This story appeared in the October 2000 issue of Delaware Today.

Rehoboth Beach film fest makes a splash at the box office

By Terry Plowman

The script couldn't be better, really.

A guy dreams up a cool cultural event, meets a guy whose expertise is in just that kind of event, they stir up enough volunteer help to get it organized, launch it at what seems like a bad time of year (off-season in a resort area), then hit a home run on the first try -- 6,000 tickets sold, a big-name celebrity at the opening-night gala and glowing reviews in the press.

If that's not Hollywood enough, here's the sequel: Second time around, attendance doubles, attention quadruples, and the guys are local heroes, in an artsy sort of way.

Although it sounds like a movie script (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as the leads?), it's the true story of Rob Rector, Barry Becker and the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival.

Rector and Becker are too down-to-earth to fit the local hero role, and they'd focus on the volunteer help rather than their own contributions. But they can't deny that they started something that in just two years has become a not-to-be-missed "event." This isn't just art movies in film class -- it's a box-office blockbuster.

Set to launch its third festival on Nov. 8, the Rehoboth Beach Film Society's dramatic success  has impressed not only locals, but has earned the respect of film industry insiders.

Jesse Berdinka, a Delaware native now director of development and production at Miramax Films, says the Rehoboth Beach film festival has been successful because of its unpretentious effort to reveal the craft of filmmaking. Instead of trying to be the movie-star-studded Sundance film festival, the Rehoboth festival has brought in directors, producers, visual-effects artists and others who work behind the scenes.

"It has been a success because of the dedication of those guys," Berdinka says. "They had a very clear vision of what they wanted to do -- and they didn't know what they 'couldn't' do."

***

If film reviewer Rob Rector had been satisfied watching one multi-million-dollar mainstream movie after another, the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival might never have been born.

But after eight years of reviewing commercial movies for local newspapers, Rector yearned to see some of the many independent films he read about in press kits and entertainment publications. One night in the fall of 1997, a casual conversation with fellow film fan Tom Shreeve led to further discussions with three others -- Shreeve's wife, Patti, Mariah Calagione and Joyce Felton -- about the idea of showing videos of lesser-known films in local restaurants. "Obviously our scope wasn't as grand as what eventually happened," Rector says.

The five decided to form the Rehoboth Beach Film Society in order to foster the idea of bringing independent films to the resort area. They advertised a meeting for film buffs, which  included the showing of a film about small-town residents with a big dream.

On a cold, drizzly October night (still sounds like a movie script) Rector was surprised that 30 people showed up. In perhaps the biggest twist of film-like fate, Barry Becker, probably the only person within 100 miles who had  run a formal film festival, showed up.

After the meeting, which made clear the local appetite for independent films, Rector and Becker talked. Rector recounts: "He asked me what my highest aspirations were for the festival, what did I dream it could be. When I told him, he said, 'Then let's aim for that.' Barry obviously elevated the vision of what the festival could be."

***

While other arts organizations struggle to gain attention and to stay out of the red, the Rehoboth Beach Film Society zoomed into the spotlight -- and into the black -- in its first year, mostly because of the boundless energy of its members and a crucial donation by a low-key businessman.

"Take 'em all," said Richard Derrickson, offering all six of his movie theaters in the Rehoboth Mall. Rector and Becker had barely begun their pitch for use of two, maybe three, of the theaters when Derrickson interrupted and made his startling offer.

"We tried our best not to leap out of our chairs," said Rector, but he and Becker knew that Derrickson's offer was a huge step toward success of the festival.

What seemed like an off-the-cuff offer was in fact a donation of at least $10,000 -- the box-office revenues that Derrickson gave up by turning over his theaters for an entire weekend. "That was one of the most significant and incredible gifts," Becker says. Although Derrickson also owns 14 other theaters in the Midway Shopping Center, they were under reconstruction at the time of the festival.

"I thought it would be a nice fall activity for this area," Derrickson says. But that wasn't his only motivation. From his experience in the movie business (he started 45 years ago as a projectionist in the old Center Theater on Rehoboth Avenue), Derrickson was well aware of the popularity of film festivals -- popularity that couldn't hurt his business in the long run. He also knew that Becker had a track record as a festival organizer.

Becker, a former legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, co-founded Reel Affirmations in 1991, D.C.'s first gay and lesbian film festival. With the help of Frameline, a film distributor that produces the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, Reel Affirmations grew in five years to be the fourth-largest festival of its kind in the United States. "We learned from the best in the business," Becker says.

What's notable about the success of the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival is that it matched the attendance of Reel Affirmations' fifth festival --12,000 tickets sold -- in only its second year.

Although he's happy about the success of the festival, Becker maintains that he doesn't want explosive growth to get in the way of making it user friendly. "I want it to be an enjoyable experience, where people can come and see movies, meet filmmakers and talk about the films."

***

Even if you want people to meet filmmakers, you might not want to inaugurate your special event with a guy as weird as John Waters.

The Rehoboth Beach Film Society wasn't after the ordinary, though, so it went after Waters, the internationally known director famous for campy cult classics such as "Pink Flamingoes," "Mondo Trasho" and his almost-mainstream hit "Hairspray."

So the film society set loose member Alex Pires, mogul of Dewey Beach's nightlife, as co-owner of the Bottle & Cork, Rusty Rudder and northbeach, the former Waterfront.

 Pires' relentless pursuit, as well as his willingness to pay Waters' substantial fee, persuaded Waters to attend. It was a real coup for the film society's first opening night in November 1998. Adding to the event's star power was guest Patrick Stoner, the syndicated PBS film critic. Pires provided the Bottle & Cork for the event.

Opening night was either "a nightmare or a great success, depending on how you look at it," says Becker. The event was "massively oversold," yet at least 200 people were still trying to get tickets at the last minute. Waters' rambling talk about drag queens, transvestites and unmentionable eating habits was a huge hit among those familiar with his offbeat humor. "Some were horrified though," Becker says, laughing.

But the real accomplishment of the first Rehoboth film fest wasn't in snagging a legendary independent filmmaker for its opening gala -- it was in the diversity of its films. Among the 47 features and 49 shorts were Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language film, films that had won their country's equivalent of the Oscar, and films that won awards or acclaim at the famous Cannes and Sundance film festivals. The festival also offered a series of aquatic wildlife films, three Czech films and panel discussions on such topics as special effects, documentaries and the challenges of independent filmmaking.

Proof of the first festival's success was in the attendance figures -- about 6,000 tickets sold for nearly 100 programs. Perhaps even more important, it united a broadly diverse group of supporters -- young and old, gay and straight, married and single, locals and weekenders, residents and business owners, all enthralled with the hip new event.

***

The rousing success of the 1998 festival set the stage, in both public relations and finances, for the 1999 festival. Perhaps the most significant development after the 1998 event was that the society could afford to rent an office and hire Becker as full-time director.

Starting with a glitzy Hollywood-themed opening party at the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center that literally rolled out a red carpet for guests, the 1999 festival was out to top its predecessor. It offered about 100 films at all six Rehoboth Mall theaters, and at a few of Derrickson's Midway theaters as well. It included special features such as:

  • A showing of the 1926 silent version of "Ben Hur," with an orchestra playing the original musical score.

  •  
  • A children's program, which included shorts by school-age filmmakers.

  •  
  • A bar in the mall and more food choices, so moviegoers could stay and mingle between showings.

  •  
  • Audience awards that allowed attendees to pick their favorites.
The second festival surpassed the first, doubling ticket sales, as well as corporate and local business support. It also had significant economic impact for local businesses at a usually slow time of year. "The restaurants in particular said it was like July," Becker says.

Recognizing the success of the film festival, The Delaware Division of the Arts last summer chose the Rehoboth Beach Film Society -- now more than 300 members strong -- as one of only three arts groups in the state to be included in a pilot program designed to nurture fledgling organizations. The program will pay a portion of Becker's salary over three years and, more importantly, will provide him and the society's directors with a wide range of training in such areas as financial analysis, fund-raising, marketing and audience development. "We will look back on this grant in a few years and see it as a turning point," Becker says.

***

Multi-tasker that he is, Becker welcomes a visitor into the film society's Rehoboth Mall office while simultaneously talking on a telephone headset and taking notes. The third film festival is rapidly approaching, and he's on full alert.

There are film companies to call, submissions to screen, a program to coordinate, fund-raisers to organize and, as important as the myriad details, a vision for the future to be developed.

Such vision comes naturally to corporate executive and film society president Andrea Andrus, who will work closely with Becker and board members to create a three- to five-year plan for the organization.

Andrus is a good match for Becker, a focused organizer who seems amused, almost embarrassed, when he says, "I never think about failing." Andrus thinks big too -- she believes the Rehoboth Beach Film Festival can go beyond its status as a "significant cultural event in the Mid-Atlantic region" to gain national and international recognition. That's a far cry from showing a few videos in local restaurants.

Although the festival has achieved dramatic success in two years, Rector knows that the film society can't take anything for granted. "We have to refine what we have. We can never let it get stale. We have to always challenge -- not just the viewers, but ourselves too."

The festival's fame aside, Rector, Becker and Andrus talk about how it has fostered an inclusiveness, a sense of community that has had an impact on those who have attended. Kelly Gordon, curator for film at the Smithsonian Institution, says it's that connection that is at the root of the festival's success. Because the organizers "see a broader picture of how a film festival fits into the community," the event has achieved the unusual: both artistic and box-office success.

Anecdotes about the connection abound: elderly Russian immigrants watching a film in their native language for the first time in years; two deaf people and their daughter excited to see "Beyond Silence," a film about just such a family; local Nanticoke Indians attending "Smoke Signals," an award-winning film about Native Americans.

"These experiences have resonance in people's lives," Rector says. "That's really why we do it."

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