Oldenburg: How the Indie Film Fest Is (Slowly) Going Mainstream

In A Valley Of Violence Still - Publicity - H 2016
Lewis Jacobs/Universal Pictures

In A Valley Of Violence Still - Publicity - H 2016

The scrappy gathering that courts edgy auteurs and filmmaking outlaws is growing beyond its reputation as Germany "biggest little festival." Says director Thorsten Neumann, "It's word-of-mouth from people who have been here, liked it and get us. Then they tell their friends."

Oldenburg, one of Europe's leading indie film festivals, suddenly has gotten, well, kind of big.

The fest's 23rd edition, set to run Sept. 14 to 18 in a city about the size of Fort Lauderdale in North-Western Germany, still is run on a shoestring budget, and its long-suffering director, Torsten Neumann, must fight for every euro and cent. But through the years, Oldenburg's reputation has grown — slowly — among a certain class of independent directors, producers and film fans.

"We don't have money; we don't have an 'industry argument' to pull people in. All we have is our network," says Neumann. "It's word-of-mouth from people who have been here, liked it and get us. Then they tell their friends."

Oldenburg often is called Germany's Sundance, but think Sundance circa 1991, not 2016. In place of branded corporate lounges and smooth-talking studio executives, Oldenburg has its maximum-security prison — which doubles as a screening venue during the festival — and keeps its focus on the cool, not the cash, of cinema.

Jack Fessenden’s Stray Bullets.

The 2016 lineup includes Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden, hands-down the weirdest film that played at Cannes this year, featuring a giddy mixture of historical romance, horror, ghosts and — oh, yeah — tentacle sex. Stray Bullets, a gritty home-invasion thriller that marks the directorial debut of Jack Fessenden, son of iconic New York underground filmmaker Larry Fessenden (Habit, The Last Winter), will have its world premiere at Oldenburg. Ti West's In a Valley of Violence, starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta — which won over genre fans at its South by Southwest premiere with its offbeat humor and skewed take on the revenge Western — picked Oldenburg for its international debut. So did Oscar-nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska), whose latest work as a director is the 21-minute short A Beautiful Day, starring James Brolin as an 80-year-old widower stuck in the monotony of the everyday.

Oldenburg's network of fans, fellow travelers and like-minded indie-film freaks also was the driving force behind Matchbox, a co-production market the festival is launching this year. In-development titles presenting as part of the inaugural Matchbox include one of the indie scene's hottest turnaround projects, Buddy Giovinazzo's Potsdamer Platz, a crime drama about a New Jersey mob family trying to expand their business internationally. It was the last project optioned by the late director Tony Scott and at one point reportedly had the likes of Javier Bardem, Jason Statham and Mickey Rourke circling it.

Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden.

With a lineup like that, it's obvious Oldenburg isn't looking to take on Toronto, Cannes or Berlin. But in the growing new-indie scene, where Kickstarter is a primary source of funding and distribution models are made up on the fly, Germany's so-called "biggest little festival" sees space to grow.

"It used to be the films that screened at Oldenburg often vanished after the festival," says Dan Maag, a German producer and co-founder of Pantaflix, an indie-focused streaming site that launched this summer in the U.S. and Europe. "We see Oldenburg as a partner in this new independent distribution system; they provide a platform and media attention and promotion around films that didn't have much chance of getting seen under the old system.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.