I’m just back from a whirlwind trip to the Omaha Film Festival. I wasn’t sure what to expect, knowing very little about the festival and never having been to Nebraska, but it turned out to be an extremely well-run, well-attended event and a great experience.
I arrived in Omaha Friday afternoon and found my way to the Hotel Deco downtown, where most of the filmmakers were staying. After a quick nap to recover from my 4am stumble out of the house, I got myself on the road to the Great Escape Theatres, where the festival was held. It turned out to be a big multiplex that stood alone in an ocean of parking lot way out on the outskirts of Omaha, with only an Applebee’s across the lot.
A strange place for a festival, I thought, but once I stepped inside my doubts were dispelled. The place was packed with festivalgoers. The entire place had been taken over by the festival. I chatted with a few of the many volunteers, and they gave me my all-access filmmaker’s pass (which always makes me feel like a VIP) and a gift bag full of swag. I distributed some of our postcards on the table and gave them our poster and easel to put up on Saturday before our screening.
After a quick check of the screening schedule I headed into a program of short films. It was a mixed bag: a wide variety of dramas and comedies from around the world, including a Spanish-language sci-fi comedy and a typically misanthropic short written by Neil LaBute.
I just had time to grab some dinner from the concession and then it was time to head into the next screening, a program of local films from around Nebraska. After that, everyone migrated over to a local sports bar, Julio’s, for the afterparty.
The atmosphere was laid back and friendly, and free tacos and cheap beer were on offer. I chatted with the festival director and several filmmakers, including the writer/star of a feature, A Schizophrenic Love Story, which would be screening after our movie on Saturday. Around midnight my lack of sleep finally caught up with me, so I headed back to the hotel, looking forward to our screening the next day.
I drove to the theater with Glen, one of the co-directors of A Schizophrenic Love Story, stopping off for coffee and some breakfast on the way. We parted ways at the theater as he went off to set up their poster and I headed into a program of animated shorts. There were some really outstanding films, including one of this year’s Oscar nominees, A Morning Stroll, which I just loved.
There was a short break before our program began, so I stepped outside for a quick walk in the brisk early spring afternoon. By the time I was back people were lined up for the comedy shorts program, which included our film. We had a good crowd, and the comedy theme turned out to be a good environment. We screened right in the middle of the block, by which time the audience was warmed up and primed to laugh, which was nice.
The screening went very well, and I was really impressed with the quality of the entire program. The movies were consistently funny and often really clever as well. I particularly enjoyed two short, sweet entries, First Kiss and Allison, which turned out to be directed by the same Los Angeles-based filmmaker, Charles Hood.
After the program, we did a Q&A and I got a chance to meet Charles and one other filmmaker, Chris Blunk. After the Q&A the three of us stood around at the front and talked movies and filmmaking until people started streaming in for the next program and we figured it was time to go.
I headed straight into A Schizophrenic Love Story. Our program had overlapped it, so I missed the first half, but Andrew, the writer/star I’d met at Friday’s party, saw me come in and very kindly caught me up on the story. What I did see was charming and sweet, so it was no surprise it’s done so well on the festival circuit.
Afterward I got some dinner at the concession and watched another feature, then made my way back to downtown Omaha for the Saturday night party. It was held in the offices of a production company run by Robert Altman’s grandson, Dana. The office was filled with posters of Altman’s many, many movies, which was really cool.
We all wandered the halls looking at posters and admiring the production facilities. I drank some Nebraska wine (turns out there’s a reason Nebraska isn’t known for its wine), did better with a Nebraska beer, and talked with all kinds of people: volunteers for the festival, local filmmakers and even a man running in the Democratic primary for Senate, trying to unseat Bob Kerrey. He was charming and funny and seemed to have no illusions about his chances, though we joked about Robert Redford’s character in The Candidate, and whether he might have a similar reaction if by some chance he won: “What do we do now?”
Later on I ran into Charles and Chris again and we had a little comedy shorts reunion, checking out more of the office and talking silent films and favorite directors. It was just what I love about film festival parties.
We closed the place down, finally leaving about 3am (though, to be fair, it was really only 2am, as daylight saving time began that night). Contact information was exchanged, many hands were shaken, and after a few hours of sleep, I was on a plane back to Burbank.
It was a short trip, but a great festival, supported by a really enthusiastic community of local filmmakers and film lovers. I hope I’ll be back someday.