KidFilm fest makes children the lone stars


Everything's bigger in Texas, but that doesn't make the little things any less important. Even in the thriving urban hubs throughout the state, people still take time to focus on personal relationships.

Nestled amid the complacent glass skyscrapers of downtown Dallas, one film festival is making sure that the littlest detail of all -- children -- doesn't go unnoticed. KidFilm, the self-described oldest and best-attended children's film festival in the world, is doing everything it can to make contemporary and classic films a part of kids' lives.

"Our goal for the future is a simple one," said Ann Alexander, managing director of the USA Film Festival, the parent of KidFilm. "To present the best programs for kids and give educators and parents the best tools we can, every year, to help them teach and mentor young people."

Even the USAFF is one of those things about the Lone Star State that just kept growing. Launched in 1970 to highlight American films to contrast the growing popularity of the French New Wave, organizers in the early 1990s began to scale back its spring fest in order to offer a greater number of more specialized programs regardless of the season. Alexander refers to it as a "50-day film festival, spread over the course of a year."

KidFilm is a January event that offers family programming, public screenings and curriculum-based events for local schools. In recent years, the festival has found an agreeable partner in a titan among kids entertainment: Nickelodeon.

The network's hit series "The Naked Brothers Band" originally began life as a mockumentary film that played only two festivals: the Hamptons International Film Festival and KidFilm. The feature's reception at KidFilm was "phenomenal," according to Polly Draper, the film's writer/director/executive producer and mother of its young stars Nat and Alex Wolff.

"It was what convinced us we had a hit on our hands," Draper said of the way children at KidFilm embraced the movie. "I don't think we were expecting much, but then we said, 'Oh my God, this is a big deal.' "

Nickelodeon has been participating in KidFilm since the 2006 edition, when it screened "Shredderman Rules," and will return for the 2008 fest, which is set for Jan. 19-20. Alexander said the festival has secured Nickelodeon's new animated "The Mighty B!" as part of the lineup. "Mighty B!" features the voice of Amy Poehler ("Saturday Night Live") as Bessie Higgenbottom, a hyperactive Honeybee Scout. The network is eyeing a spring premiere.

"We generally participate in about a dozen festivals throughout the year," said Karen Kirkland, director of awards and festivals at the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship Program. "They are not only a great way to promote our programming and reach fans directly but are also a great forum to find new talent."

In addition to newer opportunities, KidFilm also allows the Dallas film community to "promote media literacy" by working with local schools, Alexander said. The nonprofit organization lists Blockbuster, American Airlines, IFC and HBO among its sponsors, making it possible for ticket prices for the weekend public portion of KidFilm to hover at $3-$8 and for schools to participate for free in the weekday screenings.

Alexander estimated that the screenings in the school outreach program serve 10,000-20,000 students and teachers each year. She's adamant about film preservation and exposing today's youth to film in hopes of countering a growing reliance on video games and the Internet.

"Programs like KidFilm that promote quality and encourage critical viewing habits are more important than ever in our contemporary media-driven society," she said. It's to this end, Alexander said, that KidFilm encourages its school-age attendees to get involved with the movies shown there, both by reading the books from which many of the films draw their inspiration and by writing about their filmgoing experiences.

"The authors and filmmakers have done their job (by) creating enlightening works," she said. "Our job is to help get them into parents' and teachers' hands."


WEATHER Dallas might be in the heart of Texas, but the winters can be chillier than you'd think, with average highs in January often refusing to climb out of the 40s or 50s. The famously fickle weather could make for balmier days or a cold front at the drop of a hat, so it's best to be prepared and keep an extra sweater or jacket nearby. But even if you're bundled up, don't be surprised if strangers on the street still greet you with a friendly "howdy." It is Texas.

FOOD One way to warm up is to head over to Baker's Ribs in Deep Ellum, an arts and entertainment district packed with clubs and restaurants. Baker's is a great place to escape the cold and cozy up to a plate of smoked brisket. For those whose tastes lean toward lighter fare, the area also is home to Deep Sushi; the daily happy hour runs from 5-7 p.m. and includes free sushi on Tuesdays. But for Southern Tex-Mex, you can't beat Taco Cabana, a fast-food chain built on fresh fajitas, hot queso and homemade tortillas. Many of them are open 24 hours, making it the perfect late-night stop on the drive home. Just look for the big pink signs around town. You can't go wrong.

WORTH SEEING The Dallas-Fort Worth area -- known to locals as the Metroplex -- is brimming with activity year-round. For those in the mood to two-step, the Fort Worth Stockyards district offers Billy Bob's Texas, a 127,000-square-foot honky-tonk complete with real and mechanical bulls. If you're looking for something quieter and, well, more refined, the Dallas Museum of Art offers rotating exhibits of classic and contemporary art from around the world. It's located next to the Nasher Sculpture Center, and one ticket gets you admission into both museums.