Vacant Era’s youthful board of directors bristled with bold ideas, defiant optimism and caffeine as they took over Norman’s Winans Fine Chocolate & Coffees one Sunday morning in September.
The group was overcoming sleep deprivation at a planning meeting to discuss the inaugural Vacant Era Film Festival, which opens Thursday and runs through Sunday. With coffee awakening their senses, the committee discussed the festival as more than just film screenings, likening Vacant Era to the introduction of a grand paradigm.
“A lot of people want to do films, but they don’t have a blueprint of how to make films in Oklahoma,” said Cory Allen, festival director and cofounder. “They think they have to go to Hollywood to make something happen.”
More than 40 films will screen in four days at the Sooner Theater, 101 E. Main in Norman. Educational programs on the filmmaking industry are slated to screen throughout the weekend at Winans, with after-parties scheduled nightly at Coach’s Restaurant & Brewery.
The festival was originally named after Randy Aspell and Allen’s Vacant Era production company, a title that refers to the absence of a thriving film industry within the state. The festival and other planned initiatives, such as a studio and equipment rental, are all part of an effort to provide opportunities for Oklahoma filmmakers.
“We have a lot of talent in Oklahoma, but they aren’t really connected, there is no place for them to get together,” said Meleah Montgomery, festival coordinator. “Someone might have written a great script, but they don’t know how to get it on film, or you might have someone with a camera, but with nothing to film. We’re really trying to get the connections set up for these people to foster filmmaking opportunities.”
The proceeds of the festival will go to fund Oklahoma productions, and the project chosen for this first year is OETA’s upcoming “The Utopia Joe Show,” named after the rockabilly-tinged multimedia artist who highlights Sooner-state musicians, artists and other metro innovators. Allen said the show premiers Oct. 20 and will play at 10 p.m. Mondays.
“It was pretty easy since Utopia Joe’s platform is like ours, promoting Oklahoma,” Allen said. “It’s an art show with his art and furniture, but he’s using Oklahoma music.”
The festival won’t only feature Oklahoma films; it will screen other projects from across the country and even a few international submissions. Like any festival, the major motivations for the filmmakers are exposure and the chance to network with others in the industry. Dave Smith of Norman production company Festival City Films entered a feature-length film and a short to Vacant Era.
When asked to describe the films, Smith dug into his pocket for his iPhone.
“If I can pull up my cheat sheet I stayed up last night working on,” Smith said, laughing before reading the list. “‘Manjari Must Die,’ a college girl attempts to re-enter her social group after finding out her boyfriend had been cheating on her with her best friend. And then, ‘Naked Breakfast,’ Alex tries to find a ride home after waking up in a friend’s bathtub the morning after a Halloween party.”
It took more than two years to finish “Manjari Must Die,” including a re-shoot of a scene featuring The Oh Johnny! Girls just a month before the festival. Smith is taking the movie into the festival circuit in hopes of finding funding for future projects. For any indie filmmaker, festivals are a critical tool in gaining exposure.
“A lot of people travel the festival circuit looking for a distributor. You want to get some festival buzz before it goes on sale because, in a perfect world, if you have an independent feature and festival buzz, when it comes out on DVD or theatrically, people already know what it is. There is already a positive buzz about it,” Smith said.
Vacant Era organizers hope that offering exposure will not only help filmmakers already rooted in Oklahoma, but also present the state as a legitimate option for projects that have gone to others in the region.
Allen said that Oklahoma’s film industry is losing out on millions of dollars every year when projects fly over to other states.
“There is not as much filmmaking going on in the state as there should be,” Allen said. “There are a lot of films going to Austin and New York that should be coming here. What we are trying to do is aggressively promote filmmaking in Oklahoma.” “Charles Martin