A Look Into the CINETOPIA International Film Festival

By Drew Waller, Director – Michigan Theater

What a difference a year can make right? Ask me this time last year — with 365 days of continuous film programming, live concerts and speaking engagements already keeping us up to our eyeballs in exciting activity here at the historic Michigan Theater — how close we were to delivering the first-ever international film festival for southeastern Michigan and I would have politely said, “I’m sorry, whaaaa?”

CINETOPIA International Film Festival, a dream of our executive director Russ Collins, for decades longer than it’s fair to say anyone should have to hold onto a dream without seeing it come to fruition, took its preliminary steps after a trio of successful years conducting events with Sundance Film Festival USA. That project, SSFUSA, was one of my first “wow” moments I helped with here at the Michigan when I walked in its doors as part of the executive team in late 2009.

To explain, Sundance as an organization wanted to expand its reach beyond its hometown of Park City, Utah and it did so with Russ and a network of art house cinemas across the country to deliver a concept called Sundance Film Festival USA. SSFUSA took Sundance-approved films of that given year’s festival and send them out to cities across the U.S., right when Sundance was still taking place each year in January to communities who may never get to see a film festival.

The success of Sundance Film Festival USA over the past three years here in Ann Arbor alone has helped expose a wider audience to the power of cinema of what was being debuted at this acclaimed winter international film festival. It has helped bring visionary directors like the Duplass brothers (CYRUS), Miguel Arteta (CEDAR RAPIDS), and soon-to-be success Jamie Travis (FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL…) to our town of Ann Arbor and leave in love with how we embraced their films. Brought respected screenwriters and actors like Oscar® nominee Jonah Hill, Lauren Miller and U-M alum James Wolk (ABC’s HAPPY ENDINGS) in front of sold out crowds of over 1,700 within our historic main theater to see what our friends and neighbors can really do to give a standing ovation to the art and entertainment of film.

If we could deliver that type of excitement for the area for three years, how hard could it be to do that same thing over four days in one year? Now THAT, is a good question and one we asked ourselves in late 2011. From it, came the genesis of this new venture: CINETOPIA International Film Festival. “Cine” from French “cinéma”, or the shortening of “cinématographe” (term coined by the Lumière brothers in the 1890s) and from Ancient Greek κίνημα (kinēma, “movement”) coupled with “topia” or the Ancient Greek of τόπος (topos, “place, region”). CINETOPIA aspires to be an international film festival that brings the best of the festival circuit, be it Tribeca, Toronto or yes, even Sundance to our market; powerful film from the foreign movie distribution groups we work with that may not see major distribution here in the States; the power of 3D as a medium and how close we can get to being there with the illusion of this expanding technology; and a focus on a near and dear product of the University of Michigan: screenwriting.

Now, sounds great on paper, or being relayed via blog post, but then what? Well, fast forward to the months over the first part of 2012 and you would witness an experiment in making something out of nothing. We looked to other film festivals like the Cleveland Film Festival to the south, Michael Moore’s incredibly successful traverse City Film festival to the north of us, to see what we could learn. We also looked to all of you through local businesses and partners to make sure as a non-profit we could fund such an undertaking. Many nails bitten to the quick, we are happy to say with folks like the team at Zingerman’s that we are able to deliver what you will see later this month, happening across three venues (one screen at the Michigan, one screen at the State Theatre, an U-M Angell Hall, Aud. A), over 30 films, and over the course of four days: Thursday, May 31 – Sunday, June 3 and you’re invited. All of Michigan and its neighboring states are invited. Heck, invite your relatives from anywhere and show them just how great Ann Arbor can be when we look to collectively welcome thousands to our humble downtown and show what it really means to love film!

How did we pick all these films and themes? Like everything Zingerman’s does, organically of course! A project of this size can’t just grow on hope alone. We needed to see what was out there building momentum, what films were getting the right amount of buzz, the right amount of care and the right amount of thought-provoking promotion to then welcome them to Ann Arbor. From that we have reached out to indie distributors, nationally respected movie houses and a mountain of other resources to get what you can now look at in its final form on our website. Trust me, it wasn’t easy (PLEASE NOTE: no Michigan Theater employees were injured during the deciding process of this festival) but completely worth the work and effort of our team.

We hope you consider yourself a part of this little nugget of local history and join us for as many films as you can over this special four-day fest. With your help, it can be nurtured and grow into something that we can all take pride in, look back years from now and say: “we made this” and smile as a town, a community and a landmark for cinema and culture.