Las Vegas Film Festival turns the lens on movies made outside the studio system

With apologies to Barbara Mandrell, John T. Woods was crowdfunding when crowdfunding wasn’t cool.

The actor, a 2002 UNLV grad, was a vital part of director Zak Forsman’s Kickstarter campaign to finance their movie, “Down and Dangerous.” This was back in 2011, long before the “Veronica Mars” movie made headlines for using the Internet to drum up investors.

“None of this Zach Braff stuff had gone on,” he says of the former “Scrubs” star, who also made celebrated use of the public-financing site. “Kickstarter wasn’t really huge in the mainstream media. It was big in creative circles, but my mom didn’t know what Kickstarter was.”

Unlike those two examples, though, the makers of “Down and Dangerous,” part of this weekend’s Las Vegas Film Festival, never really had the option of working within the studio system. So they ended up going all Blanche DuBois and depended on the kindness of strangers.

“We do that out of necessity, just because we want to make films,” Woods says. “We want to make movies. We don’t want to wait for people to tell us that it’s OK to make movies. Much like anything creative in life, I guess, you have to just start doing it. But we knew we needed some sort of budget, and Kickstarter seemed like the way to go.”

The campaign set a goal of $30,000, the minimum amount Forsman felt he needed to make the action movie, in which Woods plays a drug smuggler alongside his University of Nevada, Las Vegas classmate and friend, local actor and playwright Ernie Curcio.

Thanks to Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing approach, if they came up short at the end of their monthlong effort, they wouldn’t receive a dime.

“Literally, it is a 24-hour-a-day pursuit for the 30 days that it runs,” Woods says. “It’s all you think about. It’s all you do. You’re on the computer constantly contacting people, thanking people.”

The campaign ultimately ended up raising $38,000.

“It seems like all it ever really comes down to is absolutely 100 percent respect to the people that give you money,” Woods reflects. “The ones that decide to give you a buck, the ones that step in and give you five grand, you just have to really, really respect the idea that people take a moment to do that.”

In addition to “Down and Dangerous,” which Woods calls “sort of a love letter to what the action movies of the 1980s really tried valiantly to be,” the sixth annual Las Vegas Film Festival is hosting four days of features, documentaries and shorts, Thursday through Sunday at LVH, 3000 Paradise Road. (Individual tickets are $10, with festival passes starting at $75. For more information, including a complete schedule, see www.lvfilmfest.com.)

Among the films program manager West McDowell is most excited to showcase is “Magic Camp” (11:05 a.m. Sunday), a documentary about young illusionists he calls “kind of like a real-life Harry Potter.”

“Coldwater” (2:05 p.m. Saturday), a drama about a teenage boy who’s sent to a wilderness juvenile reform facility, grabbed McDowell right away. “I really feel that this would be a great story to show,” he adds.

Then there’s “Magical Universe” (11:10 a.m. Saturday), something McDowell calls “a really wild card, a really weird, weird film, something really special.” The documentary offers a window into the life of octogenarian artist Al Carbee, a recluse who spends his days photographing Barbies.

Festival director Milo Kostelecky says McDowell was brought into the Las Vegas Film Festival fold when “we definitely realized that we need to expand the programming aspect to kind of become a little bit more professional.”

Among the other changes to the festival is a new focus for its Indie Icon Award. After previously honoring Michael Madsen, Louis Gossett Jr. and Lea Thompson, there was an emphasis this year on saluting some of the best work among the films that are in competition, regardless of whether it comes from recognizable names.

This year’s honorees are veteran stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who first made her mark as an actress on the hood of a Dodge Charger in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” and up-and-coming British actor Rory J. Saper.

Bell can be seen in “Raze” (6 p.m. Saturday), a horror-action tale about a group of women who’ve been abducted and forced to fight for their lives. Saper stars in “Rufus” (8:15 p.m. Saturday) as a young vampire hunted by a pharmaceutical company determined to exploit his genetic makeup for its anti-aging properties.

The festival also has a renewed emphasis on young, local filmmakers.

In addition to its showcases for College of Southern Nevada short films (3 p.m. Thursday) and UNLV shorts (5 p.m. Thursday), the Las Vegas Film Festival has established a scholarship fund for emerging filmmakers. The proceeds from a 7:30 p.m. Thursday dinner at Piero’s Italian Cuisine, 355 Convention Center Drive, will benefit that fund.

“I think that’s extremely important,” Kostelecky says of the festival’s emphasis on local filmmakers. “That’s our base. That’s our community.”

Woods has been working in Los Angeles for too long to still be considered a local, but the actor says he still has plenty of friends in Las Vegas as well as strong ties to the community.

He’s looking forward to the chance to catch up with former classmates and professors, some of whom he hasn’t seen since graduation.

Now that “Down and Dangerous” (8:30 p.m. Friday) is finally finished and on the festival circuit, he says, “it’s time to celebrate, and it’s nice to do it with the folks that really inspired me to get into this business in the first place.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at
clawrence@reviewjournal.com
or 702-380-4567.

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