CineVegas succeeds with studio fare, edgy cinema

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Since it debuted in 1998, the CineVegas Film Festival has deftly mixed glitz and grit, the classy and the crass, with programming that embraces everything from indie esoterica to old Hollywood and parties that take advantage of its Sin City setting. That dynamic will be in full effect tonight when the ninth annual edition of the festival (running through June 16 at the Palms Casino Resort and Brenden Theatres) opens at the Palms with the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' Vegas-set caper film "Ocean's Thirteen," an event benefiting the International Rescue Committee for Not on Our Watch, an organization supporting humanitarian relief efforts in Darfur, Sudan.

It's a cause close to the hearts of several members of the film's A-list cast, of which George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and Andy Garcia are expected to attend. Their presence guarantees that hordes of national and local media will be on hand -- helping attract even more attention to the festival itself.

"Having it be such a Las Vegas film is really just perfect," says CineVegas director of programming Trevor Groth, who also is a senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival. "It's a great opportunity for us."

Indeed, the "Ocean's" gang already has had a positive impact on the festival's fortunes, helping it attract an impressive list of sponsors, including Cadillac, Conde Nast Traveler, Heineken, MySpace.com and Southwest Airlines.

"Having them involved has given us more resources to do more for the films and the filmmakers that are in the festival, as well as just being able to throw even bigger and grander parties, which we're sort of known for anyway," Groth says. "A lot of them had signed on before ('Ocean's Thirteen') was confirmed, so it wasn't the only thing. But then I think there were a couple that were on the fence, so it definitely kind of pushed them over the edge."

The film's producer, Jerry Weintraub, admits that he, too, was conflicted about accepting the festival's Vanguard Producer Award, but he says the chance to raise money for Not on Our Watch -- which he co-founded with Cheadle, Clooney, Damon and Pitt -- was too good to pass up.

"I told them that I really have gotten a lot of awards this year," Weintraub says, adding, "and it feels like I'm going to my funeral. I'd already committed to the Boston Film Festival, the L.A. Free Clinic (40th anniversary gala) -- enough already. (But CineVegas' organizers) said, 'We think you deserve this. It's the right time in your career to have it.' And I said, 'OK, but I want to make it into a benefit for Not on Our Watch,' and (CineVegas president) Robin Greenspun said, 'That's a great idea.'"

Of course, Weintraub won't be the only honoree. On June 15, Anthony Hopkins will receive the Marquee Award for his feature-length directorial debut "Slipstream," while Charlize Theron will be presented with the Half-Life Award, and filmmaker Mike Newell will pick up the Vanguard Director Award. Additionally, the inaugural Vanguard Actor Award will be presented to Ben Kingsley, star of the festival's closing-night feature, IFC Films' "You Kill Me," directed by John Dahl.

Star power might be the selling point for the media and the fest's sponsors, but Groth feels the heart of CineVegas is its Jackpot Premiere section, which features the world or U.S. premiere of films without distribution deals "because it's these filmmakers who have taken a chance on CineVegas in terms of where they're going to unveil their films -- their babies, in essence -- to the world," he says.

This year's Jackpot lineup includes the world premieres of Robert Logevall's "All God's Children Can Dance," starring Joan Chen; Peter Spears' comedy "Careless," starring Colin Hanks and Tony Shalhoub; Lucas Elliott's political drama "Choose Connor," starring Steven Weber and Alex Linz; and Dan Peterson's "Have Love, Will Travel," which explores the underground world of "private dancing."

The festival's other programs include Sure Bets, which highlights upcoming films with U.S. distribution; Diamond Discoveries, screening previously premiered new films available for U.S. distribution; Area 52, a showcase for bizarre films from the underground; and Modern Crusaders, which is comprised entirely of political documentaries. The latest addition to the programming lineup is La Proxima Ola, a section highlighting the next wave of Mexican films and directors.

"We've got an incredible group (of films) that is on par with any festival in the U.S., outside of Sundance," Groth offers.

But, as packed with filmmaking talent as CineVegas might be, the event has yet to develop into a marketplace for acquisitions, a la Sundance, the Festival de Cannes or the Toronto International Film Festival. But Miramax Films vp acquisitions Peter Lawson says that CineVegas has carved out an important niche on the festival circuit.

"I think with its timing being kind of post-Cannes, it's a good launching pad for some of these small movies that may not be suited for (the Tribeca Film Festival), and they get a ton of press with the big sponsors that they have and the deep pockets of the founders of the festivals," says Lawson, who sits on the Cine-Vegas advisory board. "Also for distributors looking to get some regional press, it's a good spot to launch a movie."

According to Samuel Goldwyn Films vp acquisitions Peter Goldwyn, it also is a great place to see a movie.

"The screenings don't start too early, and they don't run too late, so there's plenty of time to see movies at a leisurely pace and actually enjoy them," says Goldwyn, who also is a member of the CineVegas advisory board. "And since it's a much more relaxed atmosphere, it's easy to hang out with filmmakers and get to know them and schmooze."

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