When Tobias Seamon got the phone call in mid-May that his five-minute screenplay Amerikan Partizan had been accepted into Albany’s Edwood Film Festival, he was excited and a bit anxious at the same time. “Like any acceptance, it had that ‘Wow’ feeling,” Seamon remembers. “But I also knew I was getting into something, filmmaking, that I had no experience ever doing before.”
Since it was launched in 2000, the Edwood Film Festival has become the Capital Region’s preeminent annual film event. Once a one-night affair on an improvised screen in an Albany bar, this year’s festival will be screened at the Spectrum 8 Theatres over the course of a week, from September 28 through October 4. It will present work in two categories, short films up to 15 minutes, and five-minute mini-films called “microsodes.” Twenty microsodes will be presented, all of them created specifically for the festival and selected by a panel of judges from more than 200 submissions.
The idea for the event dates back to 1999, when a group of wannabe filmmakers were sitting around over beers, talking about how they were going to be the next Truffaut or Spielberg. “It was a motley collection of folks,” says Peter Barnett, the founder of the festival. “Some of us had made films in college, and some of us had only shot vacation films. We set a deadline to make a short film, and in 2000 the pub put up a screen and we showed the 17 films. They were all of varying degrees of awful, but the place was packed, although most people left after the five-minute film showing a character drinking steadily and then projectile vomiting. That’s when it occurred to us that we had better pre-screen these films.”
They named their festival in honor of Ed Wood, the maverick, low-budget director and actor from the 1950s and ’60s. It’s Wood’s eccentric, can-do attitude that guides the festival’s organizers, not the fact that he’s considered by many to be the worst filmmaker of all time. “Ed Wood is the inspiration,” says Barnett. “We know his name conjures amateur filmmaking, which we embody, but we don’t want people to make crap. We want our film festival to be inspired, homegrown moviemaking.”
“Ed Wood,” Barnett continued, “had real love for the movies. Although he had little money and he made his films too quickly, he really tried to make good films.” For the festival, the director’s first and last names were combined to avoid legal difficulties.
The Edwood Film Festival was founded in the pre-digital era, but by 2003, people began getting editing software bundled with their new computers. “The movies started getting very professional looking,” said Barnett, “and we began getting a lot of entries which forced us to get more and more selective. Moviemaking was becoming more accessible, and people were having fun trying it. It was exactly what Francis Ford Coppola said over 20 years ago—that the future of film would be a 14-year-old girl making a movie in Dayton, Ohio.”
After years playing in pubs, last year the festival moved to WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditorium in Albany. “In our first few years, our audience consisted mainly of disaffected youth and struggling artists, but moving to the Linda Norris brought in a more grown-up crowd,” says Barnett. It also brought in a host of technical problems that left audiences waiting in the dark for films that had to be repeatedly restarted, or never started at all. Many in attendance, having lost patience, left before the end of the screenings. “Last year we had quite a few technical problems and WAMC didn’t have any backups for us,” Barnett acknowledges. “It felt like reach-for-the-revolver time, but the Spectrum will be a comfortable place for us. They’ll know how to handle any technical problems that come up.”
It was Keith Pickard, co-owner of the Spectrum, who approached Barnett about moving the festival to his screens. “Keith had seen the passion, the energy, and the creativity of our film festival,” says Barnett, “and even though he didn’t need to traffic into our world, he knew there was something special going on. Now it’s our turn to deliver. When people walk into the Spectrum they’re expecting a show to go on at a certain time. We know we can only play a two-hour show. Some of our past shows were like Grateful Dead concerts that went on and on.”