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Omaha Film Festival Celebrates Seven Years of Growing the Local Film Culture

February 1, 2012 11 comments

Though I’ve written about the Omaha Film Festival since its inception in 2006 this is the first time I’ve posted a story about it because I was concerned readers might mistake an article about the 2011 or 2010 or whatever festival as being current.  The following piece for Metro Magazine is an overview of how and why the fest came to be and offers a general idea of what to expect at the 2012 event, which runs March 7-11.  As a film buff and former film programmer I’ve always been impressed by how well organized the festival is and by the range of films and programs it offers. The three founders who continue to make the fetival go –Jason Levering, Jeremy Decker, and Marc Longbrake – are quoted extensively in the piece.  They’re all filmmakers themselves and it’s a big reason the event has such a focus on craft through its filmmaking conference, which annually draws big industry names.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Film Festival Celebrates Seven Years of Growing the Local Film Culture

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the February 2012 issue of Metro Magazine

The Omaha Film Festival has become a go-to staple on the local culture scene for its premiere screenings, top-notch panels and special events

In 2005 three filmmakers frustrated by the metro’s sparse independent cinema offerings took matters in their own hands to launch the Omaha Film Festival. As the March 7-11, 2012 event approached, the founders expressed satisfaction at having made it this far and growing the area’s film culture.

Filling a gap

It’s expected OFF will screen as many as 90 films from dozens of countries at the Great Escape Cinema 16. All the movies will make their Nebraska premiere. In its short history the event’s presented some 500 films from around the world and hosted award-winning filmmakers working in features, documentaries, shorts and animation. Upwards of 4,000 moviegoers attend each year.

Movie Maker Magazine named the OFF among the “top 25 film festivals worth the entry fee” – high praise for a still young event.

“I knew it was something we could do and do great,” says OFF director Jeremy Decker, an Omaha native now based in Austin, Texas.

The vital film scene Omaha enjoys today simply didn’t exist before. When OFF began, Film Streams was still two years from opening. When it came to indie art films, documentaries and shorts, cineastes had few options to feed their fix.

Executive director Jason Levering says, “The things that Film Streams and the festival offer are things that just weren’t readily available to the community before. Without those two entities I don’t think Omaha would have an outlet for it.”

Program director Marc Longbrake says the festival filled “a gap” no one else seemed willing or able to fill at the time. Decker says the prevailing thought behind the fest was, “Wouldn’t it be great if people here could get the same experience people get in many other cities across the country?” Besides, he says, everyone he and his comrades talked to agreed “it would be good for the city and for film lovers and for people who want to learn the craft.”

A festival is often the only theatrical screening filmmakers get for their work. Decker says there’s nothing like the thrill of seeing your baby on the big screen.

 

 

 

 

Craft

As the organizers are both film buffs and filmmakers, they designed a festival that not only screens pictures but presents film artists in Q&As and panel discussions. Its annual conference devoted to craft has featured many notables, including Oscar-winners Mike Hill (editor) and Mauro Fiore (cinematographer), screenwriter Shane Blake, producer-writer-director Daniel Petrie Jr. and script guru Lew Hunter.

Producer-director Dana Altman, whose midtown Image Arts Building is where the OFF offices and parties, has also been a panelist. Filmmaker Nik Fackler, too.

“The conference is a huge part of what we do and it’s got to be a special event every year,” says Levering. “So we do our best to fill those professional seats with people who really understand the business and who are exciting to hear.”

Putting established film pros in the same room with emerging or aspiring filmmakers sparks a certain creative synergy and fosters connections and collaborations. Establishing more of a film community or collective is just what Decker, Levering and Longbrake hungered for. They got a taste of it attending other festivals and decided to make it happen here, where filmmaking circles once isolated from each other have grown more inclusive.

“It’s a like-minded thing,” says Longbrake. “We all have this common thing centered around filmmaking. We all bring that passion. That was a big impetus to do this. We’ve seen people meet at our festival and then a screenwriting group springs out of that or you see five people who didn’t know each other last year working on a film together this year. It’s a point of pride for us to see that.

“The quality of locally made films has gone up significantly. If we’ve had a small hand in that with our conference then were proud of that and glad.”

 

 

 

 

Connections

In an industry all about relationships, every advantage helps. It’s about who you know and networking to get a foot inside the door for a pitch or meet.

“You get a chance to meet producers, directors, screenwriters. It’s an opportunity and a handshake that could lead to future business. We’re connecting those dots for the local film artists,” says Longbrake. “I’m always struck by a statement producer Howard Rosenman made here: He said, ‘You cannot make it in this business unless you know somebody and right now you know me. So, if something happens and you find yourself in L.A., you now have an in.'”

Longbrake says one such connection led to a Hollywood gig.

“We had a young filmmaker here in town who met Dan Petrie Jr. at the festival. They talked, shared a beer at one of our parties, and within six months he was out in L.A. working on a project with Dan Petrie Jr. We hear stories like that every year.”

This exclusive, in-the-know aspect of a festival is “a huge part” of the appeal, says Longbrake. People naturally like attending premieres and being privy to behind-the-scenes tidbits, not to mention rubbing shoulders with film veterans

“Screenwriter Ted Griffin last year talked about Tower Heist. He railed on how horrible this film he wrote was going to be. We got to interact with him, ask him questions, and then when it came out nine months later we knew some insider stuff about this movie,” says Longbrake.

“Three years ago we had Mauro Fiore talk about how this movie Avatar he worked on was going to be awesome. He went on about James Cameron creating a whole world with blue people…and then of course Avatar came out and smashed all the records,” says Decker.

Levering says, “I think one of the biggest highlights was when we had Shane Black come back last year for a second helping of the festival. Shane talked about an upcoming project, Iron Man III, that’s highly anticipated, and he actually shared some insight he hadn’t shared with anyone before. We got some notoriety because no one else had heard that yet. It was kind of a cool thing that he felt comfortable enough to tell the audience.”

Bigger than the sum of its parts

Guest appearances by select cast and crew from featured films are another festival tradition. As are opening and closing night parties. Indeed, there’s an official party every night. Pre-release and Oscar parties in February whet film buffs’ appetites for the March fest. Special preview screenings in the summer give the fest a year-round presence. It’s all part of adding cinema value and extending the OFF brand.

“We’re trying to create more memorable moviegoing experiences than just going to Twilight and going home and talking about it with your friends,” says Longbrake.

Then there are those films whose profile subjects attend: the parents of teens lost in the Iowa Boy Scout tornado tragedy; Madonna Rehabilitation patients who survived trauma; and a young woman abducted by North Korean agents and held in servitude before her release.

The months-long process of screening entries finds organizers and judges discovering their personal favorites and championing them for selection. A festival finally emerges from all the politicking and debating.

“You get excited about a particular film and you just want other people to see it,” says Longbrake, “and then months later there’s a crowd of people watching the film and having a shared experience.”

He says he and his co-directors go from theater to theater as movies play to gauge response. Nothing’s better than the thumbs-up or nods or approval appreciative audiences give as they file out.

To make all the moving parts work smoothly the OFF relies on volunteers. Sponsors help underwrite OFF and its prizes.

To inquire about volunteer-sponsor opportunities, call 402-203-8173. For details on the 2012 fest, including all-access pass info, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.

John Beasley, Actor – Journeyman Discusses Life in Film-Television-Theater and Striving for In-the-Moment Believability

February 1, 2012 2 comments

I have spun a lot of words about actor John Beasley and I expect I will be spinning many more as time goes by.  He’s one of those actors whose face if not his name you recognize from his numerous television and film roles.  He’s a steady presence on screen but he’s made an equally indelible impression on stage.  The following short profile for Metro Magazine mentions two projects close to his heart that have had new developments since going to press.  A new Cedric the Entertainer sitcom entitled Have Faith has been picked up by TV Land and Beasley, who appeared in the pilot, has a co-starring role as Cedric’s father.  The series begins airing in June.  A feature film about the NFL’s first black quarterback, Marlin Briscoe, is one that Beasley has been trying to get off the ground for some years.  It’s now inched closer to getting made with a name Hollwyood producer recently signing on to the project.  In the coming weeks or months look for a story I’m preparing on one of John’s sons, Michael Beasley, whose film-TV acting career is breaking big in 2012.

 

 

 

John Beasley, Actor – Journeyman Discusses Life in Film-Television-Theater and Striving for In-the-Moment Believability

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the January 2012 issue of Metro Magazine

 

Journeyman John Beasley has made a nice living for himself as a supporting character actor in film-television-theater, and he’s done it all without ever having to move from his hometown of Omaha. He admits being an in-demand actor without ever having to relocate is nothing short of “amazing,” adding, “I’ve just been blessed.”

Making his mark

After making his mark in regional theater, he became part of an acting brotherhood so identified with the canon of playwright August Wilson its members are dubbed Wilsonian Warriors. “Oh, yeah, I’m definitely that,” he says.

Beasley, who got to know the late Wilson, has made his John Beasley Theater & Workshop a showcase for Wilson’s exploration of the American black experience. A production of Radio Golf last fall completed the theater’s staging of the entire 10-play cycle Wilson set in his native Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

“I owe so much to August Wilson. He’s been a big part of my career,” says Beasley. “I credit August with getting me into Chicago theater and into that circle, because it is a nice fraternity.”

Theater led Beasley to his first screen roles: opposite Oprah Winfrey in TV’s, Brewster’s Place; co-starring with Olympia Dukakis and Amy Madigan in the TV movie Lucky Day; supporting characters in a string of sports movies, most notably Rudy.

A big break came when Robert Duvall cast him in the prestigious art film, The Apostle. That “life changer” project led to more film parts (The General’s Daughter, The Sum of All Fears) and TV guest roles (CSI, Judging Amy). Then came his recurring role in Everwood.

He’s gone on to appear in dramas, comedies, horror films, even a western. He’s played ministers, detectives, coaches, fathers, grandfathers and heavies. He’s often played older than his years, and now that his age has caught up with those senior parts he figures he should be busy all the time.

 

 

 

 

 

Foundations and directions

His journey of late has ranged from acclaimed performances in August Wilson’s 20th Century cycle at the Kennedy Center in 2008 to raising the roof at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in 2009 to TV guest starring gigs, in 2011 alone, in the highly praised Treme and in Harry’s Law, CSI: Miami and Detroit 1-8-7.

Now comes the pilot for a new TVLand series starring Cedric the Entertainer that Beasley terms “a great opportunity.” Beasley plays a retired preacher whose once wayward son, played by Cedric, has left a secular music career behind to minister at his father’s church. The son can never quite please his old man.

The untitled new show marks Beasley’s first foray into sit-coms. “It was a pretty interesting process. We rehearsed for about five days and then shot before a live audience. About 300 people,” he says. “The writers and producers were there and the network was there. We did several passes over some scenes and intermixed those together with prerecorded scenes. If we shot a take and they didn’t get the response or the laughs they wanted the writers would go back, huddle up and bring new lines, and we’d do it again.”

There was also location shooting at a church.

He says during a break TVLand president Larry W. Jones sought him out to compliment his comedic work. Beasley feels everything’s in place for a hit. “It’s a very funny show. The writing’s good. The cast is pretty solid. The acting is believable, not over the top. It turned out to be a really great experience. The audience loved the show. The producers are really excited about it.”

If anything’s made Beasley a go-to working actor it’s his rigor.

“I had some really good teachers who taught me to always go inside for my characters. I always try to be in the moment. Being in the moment — that’s when you find things. I’m always trying to get my actors to be believable and play in the moment, and when I catch them acting, I’ll tell them, ‘Get rid of the acting,’ and they know what that means.”

Along the way Beasley’s “worked with some of the best people in the business” and found he can not not only hang with them but bring something uniquely his.

He lived a full life before ever pursuing acting full-time — as athlete, gypsy cabbie, longshoreman, family man. “I’ve seen the rough side of life, too, where I thought maybe I might not make it out alive, but I always did, it always turned out, but you’ve got to stay the course…” He says his life experience works to his advantage as an actor: “All of it, every last bit of it.”

“Believability is what I’ve always searched for. People say, ‘You gotta be bigger on stage.’ I don’t buy that, and so far I’ve proven myself right because when I did Fences at the Huntington director Kenny Lyon saw what I was doing as something really brilliant and had the rest of the cast follow me — pick up the part of the song I knew. I just have a feeling for the rhythm. I know where the notes should be, I know where this song should be sung, I know where the pitch is.

“I worked with the great Lloyd Richards, in Two Trains Running at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The company had just come off Broadway. Even guys like Roscoe Lee Brown Lloyd still had to give direction. One day Roscoe asked me, ‘How does it feel to be the only one Lloyd doesn’t give directions to?’ Because I do my homework.”

 

 

 

 

Ripened with age

He feels if anything he’s improved with age.

“My concentration’s gotten even better. I’m even more aware of my presence on stage and I look more and more for the subtle, little things that make my characters more human, more interesting. It’s the same thing on camera. For me the excitement of doing a piece is finding things that maybe the writer wrote in-between the lines.”

Ultimately, he says, the theater is his foundation. “It’s still where I sharpen my craft.”

His own theater recently weathered hard times to launch its 12th season. He’s planning a new North Omaha theater. In March he joins Everwood star Treat Williams for a staged reading of a new Athol Fugard play at the University of North Carolina. And he still has faith his long-in-development Marlin Briscoe feature film project will happen.

Completely comfortable in his own skin, Beasley doesn’t wear success like a trophy. He prefers jeans and older model cars. “My work speaks for itself and I don’t have to impress anybody,” he says. His bucket list includes acting on Broadway. Whether he does or not, he says, “it’s been a really interesting journey.”

Follow the JBT at http://www.johnbeasleytheater.org.

Living the Dream: Cinema Maven Rachel Jacobson – the Woman Behind Film Streams

February 1, 2012 8 comments

 

 

Since its late 2007 start Film Streams has given Omaha a much-needed and celebrated infusion of art cinema.  This still young nonprofit theater already enjoys a strong following and a national reputation.  Film Streams is the vision of founder and director Rachel Jacobson, an Omaha native who left here only to come back with a mission of giving her hometown its first full-fledged art cinema.  Until she came back from New York City with her dream of forming a center devoted to film as art this metro area of more than 800,000 never had a theater dedicated to screening the best of old and new cinema and to presenting  educational programs around the films.  Thanks to her, Omaha finally has a film home befitting its large population.  She’s not only made her dream a reality but she’s made this Midwest theater nationally known thanks to first-rate screenings and programming and the involvement of board member Alexander Payne, whose clout has allowed Film Streams to nab some major guests, including Laura Dern, Debra Winger, and Steven Soderberg.  2012 will make the biggest splash yet when this year’s special guest is revealed.  A true film icon.  My short profile of Rachel is the cover story in the new issue of Metro Magazine.

 

 

 

 

Living the Dream: Cinema Maven Rachel Jacobson – the Woman Behind Film Streams 

©by Leo Adam Biga

The cover story in the February 2012 Metro Magazine (http://issuu.com/metmago/docs/metromagazine-february-2012)

 

Film Streams is coming off its fourth and most successful year yet, capped by the record-breaking, exclusive run of Alexander Payne‘s The Descendants. With the art cinema riding high, it’s easy overlooking the determination founder-director Rachel Jacobson, 33, showed in turning her dream into reality.

Film buff in the making

The success has made her a respected leader among the young creatives and professionals set that’s helping transform Omaha’s once amorphous culture into an identifiably cool scene.

The Omaha Central High graduate left here to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and to get her professional start but her plan always included coming back to her hometown. When she returned in 2005 the then-20something set about selling philanthropists on the idea of a film center in the barrens of North Downtown.

Most embraced her vision. Some expressed reservations. But anyone who dealt with her soon fell under the sway of her informed passion to support the project.

Before coming back to pursue her dream, she laid the groundwork for it back East. She immersed herself in an intensive arts administration course at New York University and made a study of art cinemas, all to formulate the nonprofit public film model Film Streams follows. She strategically worked at a SoHo art gallery, Miramax Films and WNYC public radio to learn lessons for making her Omaha cinematheque sustainable.

“It was sort of grad school without having to pay for it,” she says.

She never intended going to New York City. Chicago was her choice out of college. But once there, she says, “I just fell in love with the city.”

She often describes an epiphany she had in college as the defining moment when she abandoned law school plans to pursue being a film curator-exhibitor. Her cinephile leanings began long before that, as a girl, when she accompanied her parents to see movies at the Indian Hills Theatre. “It was such a beautiful theater. It felt like this grand experience,” she says. The Dundee Theatre and then-AMC Westroads 8 became frequent haunts. As a college English and political science major she fell ever more under cinema’s spell via film studies courses and art movie house screenings.

 

 

 

 

A public film theater model

Her film education continued in New York, where she devised the core principals behind her Omaha cinema. True to her vision she’s made it “a mission-based” showcase for film as art. With support from memberships, grants, donations and other contributed revenue almost equal to box office-concession revenue, she’s freed Film Streams from commercial pressure and compromise.

“A big part of why I wanted to work in film is I wanted to figure out ways to get beyond the fact that film is seen as a product. Yyou need to have a way to fight against that commodity perspective,” she says.

Her serving on a National Endowment for the Arts grants panel has helped Film Streams win NEA and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences funding.

Not having to turn a profit or pack the house means Jacobson can schedule the kind of limited appeal movies cineplexes rarely play: first-run American independent and foreign features, repertory classics, documentaries and shorts. Unlike mainstream theaters, Film Streams presents panel discussions, educational programs and extras, often in partnership with community organizations.

She strives for a schedule reflecting world cinema. “An important part of our mission is to be a platform for those under-heard voices,” she says.

Early 2012 season highlights reflect this diversity. There’s a 10-film repertory series of international masterworks on restored 35 millimeter prints. Partnership screenings-panels are scheduled around documentaries about urban planning, education, women’s self-image and developmental disabilities. First-run narrative features include Pariah and We Need to Talk About Kevin, both by women directors on tough subjects.

There’s also the annual Oscar-winning shorts series.

As for the remainder of the year, she’s working on bringing prominent filmmakers and eying a possible film noir series. Ingmar Bergman may be the focus of the next Great Directors series. The biennial Cinemateca of Spanish-language films is slated for September. The 2012 gala promises a film-pop culture icon in August. Past guests of honor have been Laura Dern, Debra Winger and Steven Soderbergh. Board member Alexander Payne gives Film Streams pull in attracting major names.

 

 

Film buff friends Alexander Payne and Rachel Jacobson

 

 

Growing a film community

Just as Jacobson’s cultivated a close relationship with Payne and other celebs, she’s nurtured a growing audience at Film Streams, where ticket sales climbed to 54,000 last year. Memberships have held steady at nearly 2,000.

“I feel really great about where we are as far as audience. Hopefully it indicates more people are seeing the kinds of films we’re showing than would have if we didn’t exist.

“The interesting thing about what we’ve become that I didn’t imagine is that I feel like people perceive us as not just a place for cinephiles but also as a community space because of the discussions and the partnerships we do. I feel like that’s what makes us distinctive because that helps us reach new, wider audiences that may not otherwise come. Those connections help us serve the entire community.”

She strikes a balance serving both hardcore film buffs and casual movie fans. Along the way, she hopes general audiences sample more challenging fare.

Film Streams has also expanded its administrative staff and budget. “It’s over a million dollars now,” she says. “We’ve just kind of grown incrementally every year.”

She’s perhaps most pleased by how Omaha has gotten behind Film Streams. There’s a sense of ownership in it, and that’s precisely what she wants.

“We’re all sort of stakeholders in it – Omaha, our members, the board.”

A creative life and career

The island that Film Streams, Slowdown and Saddle Creek Records anchors is gaining a foothold in North Downtown along with Creighton University, Tip Top, Hot Shops, the Mastercraft and TD Ameritrade Park. She sees development there as a mixed-bag but the entrepreneurial spirit and energy on display make her optimistic.

She feels young creative class professionals like herself and her friends are more and more being heard. She likes the vibrant Omaha that emerged while she was away and that continues spinning off creative new ventures. She’s a big advocate of Omaha’s indie music scene.

“There’s something distinctive about what people are creating and there’s a strong community around it,” she says.

Film Streams gives her a little slice of the Big Apple in Omaha, where her life and work revolve around art, beauty, creativity, rock music, friends, donors and social entrepreneurs. “This job is that,” she says. Best of all, she gets to share her film passion. “I love that experience so much. It’s a way to connect with people. It feels really great to show someone something they appreciate. Man, I love that.”

Visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

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