VIFF! The Film Festival in Las Vegas That Has it All

Published On November 28, 2011 | By admin | Blog Post, Film Festival, Independent Film

The opening kickoff of VIFF! on November 16th honoring Ted V. Mikels with the Lifetime Achievement Award was a true neighborhood event celebrated with some very special filmmakers who were both local and from out of town.  Ted was certainly deserving of the special attention.  At the age of 82 he has been making films for 62 years starting when he was 12.   His first camera was a Mitchell that cost 300,000 and took over 8 years to pay for and now he’s had to adapt from using film to shooting with the new digital technology available a situation that has cost him a lot in both memories and money.  His latest film “Astro Zombies: M4 – Invaders from Cyberspace” promises to be another unique projects readily identifiable with Mikels quirkiness and skill and as usual includes his longtime friend Dr. Wendy Altamura, who was on hand at Theatre7 to watch Ted immortalized in concrete.  

The official opening night featured the world premiere of “40 West” at the Century Orleans theatre and brought Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, who has a truly fun cameo role in the film, to the Red Carpet.  He was joined there by Director Dana Packard, Actress/Writer Jennifer Nichole Porter and actor Brian White, who I discovered hails from Malden, Massachusetts the city where I was born.  The other lead actor, who is wonderful in the film, Scott Winters passed away a few months ago after losing his fight with cancer.  Although he didn’t live long enough to come to the Las Vegas premiere, his widow Sandy Winters attended in his honor and he did get to see the finished film before he died.  I also mentioned in an earlier post that Dana and Jennifer were on hand the night before for the VIFF! preview and they stayed on inLas Vegas after the festival so they could attend the screenings scheduled at Theatre7 during the following week.  This is part of the distribution contract that Stonebarger is offering to some of the festival winners: in addition to receiving Golden Bulb awards, they will have their films featured at the arthouse throughout the year.  Speaking of the Golden Bulbs, they are authentic bulbs taken from the welcome to Las Vegas sign that are specially boxed and presented making a unique award that is truly representative of the city where VIFF! is held.  Already an IMDb qualifying festival, Derek has said that it is his goal to make VIFF! the premiere film festival in Las Vegas offering the arthouse distribution contracts he began doing this year and expanding to include a film market in the future.

During the festivities, Dana and Jennifer said that they were impressed with the supportiveness of the local filmmaking community, who made them feel at home.  Their film “40 West” takes place in a motel in a small Texas town with White playing Jennifer’s homicidal husband who tried to murder her five years earlier.  Now released early from prison he tracks her down and plans a unique and perverse way in which to woo back her affections.  Newton said that he wanted to do the film, which required traveling to Maine for the shoot, as soon as he read the script. Wayne learned about the part through a mutual friend and found the character intriguing.  He said during the Q&A following the premiere that people like him because although he’s not really a good man, he makes the bad guy the audience can’t stand in the film suffer.  The film demonstrates skilled writing using a limited number of locations since most of the action takes place in the motel room and shows how effective that can be with the right script.

Focused on offering a number of both Las Vegas and World Premiere features and shorts, Stonebarger and Freeman outdid themselves in finding quality films to include.  Short films “Cutting Seams”, “The Southern Belle”, “Blackstone”, “Pay Your Respects”, “Sugartown” and “House” all debuted on opening night at the Orleans while on Friday and Saturday the festivities moved back to Theatre 7.  Among the notables that garned much favor with audiences were the Friday evening Opening Night Feature Film “Hollywood to Dollywood” and the World Premiere of the short “Venus vs. Mars”.   “Hollywood to Dollywood” is a documentary about twin brothers Gary and Larry Lane, who have revered Dolly Parton for years.  They decided to take a 2200 mile road trip and meet the singer after writing a feature film story for her that they wanted to hand deliver.  Travelling in their RV named Jolene they did meet their goal and present Dolly with the script.  The film wound up winning a Golden Bulb award for the Best Musical Video and had the distinction of playing 15 of Parton’s hits.  

Another fan favorite was the poignant drama “Somewhere West” which premiered on Saturday night at Theatre7 and was directed by David Marek.  Earlier in the day VIFF! had also hosted a free event featuring a presentation from AVID software.  Although Final Cut Pro is often touted when it comes to editing, Stonebarger is an AVID man and wanted to offer an opportunity for filmmaking enthusiasts to become more familiar with what the software can do.  Finally, on Sunday the last day of the festival back at the Orleans there were several films worthy of note.  First of all, director Michael Su’s “The Adventures of Loop & Rhett” was a charming throwback to the old westerns of yesteryear.  The 37 minute short film stars: Michael Tushaus, Loop Rawlins, Megan McQuillan and William Michael Cover as bad guy Harlan Boyd.  Su even appears in a cameo role as an evildoer.  There are horses, hangings, gun battles, bar fights and just good old fashioned fun, so let’s hope that using the short as a calling card the group is able to secure funding and turn it into a feature.  The talented Turhaus also directed one of the shorts seen at the festival that day called “Pie”.  Another adorable short that screened was “2 Scoops of Love” from Rebecca Berrib, which demonstrated that amor does indeed come in several flavors while another short I adored was “Bright” by Benjamin Busch.  I hadn’t heard anything about this film before the screening, but found the story compelling and the acting heartfelt and honest.  Keep an eye out for this one.  

Finally, the VIFF! closing night feature film was “Bubblegum & Broken Fingers” from writer/director Sean Jackson.  Several cast members including Patty Chong, Camme Tyla, Kris Mayeshiro, Dean Mauro, Kimberly Hill and J.D. Smith were also on hand for the Red Carpet and screening.  “Bubblegum” has several interesting points that independent filmmakers should take note of.  First of all, it started out as a short.  In fact, that’s the first third of the film, which was then used a calling card to fund the rest of the feature.  Actor Jason Nious started out as a central character in the short and was then unavailable to be in the rest of the shoot forcing Jackson to regroup and write a different script.  Somnium Productions was able to get celebrity chef Kerry Simon to appear in a cameo role while securing Simon’s in Palms Place as well as a suite in The Palms Hotel as locations for the film.  Currently, Jackson and fellow producer Kathleen Shinn are in talks with several distribution companies in search of the best deal.  Just watching how Somnium has grown from producing a number of shorts and building a “family” of cast and crew in the process is inspiring and could serve as a model for other filmmakers.  Collaboration is key for this group and has greatly contributed to their success.  

VIFF! offered us great films, terrific networking opportunities, a chance to see the independent film community in Las Vegas shine and a promise for even more reasons to celebrate next year.  All in all, both Stonebarger and Freeman should be congratulated on finding a way to bring independent filmmakers and fans together for such an intimate, entertaining and professional festival that truly had something for everyone.

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