Film fest ready its for close-up

Generators roared, projectors rolled, popcorn crackled and Malibu was ready for her close up. The city’s first film festival opened on Friday night with an appearance by director John Frankenheimer and a screening of his 1969 production “The Gypsy Moths.”

Wearing everything from sweatsuits to satin, movie fans wandered past the red carpet and into the confines of a plastic tent pitched on the grounds of the Malibu Lagoon State Beach.

The event had come a long way since David Katz set up shop in a small corner of Bernie Safire’s hair salon. Together with friends like Mike McCormick and filmmakers like Candace Bowen, the aspiring actor/director turned his festival dream into a reality.

Still, this was not Venice or Toronto or Cannes — no cast of thousands, no swarming paparazzi, no bumper-to-bumper limo lines. You were more likely to find Katz dangling from a ladder hanging a sheet of tarp and Bowen giving directions to the closest bathroom.

The festival’s beginnings may be ever so humble, but the vision is grand. “If there was ever a place to hold a film festival, this is it,” said Katz on opening night, “We would like to see this become an international event for years to come.”

Much has been made of the commercialization of other film festivals such as Sundance, where studio giants run the show. Katz and his co-founders, however, pledge to remain true to the independent spirit of filmmaking. They hope to help showcase the works of new writers, directors and actors who don’t have blockbuster promotional budgets.

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“The bottom line is money,” huffed filmmaker Spencer Thorton. “They [the studios] pour millions into producing films and millions more into promoting them.” Thorton, who financed his $75,000 production himself, said the exposure that a film festival provides is of paramount importance. “It is essential to give people the opportunity to put their vision on screen. If you show you can do it, you won’t be as much of a liability.”

The struggles of young filmmakers were not lost even on an old celluloid veteran like Frankenheimer. “The hardest part is getting the company to say yes. What you have to do is just mindboggling,” he mused. “Once you get over that hurdle, you can’t think about the totality of it because it would paralyze you with fear.”

Thirty films will be screened during the six-day event, including entries from Canada, France, Italy, Germany and France. Four Malibu filmmakers will also be featured — David L. Corley (“Angel’s Dance”), Isabella Fox (“When I Was a Boy”), Lisa Satriano ( “The Setting Son”) and Miles Hood Swarthout (“Mulligans!”). In addition to Frankenheimer, the festival will honor director James Cameron, cult darling Roger Corman and actor Seymour Cassel.

In coming years, festival organizers hope to continue to draw on big name support and build on their success. Still, this is show business and there are no guarantees. “It remains to be seen whether it legitimizes itself,” noted David Foster on Friday night. “But this is a noble effort. Their heart is in the right place.”

Nearby cities such as Palm Springs, Santa Barbara and San Diego have also created their own local film festivals, and getting established is a process that can take years. Even so, David Katz is busy blocking his sequel.

For now, the script of the Malibu Film Festival reads like the life of a struggling young actor, unknown and unproven, but brimming with potential and full of hope.

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