Cinema Spectacular‘s founder and executive director Laurel Brown is, among other things, a marine biology enthusiast. That’s not the main gist of our conversation, but it does explain why she used the intertidal zone (the area of the ocean shore between the low and high tide marks) as a metaphor for the sometimes perilous purgatory between novice filmmaking and gaining professional traction. “It’s rocky,” she laughs, “You can be eaten by any number of things.”
Brown found herself adrift in this same situation after finishing her first independent short film in early 2014. And, despite the ever-present buzz about film in Vancouver, found herself with few local opportunities to show off the final product. But instead of doing what a lot of people do (submit to a bunch of distant festivals online, get into one or two) or what I would have done (put it on YouTube, walk away), she rented the Vancity Theatre, made a poster, and set up her own screening. Content came from a grassroots group of locals in the same situation — “I recruited them to my cause,” Brown says.
That cause solidified about six months later. Somewhat by chance, the first year had met a somewhat unfilled niche in the Vancouver film scene: the one-day screening contained only work under 20 minutes long, but included music videos, collage films, and trailers for independent feature films mixed in with short-form drama and comedy. Filmmakers like Nathan Douglas responded well to the idea that projects were chosen more for their ideas than anything else they represented, with “the freedom to showcase work that is more thoughtful, challenging, or messy” than standard festival fare. By christening the little event ‘Cinema Spectacular’ rather than something ending in ‘Film Fest,’ Brown had created a loosely-curated space for people to try out their motion picture work, whatever their formal or stylistic traits, in a brick-and-mortar venue.
The real, live cinema is a crucial point for the festival, and for Brown: “One of the important things is to see people watching your film. You kind of forget, while you’re struggling to make it, that someone is going to actually watch it.”
Douglas, a 2015 festival alumnus whose film Son In The Barbershop premiered at Cinema Spectacular and went on to win awards around the world, agrees. “[The festival] also serves as a natural meeting point for up and coming filmmakers to see each other and realize that they aren’t alone.”
If there is anywhere that Cinema Spectacular is still finding its feet, it is in bridging the gap from the film world in Vancouver to the general public. BC filmmakers are a distinctively insular bunch — it was really not until the “Save BC Film” campaign in 2012 that the sector made a concerted effort to reach out — but Brown and festival coordinator Alexandra Caulfield have sought to curate a diverse program of work this year that includes underrepresented perspectives and stories from across the country with a focus on the unexpected. The long-term goal of the festival is to facilitate a touring program of films, renewed annually, to allow for cultural exchange of micro-budget projects across the country.
For right now, anyway, Laurel Brown and her festival are happy to exist within a smaller group of people who are interested in a variety of forms of image-based storytelling. “I was not trying to create something super-serious,” she tells me. “It’s more about having fun.”
Perhaps Brown’s off-the-cuff intertidal zone of filmmaking remark means more than first intended, then: it’s a rough place, for sure, uneven and slippery, but there is also an incredible interplay of life there. And even for the casual passerby, there’s certain to be something cool to look at.
Cinema Spectacular 2016 will be held on Sunday, May 29 at Vancouver International Film Centre’s Vancity Theatre. Tickets and info at cinemaspectacular.com.