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'Alaska Grown' filmmaking

Ben Anderson
Aaron Jansen illustration

To be honest, the appeal of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" has always eluded me. It seems that the only time that movie could have been produced is the exact time it happened to come along, smack dab in the middle of the "me decade" 1970s, on the tail end of the "free love" '60s and the run-up to the corporate excess '80s. It seems an anachronism in any other time.

But as Dave Turnbull -- local filmmaker with Paradise Vendors and one of the founders of the Alaska Film Forum -- said, bad movies are "always really fun to watch with a crowd," which may help to explain the fanatical cult following "Rocky Horror" has enjoyed over the years. But as the target demographic for that midnight movie has faded into old age -- looking a little ridiculous in lingerie and leather while yelling "slut!" at Susan Sarandon's character, since that actress is now old enough to be a grandmother -- a new challenger has appeared for champion of late-night cinema.

"The Room," sometimes classified as one of the worst films ever made and "the 'Citizen Kane' of bad movies," will show in Anchorage on May 13, as part of the Alaska Film Forum's newly announced partnership with Out North Contemporary Art House.

Audience members throw plastic spoons at the screen while the movie plays, mocking particularly awful dialogue or acting, and even doing occasional skits that highlight just how bad the movie really is. Made in 2003, the film has quickly become a popular staple of the late-night screening circuit. The May 13 show will be the first public screening in Anchorage, as far as Turnbull and fellow Film Forum founder Beth Varner know.

Out North has seen its share of problems in the last year, and the organization has looked for some new directions with its brand. The relatively new Film Forum provided one of those directions. The still-fledgling Film Forum benefits from Out North's name recognition and non-profit status, so it's a mutually beneficial relationship. In addition to the screenings, the Forum also hopes to host a variety of moviemaking workshops and reach out to local filmmakers and film enthusiasts in other ways.

The Alaska Film Forum was founded in 2010 as local filmmakers were riding high on the buzz from the 2010 Anchorage International Film Festival. Following the success of the 24-hour Film competition -- where filmmakers have just that long to write, shoot, and edit a short film before being screened at the Bear Tooth Theatre -- as part of the festival, a tight-knit group of committed local filmmakers decided to create an organization to allow for collaboration within the community. Varner, Turnbull, and other local filmmakers Bryant Mainord and Paul Jones founded the Alaska Film Forum.

From that came the first Open Projector Night, or OPN, where the creators of films and shorts could bring their product and have it screened for an audience. The first one took place Jan. 22, and the second was held April 16 at Steve’s Sports Bar. Several of the films screened at that OPN were created specifically for the event, including three that Turnbull said he worked on personally.

The April OPN was standing-room only, and the Forum is currently looking for a 200-capacity venue to hold the next one, currently slated for July.

Anchorage's emerging cinema scene

The OPN and Alaska Film Forum are just two visible parts of what is becoming a thriving and proactive Anchorage and Alaska filmmaking scene. Much like the local indie music scene, like-minded artists are united in Anchorage for what many say is the first time.

Turnbull and Varner speak optimistically about this collaboration. Turnbull -- who was one of the producers on the well-received feature-length film "The Beekeepers," still making the rounds on the film festivale circuit, and who has worked in the local scene for several years -- said that local filmmakers are more united than he’s ever seen. Varner is still new to the scene -- she has also worked on organizing the Seattle International Film Festival -- but has some insight on the newfound cooperation among peers.

"My impression of (the scene's) history is that there's been a lot of people doing a lot of very interesting things," Varner said, "but they didn’t know each other, or they've never met each other. It really is something as simple as giving them an excuse to be in the same room, and new ideas happen, new collaborations happen, new projects happen. There's no prodding to be had, it's literally give them a room, and they’ll do it."

Those opportunities for meeting seem to be coming up with more regularity -- after meeting with me, Turnbull and Varner were headed to a meeting of the Alaska Film Group at the Hotel Captain Cook, with numerous other local filmmakers.

The Alaska Film Group is another body that encourages film production in Alaska, albeit on a more national level. It's serendipitous timing for the newly-united local industry that studio filmmakers are now eyeing Alaska as an ideal shooting location, with lucrative tax credits for filming in the state. The tax credit program is currently slated to expire in 2013.

The future of those tax credits is in purgatory for now, since a proposed extension of the film tax credits has been tabled until the next legislative session. According to local filmmaker D.K. Johnston, it didn't come as too much of a surprise that the extension was delayed.

"Were we surprised? Yes," Johnston said. "Were we totally shocked? No. Someone said to me the other day that it had all gone through too easily. We were just waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Johnston -- who graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2006 and later went on to get his M.A. in film from the Los Angeles branch of the New York Film Academy -- has worked on several major studio productions, including "Beyond," the current title of the Jon Voight film that filmed here last year while it was still called "Ghost Vision."

He's currently producing a series of interviews with Alaska filmmakers titled, well, "Alaska Filmmakers." The series provides further evidence of the increased activity among the community. Additionally, he's assigned as First Assistant Director to "The Doppelganger Principle," a local production that will star Ed Asner in a feature-length role, and was originally slated for shooting in April but will now begin in October.

Johnston believes that there is a lot of talent already in Alaska, but having the larger productions in the state has helped the talent pool immensely, offering what occasionally amounts to training-for-pay for people who might otherwise never get the experience, while increasing the previously limited population of filmmakers in Alaska.

"I think the fact that the major films are up here now, it adds a little bit more of a degree of professionalism," Johnston said, "because now a lot of (people) have gotten to work on professional shoots, and they’ve seen how professionals do it."

Additionally, Johnston shares the assessment of Turnbull and Varner that the Alaska filmmaking community has only improved.

"In the past six months, just the amount of talking between filmmakers has increased tenfold," Johnston said, "just kind of discovering that one another exists, and what they're capable of."

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com