Small-Town Festival Focuses On Films, Not Stars

By Dina Temple-Raston, NPR

Think about famous film festivals and the words Cannes, Sundance or perhaps Toronto come to mind. But increasingly, movie buffs don’t have to travel to the south of France to get a film festival fix. Small towns across the country have launched down-to-earth offerings and film festivals for the rest of us.

Main Street in Chatham, N.Y., is just a single block long and is anchored by the Crandell Theatre, a single-screen cinema announced by an old-style lighted marquee. When it was built in 1926, it was envisioned as a vaudeville theater. It has a stage, an orchestra pit — even dressing rooms. But that was then; this is now. Now the Crandell Theatre is the sun around which FilmColumbia — Chatham’s 10-year-old film festival — revolves.

Go to one of those big festivals and 20 minutes before a film screening, there are paparazzi and klieg lights, red carpets and stars. In Chatham, just before the screening of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s new picture, Synecdoche, New York, most of the action and elbow-throwing is taking place in front of a small table some local Girl Scouts set up. They are selling cookies to moviegoers to help pay for a camping trip.

Everything is 50 cents. Moviegoers buy sweets hand-over-fist, then stash the cookies in coat pockets before filing into the theater. Another line forms at the concession stand, where popcorn and a bottle of water (“in the cooler down there, help yourself”) is $2.50.

Chatham’s FilmColumbia is a different kind of film festival. And while one could dismiss the atmosphere as down home or even quaint, this film festival is neither. Over the course of three days, it sells more than 6,000 tickets. The movies screened here are first-run. Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Atonement all premiered here in recent years.

“This is the kind of town that people just come out of the woodwork,” explains Marge Lewis as she stands in line at the theater.

“Yes, they do, there are a lot of people who are involved with the arts who have a second home here,” adds moviegoer Heather Spitzer.

When they say people in the arts, they mean people like James Schamus, the head of Focus Features. He has a house in Hillsdale not far from Chatham and usually provides the festival’s Saturday night sneak preview.

And there’s also Peter Biskind, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and former editor of Premiere Magazine. He has been instrumental in building FilmColumbia into a successful festival. It began with the Chatham Film Club deciding that it would start showing independent films at the Crandell Theatre one Sunday every month. People showed up.

“There are a lot of people who still love to see these kinds of movies and it is a terrific feeling if you care about these kinds of films,” Biskind said. “This audience is really interested in these movies. You see people after the movies, under the marquee, discussing them. There is an enthusiasm and energy that is terrific.”

Biskind said the recipe is simple: a low key, anti-glamour, anti-celebrity gathering for people who just love movies. “There are no limousines here, virtually no celebrities or filmmakers ever show up,” says Biskind, oddly proud of the festival’s anonymity. “The way it has ended up is, the focus is on the films and the small-town atmosphere.”

And perhaps no one represents that small-town flavor more than Tony Quirino, the owner of the Crandell Theater. Quirino is a seemingly crusty fellow with a salt and pepper mustache and silver hair combed back off his forehead. He’s been around this theater all his life. “My father started hanging around here when he was 9 years old, fooling around,” he says from the theater’s second-floor projection room. “He went into the service and then he came back in the ’50s and was the manager and then he bought it in 1961.”

As Quirino tells his father’s story, it seems to draw directly on the movie Cinema Paradiso, in which a young boy’s life revolved around a movie theater.

“I saw that movie,” Quirino says, brightening. “That’s my father big time … That’s my father, that right there.”

The comparison clearly struck a chord with Quirino. And in many ways, the movie is as much about Tony as it is about his father. Tony Quirino haunted the Crandell as a boy. His father taught him now to splice reels of film together and how to run the projector. And when his father retired in 1985, it seemed only natural that his son would buy the place. Since then, Quirino has gone to great lengths to run the theater in much the same way his father did.

His tickets are discounted. Candy is inexpensive (he buys most of it himself at a local wholesale store). He pops the popcorn himself downstairs. (He says he still makes a killing on it even if he charges a dollar for a small.)

Because Quirino has decided to keep prices low, Chatham’s film festival means a lot to his livelihood. It has helped keep the Crandell open and like it used to be. “It brings a lot of people into town and I think the whole town flourishes off it,” he says. “It makes for a real good week for me.”

This year’s films included I’ve Loved You So Long with Kristen Scott Thomas and The Secret Life of Bees starring Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah. The 500 seats at the Crandell were sold out all weekend.