Oldenburg Film Festival Defiantly Lets Its Indie Freak Flag Fly
Facing cutbacks and a dramatically changed independent film landscape, German festival director Torsten Neumann keeps the faith as he bets on risky movies starring John Hawkes and Sarah Silverman (in a dramatic role) and honors George Armitage.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Torsten Neumann, 50 freely admits he might be a dying breed, given his fierce commitment to independent film. He originally created Germany's Oldenburg Film Festival, founded in 1993, to be that country's answer to Sundance, championing directors and films outside the mainstream. But more than two decades later, the world of indie film is nearly unrecognizable. "Art house cinema has become a second tier of mainstream cinema, and the film festivals have followed that trend," says Neumann. "Too many festivals just follow the circuit; they take the approved art house films from the A-festivals. Films that are more challenging — harder to market — get lost. But a festival's job, in my mind, is to stand up for exactly those films."
This year, Oldenburg again is defiantly hoisting its indie flag. The 2015 lineup includes Dennis Hauck's ambitious film noir Too Late, starring John Hawkes; Hank Bedford's Southern-set crime feature Dixieland; and Adam Salky's I Smile Back, featuring Sarah Silverman in a rare dramatic role. Neumann's foreign-language selection is similarly eclectic, with Crumbs, billed as Ethiopia's first-ever science fiction film; the Belgian neo-noir Waste Land; and Travelator, a Las Vegas-set Serbian teen-assassin movie.
For lifetime achievement honors, Oldenburg has selected U.S. director George Armitage, a filmmaker even indie devotees might find hard to place (he directed Miami Blues, starring Alec Baldwin, and Grosse Pointe Blank, with John Cusack). "George Armitage is an ideal filmmaker for us — a director who has one or two films that are well known but has a whole back catalog waiting to be discovered," says Neumann, pointing to the 72-year-old director's earlier work during the 1970s as part of the exploitation crew working at Roger Corman's New World Pictures.
That Oldenburg can be a source of hidden gems was born out in 2012, when A Coffee in Berlin (aka Oh Boy), a black-and-white drama from first-time German director Jan Ole Gerster, swept the festival's awards and went on to sleeper success worldwide. The festival "really gave the film a boost — brought in the publicity and marketing budget needed to put it over the top," argues Neumann. German titles in this year's lineup — particularly the opening-night feature Jack, directed by Elisabeth Scharang, which tells the real-life story of an Austrian murderer turned literary sensation — will be hoping for a similar Oldenburg bump.
At the same time, the 2015 Oldenburg festival is dealing with financial cutbacks and a budget 20 percent below what it was five years ago. And Oldenburg's coveted jury prize — which A Coffee in Berlin won in 2012 — has been suspended for lack of funds. "It isn't easy; it's getting tighter for everyone in the indie scene," says Neumann. "Maybe you have to be a romantic to believe we can survive."