CineVegas, Baby

Dennis Hopper's maverick sensibility helps power the 11th annual film fest

Dennis Hopper. Las Vegas.

The two names conjure very specific images of a free-spirited, anything-goes attitude. So it's no surprise the indie film icon has associated himself so closely with the CineVegas Film Festival.

"CineVegas is a reflection of my own artistic beliefs," says Hopper, who serves as chair of the fest's creative advisory board and is the lead in the Starz series "Crash." "It has films that take chances, push boundaries, challenge audiences, which I've always tried to do in my own career as a filmmaker and artist."

Hopper will be in attendance tonight as the 11th annual event gets under way at the Palms hotel and casino. Its opening-night film is "Saint John of Las Vegas," a buddy comedy starring another indie icon, Steve Buscemi, as well as Sarah Silverman, Peter Dinklage and Romany Malco.

"Sundance is lucky to have Robert Redford and Tribeca has Robert De Niro and we have Dennis Hopper," says Robin Greenspun, president of CineVegas, which she has owned with her husband Daniel since 2003. "He's really involved and you don't find that very often."

Hopper first became involved in the fest when he was honored as an icon in 2003. He's now intimately involved in everything from the selection of films to reaching out to industry contacts. It's now been 40 years since Hopper exploded onto the film scene with "Easy Rider," and this year his latest film, Wim Wenders' "Palermo Shooting," will have its American premiere out of competition at CineVegas.

The fest has shortened from 10 days to six days this year to reflect the tough economy, which has hit Las Vegas especially hard. But Hopper feels the benefit will be more people staying for the whole thing.

"Even though the economic thing has hit us, it's much better for the festival," he says. "It's going to be much more condensed and the parties ... Whew! It's going to be great."

Indeed, much like its host city, CineVegas has earned a reputation for its often-extravagant soirees at locations all over Sin City. Screenings don't start until 1 p.m. each day and run until midnight.

"We try to keep people focused on the films in spite of the parties but the parties are a strength of the festival," says Trevor Groth, who has served as the fest's artistic director since 2002 while also continuing to serve as a programmer for the Sundance Film Festival (he was recently upped to director of programming there).

Organizers admit the parties are a selling point to attract producers, filmmakers, distributors and others.

"When our filmmakers get a slot in CineVegas they also win a trip to Las Vegas and I don't think there's anything wrong with that," Greenspun says. "We're really all about our filmmakers and showing them a great time and rewarding them for their hard work and talent."

Morris Ruskin, president of indie producer Shoreline Entertainment, a longtime CineVegas sponsor, will again host a VIP poker tournament and party this year. "We bring (domestic movie) distributors in and show them a good time," Ruskin says.

But there is also business to be done.

"It's a great opportunity for us to make sales. At most festivals, you aren't going to get executives from Lionsgate, Sony, Focus and Fox Searchlight," Ruskin says. "They're (at CineVegas) because it's close and easy to fly (from L.A.) for a weekend of good movies and parties."

This year the festival will feature eight world premieres in competition. The fest will close with "World's Greatest Dad," a dark comedy directed by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait and starring Robin Williams.

Groth says he looks for an "uninhibited" quality when searching for CineVegas films.

When he first arrived the festival featured mostly older film retrospectives and a weak selection of new titles. Groth quickly discovered people don't come to Las Vegas looking for quiet, thoughtful dramas. "There's an energy here," he says. "People are kind of amped up, excited, so from the programming side you have to give them something that shakes them up a bit and challenges their expectations and makes them stay focused on what they're seeing on the screen instead of getting the itch to go out and hit the tables or hit the town."

Hopper helps Groth attract the all-important marquee talent. "I've worked with him in selecting who we give our awards to," Groth says. "Then he makes personal calls to people he has a relationship with like Jack Nicholson, David Lynch and Sean Penn. Because of his involvement, they were happy to come out and be part of the festival."

This year the fest doesn't have a splashy studio blockbuster like two years ago when the "Ocean's Thirteen" premiere brought cast like George Clooney and Brad Pitt to town, or last year when "Get Smart" was shown out of competition.

But Hopper is excited about the return of James Caan, a former lifetime achievement honoree, who plays a supporting role in "Mercy," which his son Scott Caan produced, wrote and stars in. "This will be the first time Jimmy and Scott are together in a movie," Hopper says.

In addition to the feature competition, which offers a top prize of $10,000, the Pioneer Documentaries competition winner will receive $2,500. Industry attendees can preview films available for distribution deals, as well as midnight screenings of cult films in the Area 52 section, panels, workshops and a program of shorts and features from Nevada filmmakers.

"You go for a couple of days and you can see a lot of movies in that time frame but not feel overwhelmed or stressed out," says Arianna Bocco, vp acquisitions and production for IFC, which has acquired a number of films at the festival in recent years, mainly for its Festival Direct distribution over VOD.

The filmmakers are all invited to the parties, so there are plenty of opportunities to mingle. "I remember gambling with a top director one night until 3 o'clock and we had a blast," Bocco says. "I really got to know him. There's time because there aren't a million screenings."
comments powered by Disqus