Celebrating Cinema

On the move -- in more ways than one.

The Las Vegas International Film Festival begins its three-day run Friday at a new home: the Las Vegas Hilton.

The third annual festival also has a new home on the calendar, shifting from April to June.

For the past 11 years, CineVegas reigned as Las Vegas' June film festival, but was canceled for 2010 because of economic pressures.

Officials of the Las Vegas Film Festival, which sponsors the international festival, already had opted to move to a more centralized location than last year's site at the Eastside Cannery, according to Milo Kostelecky, the festival's director of operations. The June date was a better fit for the Hilton, he adds.

"We made all our decisions -- and then we found out about CineVegas," Kostelecky explains.

Yet the absence of the bigger, better-established festival has "allowed us to spread our wings and find our voice," in Kostelecky's view.

That voice reflects a more "grass-roots" approach, he says, with a more local focus, which includes showcases devoted to student filmmakers from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and College of Southern Nevada.

It also includes reaching out to local audiences with free tickets for various nonprofit groups, two-for-one ticket fliers and free tickets distributed by festival sponsors. (One sponsor, Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill, will kick off its involvement by giving away free burritos "as a thank you to the local community for supporting the film festival and the arts," according to co-founder and chairman Ralph Rubio; coupons for today's giveaway are available at www.rubios.com.)

"We want the entire community to know they're welcome" to an event that's striving to be "positive for the city as a whole," Kostelecky says.

To that end, "nothing in our festival is expensive," he notes.

As a result, the festival should double last year's attendance of 3,000, Kostelecky predicts.

"For the local crowd, it's an opportunity to get away for a few hours and enjoy film," he says.

The same holds true for visiting filmmakers, who appreciate the intimacy of a smaller festival, according to director Stephen Auerbach, whose documentary "Bicycle Dreams" screens at 2 p.m. Saturday.

"At the bigger festivals, filmmakers kind of get swallowed up in the machine," Auerbach says, noting he enjoys being able to mingle at smaller festivals.

Many of the festival's 40 selections, chosen from about a thousand entries, already have earned acclaim at other festivals.

For example, tonight's opening-night attraction, "Holy Rollers," premiered in January at Sundance, the year's top showcase for independent productions. (Now in theatrical release, "Holy Rollers" opens in Las Vegas theaters June 25.)

"We didn't take it anywhere else, because we felt Sundance was the top," according to Danny A. Abeckaser , who produced the fact-based drama about a young Hasidic Jew ("Zombieland's" Jesse Eisenberg) recruited to smuggle Ecstasy from Europe to the United States.

But the head of the studio that bought "Holy Rollers" at Sundance told Abeckaser Las Vegas "was a great little festival," he says. "The minute I heard Las Vegas, I was in." (It didn't hurt that one of Abeckaser's best friends owns the local nightclub powerhouse the Light Group.)

There's also a Vegas connection to the documentary "My Run," which screens at 5:20 p.m. Sunday: Producer Mark Castaldo was a craps dealer at the Desert Inn for seven years before getting into the movie business.

The inspirational "My Run" focuses on a widower, struggling to raise three young children after his wife's death from breast cancer, who decides to run 75 consecutive marathons -- in 75 consecutive days.

Despite its focus on a marathon runner, however, "it isn't a running film," maintains director Tim VandeSteeg . "It's about the marathon we all run in life."

The marathon analogy seems apt for many of the festival's filmmakers, who have devoted years to bringing their projects to cinematic life.

VandeSteeg spent five years on "My Run."

It took writer-director Ash Adams 10 years to get "Once Fallen" (which screens at 3:25 p.m. Saturday) made "for no money," with a 19-day shooting schedule -- and a cast including such illustrious names as Ed Harris, Amy Madigan (one of Adams' executive producers), Taraji P. Henson, Peter Weller and Adams himself.

Showing his movie to a festival audience "gives me an opportunity to talk with people about what it really means to be a filmmaker," Adams says. And it's equally valuable for the filmmaker "to see how the movie plays for an audience that's not full of friends and family."

Festivals also give filmmakers "the opportunity to build awareness, build impressions and get exposure," VandeSteeg notes.

And, perhaps, to win awards.

The Las Vegas Film Festival will bestow its accolades at Sunday's closing-night ceremony.

But several of the selections already have earned awards at other festivals, including "Bicycle Dreams," "My Run" and "Godspeed" (screening at 3:30 p.m. Sunday), a dramatic thriller set in Alaska, which won a special jury award at last year's CineVegas.

Those and other festival documentaries, shorts and features reflect a world of movies far removed from the mainstream fare dominating local multiplexes.

"That's the beauty of the festival," Auerbach says. "Since it's not a big machine, it's like going to a museum and seeing a painting. It's a direct expression of passion and artistry."

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.


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