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Think Globally, Watch Locally

At the Philadelphia Film Fest, it's not about the deal.


From the April 2, 2008 Philadelphia Weekly.

Greg Kohs followed a sequin-wearing Neil Diamond impersonator and his faux-Patsy Cline wife for more than eight years.

Whenever he had down-time between his day job directing MasterCard, Wal-Mart and Nike commercials, Kohs traveled to the Midwest, where he filmed a husband-and-wife team that called itself Lightning and Thunder, performing both singers' greatest hits at bars and state fairs. He also watched them at diners, at home and even at the dentist's office.

Then he turned their lives - full of unusual twists and tragic turns - into a documentary called Song Sung Blue. It'll screen twice during the Philadelphia Film Festival, which starts this week.

"It's a love story," says Kohs, a 10-time Emmy Award-winning director who honed his skills producing programs for NFL Films. "The guy just happens to sing Neil Diamond songs."

Turns out Philadelphia will be the fourth stop for the film that's already won the Grand Jury and Audience awards at the SlamDance Film Festival in Colorado. The South Jersey-based Kohs will spend much of the spring and summer bouncing across the country, attending film festival after film festival.

"It's a way of sharing my film with a captive audience," he says.


Few films shown at regional festivals ever get distribution deals. Major-label industry buyers don't frequent the Philadelphia Film Festival or the dozens of other smaller festivals that have popped up over the last 20 years. But that isn't exactly the point.

The festivals offer independent filmmakers the opportunity to showcase their work, and they bring filmmakers and film lovers together.

"The very word 'festival' means a celebration, a scheduled program of events to be enjoyed," says Peter Baxter, president of the SlamDance Festival. "For us, it's about community, bringing people together to appreciate films that are different from films in general release. This is where fresh ideas come from."

Every festival has slightly different guidelines and different styles of films. SlamDance, for instance, features first-time filmmakers with small budgets and no distribution deals. The Philadelphia Film Festival, now in its 17th year, is known for drawing international talent, as well as featuring locally produced films. Among the 49 countries represented this year are Denmark, Estonia, Taiwan, South Korea, Iran, Great Britain, Mexico, Turkey, Spain, Japan and Serbia.

"We look for films that have a Philadelphia sensibility," says Ray Murray, artistic director of the Philadelphia Film Society, which organizes the festival. "We can be a little artsy, but we also have prereleases of studio films."

There will be more than 260 screenings at six different venues over 13 days. About 70,000 people are expected to attend - which is a bigger draw than most big-city festivals but smaller than the hundreds of thousands of people who attend top-tier festivals like Sundance, Toronto and Cannes.

"Thousands of films are made every year, and only a few get theatrical releases," says Murray. "People aren't satisfied by what's out there in the general theaters. They want to see independent films, and the festivals may be the only time to see some of these films on the big screen."

Among the locally produced films here this year is Richie Ashburn: A Baseball Life.

"About 450 people will go to the Prince Theater to see that film," Murray says. "I'll bet 430 of them will never have been to a film festival before."


South Philadelphia's Leonard Guercio showed his 16-minute film Tiramisu at the Philly Film Fest in 2003. He had a theater packed full of friends and it was a great experience, he says. He made the rounds to other local festivals, and then last year he was invited to show the film at the Pesaro Film Festival in Italy.

"There were more than 1,000 people watching on a big screen in the town's main piazza," he says. "It was so different from anything I've experienced in the States."

After being rejected by the Philadelphia Film Festival numerous times, Don Argott and a few friends began the Reject FilmFest in 1997.

"We couldn't even get films into [local] festivals," Argott says. "So we said, 'Let's start our own.'"

For two years they screened nonlinear, abstract and otherwise unusual independent films, and they honored John Waters as a special guest.

In 2005 Argott hit the big time with Rock School, a documentary about students at the Paul Green School of Rock Music. He landed a deal after screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival, his first stop on the circuit, and then he hit the other festivals - Seattle, Sundance, South by Southwest - in comfort.

"I got to just go, hang out with the filmmaking community, and not have that pressure hanging over me," says Argott. "The pressure can be really nerve-wracking. It can drive you crazy."


Greg Kohs says he didn't make his film about Lightning and Thunder for commercial purposes. He did it for art's sake. If he scores a distribution deal that would put the film before a larger audience, that would be fantastic.

For now, though, he's excited just to have the film screening near his home, where his family and friends can see it.

"Just about everyone I know is going to be there," says Kohs.