The Ups And Downs of A Vegas Film Fest

CineVegas needs an infusion of something to get more on the radar of national news. Here’s an example of two missed opportunities over the weekend.

1) The “CBS News Sunday Morning” show ran a lengthy profile of Dennis Hopper and never mentioned he is the chair of CineVegas’ Creative Advisory Board — or that he would give a CineVegas “Vanguard” award to Willem Dafoe that very night.

(Hell, Hopper’s Wikipedia page doesn’t even include his CineVegas work. And at Sunday night’s closing red carpet, he once again eschewed much of the press, including an interview with me for today’s Page One story, and interviews for the L.A. Times and the Las Vegas Sun.)

2. On Saturday, the public radio show “Studio 360” interviewed the director of the CineVegas film “Moon,” starring Sam (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”) Rockwell, and no one on the show mentioned that “Moon” premiered on Thursday in CineVegas, where both the director and star appeared for a premiere.

CineVegas artistic director Trevor Groth told me Sunday night that the fest got other national press. But why didn’t CBS and “Studio 360” ignore CineVegas?

“It just depends on the story the journalist wants to write,” Groth said. “Sometimes it makes sense to people to mention CineVegas. Sometimes, it doesn’t fit into their story.”

Yes, that’s true to a large extent. But you can bet that if the Hopper and “Moon” profiles had happened during the Sundance film festival, Sundance probably would have been mentioned. Which brings this conclusion about CineVegas: It’s primed to gain more prominence nationally, with its strong-enough movies and Vegas fantastic-ness. It’s just missing some secret sauce, which could be something as simple (and elusive) as taking credit for breaking a big or influential film.

The artistic director said he was thrilled with the turnout (“tens of thousands”) for this year’s shortened schedule (six days), featuring more movies per day, garnering media coverage from “key press.”

“I was happy with the films last year too, but I’ve been really thrilled with the response this year,” Groth said. “They played great.”

The festival’s winner for Grand Jury Prize went to a movie called “Easier With Practice,” directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. It tells the story of a writer who falls into a routine of phone sex while he’s on the road.

That winning movie is based on a GQ story written some years back by a guy named Davy Rothbart, and here’s the thing:

One of the great pleasures of CineVegas is discovering something you didn’t even know existed. On Thursday night, I walked into the Palms Lounge at midnight and found a full crowd listening to some guy perform a spoken word thing.

Spoken word — ick, right? Wrong.

The guy was Davy Rothbart — a storyteller for public radio’s “This American Life.” In the Palms Lounge, he read aloud sections from the magazine he runs, called Found, which publishes all kinds of crazy things that people find on the streets of America and mail in to the magazine — grocery lists, love letters and anything else super personal.

Rothbart simply stood on stage — in a nutso get-up of baggy shiny pants, a sports jersey and a bubble-y hat — and read out loud these people’s hilarious personal notes. He read a receipt that went:

“Chicken ramen noodles, chicken ramen noodles, chicken ramen noodles, chicken ramen noodles, chicken ramen noodles, chicken ramen noodles, chicken ramen noodles, 12-pack lubricated condoms.”

Another list was someone’s financial breakdown: “Rent $600. Cell phone $50. Electric/gas $45. Cable $60. Bus/taxi $60. Food $500. Liquor $600. Laundry $30. Crack $600. Attorney $250. Savings $100.”

As you can imagine, Rothbart’s and other movies of CineVegas are still definitely independent films looking for wide appeal. And that means they are low budget.

For the movie, “Moon,” set on the moon, the crew used Tonka toy-like trucks for small-scale sets, instead of using expensive computer graphics to represent movement on the orb.

And in the quite stylized “Asylum Seekers,” director Rania Ajami used handmade costumes and odd sets instead of filming in front of a blue screen, which other films use for expensive special effects. Ajami said this made her film more genuine and vibrant.

“The moment you star using the blue screen, everything looks the same,” she said.

But she also saved money for her small budget, starring no Hollywood stars. She edited digitally using Final Cut Pro software. And she shot “Asylum Seekers” on a lightweight, ultra high resolution, digital camera that works with available light, called a “RED camera,” which Steven Soderbergh just used to film “Che,” starring Benicio Del Toro.

Ajami proudly said she finished shooting “Asylum Seekers” before Soderbergh wrapped production on “Che,” making her film the first completed on a RED camera, “which is our little claim to fame.”

But Sodderbergh, being Sodderbergh, has gotten all the “RED camera” press for making “Che,” which earned the famous director prominent press when it premiered in May at … the Cannes film festival.