Julie Herlocker, Directors Guild of America’s member director, because their primary purpose is to sell tickets. Independent filmmakers are not afraid to do so.
“Studios are in the business of entertainment and are working to appeal to a broader audience,” she said, “Independent filmmakers who have smaller, more individualized, more personal stories [may] go much deeper into painful, thoughtful or ‘risky material’ than a studio picture would.”
Herlocker said independent films add the honest voice of the filmmaker, which is essential to maintain.
Independent films may address topics larger studios may be afraid to take on — yet, it is important to remember that many famous directors working on mainstream pictures got their start with indie or independent films.
This year, “Barbie” took the box offices by storm and gained mass social media attention. The film, earned over $1.44 billion globally, according to Statistica — calling it out for “the biggest debut ever for a film directed by a woman.”
Like many recent successes, Greta Gerwig, director of “Lady Bird” and “Barbie,” got her start in independent film.
“Look at some of the Academy Award winners in the last five or 10 years,” Herlocker said. “ ‘Moonlight’ started in independent theaters. ‘Lady Bird’ was screened in independent cinema. Look at where Greta Gerwig is now with ‘Barbie.’ If nobody had shown ‘Lady Bird,’ we wouldn’t have had ‘Barbie.’ Your local independent theater is the place to discover amazing new talent and voices.”
Supporting women in films
In Whatcom County, the CASCADIA International Women’s Film Festival is just one event supporting independent film and theaters — while also boosting the local economy. This year’s festival itself was estimated to generate $351,742 of economic activity locally during its four-day run from about 812 in-person attendees.
This amount is based on the average dollar amount — $433.18 — respondents estimated they spent on dining, lodging and more, according to Cheryl Crooks, executive director of CASCADIA.
Polly Miller, the former president of the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto, started the film festival, Crooks said. According to its mission statement, The Female Eye is dedicated to gender equity, inclusion, and diversity in the film industry.
After CASCADIA gained nonprofit status in 2016, the plan was to affiliate with the Female Eye, but due to cross-border complications, it became its own festival and had its first film showing in 2017.
“We didn’t want to give up on the idea,” Crooks said. “We decided, actually, that becoming our own festival separate from the Female Eye would allow us to develop our own character and also reflect better our area.”
Crooks moved to Washington from Los Angeles around 27 years ago. Looking at places before making the big move, Crooks found Bellingham to be a thriving, vital, vibrant arts community.
“You just look at the calendars; you can go any night,” she said. “You can see theater, you can see live music and film. I think that … makes a community of people who have a strong interest and support of what the local art scene is doing here.”
Crooks said that Bellingham also has accommodations for those traveling to attend the film festival such as an airport, railroads, interstate highway and many hotels that have developed over the years. She said this was all taken into consideration when determining a location for the festival.
Developing their film festival, CASCADIA and its board of directors felt the need to support women in the industry, just as their counterparts in Toronto.
The Celluloid Ceiling report tracking women’s employment in film for the past 25 years noted that “in 2022, women comprised 24% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films.”
Crooks said that they felt that, by being a festival dedicated to just women directors, they would be able to draw awareness to the fact that women are still underrepresented in this industry.
Women producing … and directing
Herlocker said she was repeatedly told that being a director in episodic television series or feature films was not a good field for women, and she would have better odds of becoming a producer. One director told Herlocker that if she really wanted to direct she needed to learn post-production. Working in episodic television, she started in post on the Fox series “Millenium,” and later worked as a producer on “The West Wing.”
She also worked on two TV series pilots for producer Mark Gordon, known for “Saving Private Ryan,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds.” With Gordon’s encouragement, Herlocker started to believe in herself and began to actively pursue directing.
Her short film “7 AM Wednesday” was selected to premiere at the CASCADIA 2021 Festival.
“I think that it’s important for audiences to see the difference in the way women approach storytelling,” Herlocker said. “And I think CASCADIA offers that opportunity to discover what could be fabulously exciting and new, and different. Films that might appeal to men and women equally … but told from a woman’s point of view.”
Herlocker clarified that she does not think only women can direct women’s stories and only men can direct men’s stories — it is about a director and a writer being able to access the human condition and being able to understand honest emotions the audience can recognize.
However, with studio pictures, Herlocker acknowledged there are limited experiences where females are the lead or doing things other than supporting their male characters — in her recent short films, including “A Close Call,” Herlocker uses female protagonists.
Orcas: in the top 10
Donna Laslo is a co-director for the Orcas Island Film Festival and has been with the organization from the very beginning.
The festival hosts at three different venues — and in 2023 was voted seventh in the top 10 film festivals in the country. (The Seattle International Film Festival ranked tenth.)
In terms of the films they show, Laslo said you will see them at their film festival first before seeing them at larger festivals or the movie multiplexes.
To host the Orcas Island Film Festival, Lalso said, they had to save a local theater: the Sea View, a mom-and-pop single-screen movie theater built in the early ’60s.
The renovation in 2014 was a love project for the owner, then 84, Laslo said. The theater still had the old 35 mm projector — meaning they could not show newer films.
“So, I stepped in to help run a ‘go digital or go dark,’ kind of ‘do or die’ type of program,” she said.
Enough funds were raised to buy a new projector and put a covenant on the building so that it could not be sold for anything but a movie theater for 15 years. Laslo and the festival also upgraded the theater’s sound to a 7.1 surround sound system.
“We figured that was a good amount of time, that it would benefit the community,” Laslo said. “I think people really got behind it; they didn’t want to lose the theater and so we saved it.”
Since then the Sea View has been running films every weekend along with hosting the Orcas Island Film Festival.
Both Laslo and Herlocker said that without local theaters, there would be no independent films.
“I just feel forever grateful to those people who are like-minded, like-souls, who love movies, who love these kind of films and step up to support us,” Laslo said.
Forward with film
While those festivals are past for this year, there are still ways to support and enjoy independent films and local independent theaters.
For one, “buy a popcorn, some Junior Mints and a soda,” Herlocker said. “They need their concession sales just to break even.” Only a small percentage of ticket sales make it back to the theaters due to the cost of showing the films. Concessions are the way to keep local independent theaters alive, she said.
Herlocker said those who work at independent cinemas do it because they love it — they do not work there to get rich — and because of this audience members can see hand-picked films catering to their enjoyment.
Along that line, the Pickford, in partnership with Western Washington University Libraries, presents Cinema East, screenings from Asian cinema curated by WWU media librarian and associate professor in art history Jeff Purdue. Cinema East started in 2009 and is marking its 14th year. The current series runs through June.
The Friday Harbor Film Festival will have a monthly showing of the top films from their most recent festival which they call “Best of the Fest.” A free film will be offered to the community once a month from January through September 2024.
On the horizon for CASCADIA is a collaborative project with WWU in March, Crooks said; more details will come closer to next year. “We’re really, super excited about that,” she said. The 2024 festival will be live in April and online in May; this month, CASCADIA is celebrating Native American Heritage Month with an online screening of “Kuessipan” [“your turn”], a story based in Quebec’s Innu community.
The Orcas Island Film Festival will continue their work next year as well, through the donations of people who support them along with the grants the festival receives.
— Reported by Aria Nguyen