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The Orlando Film Festival had impressive intentions, but awkward execution

I’m at the end of a very long work day, it’s pouring rain and every free downtown parking spot is full. All I really want to do is curl up at home with a freshly bought pile of comic books. (If anyone understands WTF Joss Whedon is doing with Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, send me a note.) But journalistic responsibility and the promise of free alcohol – often the same thing – propels me through the deluge with a plastic bag uselessly umbrella-ed over my head to Ember for the opening night of the Orlando Film Festival. At the door, I discover that despite e-mailed invites from event chairman M. Brett Jaffee, my name isn’t on the attendee list. Thankfully, they take pity on my pleading that I’m part of the press; perhaps they look at my dishevelment and assumed that’s how alt-weekly employees look.

Either way, I’m lei-ed with a VIP lanyard and allowed inside – or rather outside, as the private party is taking place in the damp, open-air courtyard. The only people I recognize are’s Mark Baratelli, who’s officially Twittering about the party, and Pinocchio’s marionette maestro Sean Keohane, who’s representing the Orlando Puppet Festival. Enormous empanadas and barbecue chicken flatbreads float by on silver trays, trailed by a documentary camera crew capturing every complimentary chew.

Elbowing my way to the sheltered central bar where the majority of the attendees are huddling, I find I can have any kind of cocktail I want for free, as long as I want Ketel One. Opting for Stella instead, I swivel around to see Barack Obama being greeted by a George W. Bush, who is smirkingly solicitous about the Democratic shellacking at the polls the day before. The pair of passable proxy performers is shortly joined by a pseudo Sarah Palin and the “I see dead people” kid from The Sixth Sense; the last one turns out to not be a
celebrity impersonator, but actual Oscar-nominee Haley Joel Osment.

A couple of days later I brave the transmission and turning-radius torture test (aka the Plaza Cinema Cafe parking garage) to catch a few free-admission fest flicks. The venue is packed, and the crowd is choking the narrow corridor leading to the screening for Montana Amazon starring Osment and Olympia Dukakis. There’s also a line for Heather Henson’s interactive Labyrinth singalong later that night. I sample a handful of documentaries (ex-Disney animators in Florida; developing a dance for the Orlando Ballet; and city kids sent into the wilderness) that meant well but were badly edited. From the fiction features I see half of Black, White, and Blues, an unintentionally funny Mario Van Peebles flick starring Michael Clarke Duncan in a giant cowboy hat and Luke Perry as a cuckold and loan shark, and The Frost, a dreary Nordic drama about a disabled child and a deranged rat-catcher, rendered even more incomprehensible by blurry white-on-white subtitles.

The only consistent things about this under-curated collection of cinema is the abysmal projection quality rendering everything a dark smeary mess; the 30- to 60-minute delays in scheduled screening starts; and the omnipresent over-enthusiastic Orlando Film Festival executive director Daniel Springen passing out free popcorn and exhorting us to tip our servers like a karaoke host.

The Orlando Film Festival has been around for half a decade, but I’ve always had an ephemeral impression of it, mentally filing it far behind the well-respected Florida Film Festival. OFF’s latest edition was the biggest yet, with a bevy of parties at bars like Antigua and Chillers, a boatload of corporate sponsors (including Mears Transportation, WFTV, Orlando Utilities Commission and the Orlando Weekly), and 150 free film screenings at the Plaza Cinema Cafe. But bigger doesn’t equal mature, and if you experienced OFF’s stupefying ill-conceived web presence you’d be forgiven for being suspicious of how serious organizers are about the whole enterprise. The OFF website ( and Facebook page haven’t been updated since October, and the Twitter account has been dormant since last March. Basic information on the movies was bizarrely buried inside a “ticket genie” seat reservation system. And the Universal one-day/two park ticket included with OFF’s highly promoted VIP pass was listed as costing $99, $109 or $119 in various places (but is available online to Floridians for $95).

OFF feels like a holdover of the artificially inflated “Orlando has turned into Hollywood East” vibe that existed for a nanosecond in the ’90s: impressive intentions, but awkward execution. The festival was clearly a boon for the filmmakers whose work would otherwise be confined to the Internet, for the VIP guests guzzling gratis vino and for sponsoring area businesses buoyed by offering discounts to attendees (especially the Plaza Cinema, which has probably never seen such patronage). As for film fans that just want to experience quality cinema competently presented, you’d better wait until April for the 2011 Florida Film Festival; it won’t be free, but you can bet it will be focused and efficient.

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