Nov. 18--As showtimes dwindled and filmmakers rushed off to hop flights back home, the 19th Cucalorus Film Festival drew to a close Sunday afternoon after five days of film, music, parties and even a visit from Santa Claus.
"It is just so great to see such an established festival like this in North Carolina," said Durham-based director Nicole Triche, who screened her short film "Taxidermists" Thursday. "I just love the vibe of Cucalorus because it is non-competitive, so everyone is welcoming and nice."
Triche's excitement for the festival was reflected by many of the ticket holders who bustled back and forth between downtown venues Thalian Hall, City Stage, Jengo's Playhouse and TheatreNOW to catch their picks of 115 individual screenings, workshops and events.
"With the (initial) numbers I am seeing, it looks like there will be a pretty significant bump in attendance from last year," said Dan Brawley, festival executive director. "We can definitely tell that our core audience has grown."
Brawley said this year's festival featured more filmmakers than in years past and that reaction to their films has been extremely positive.
"I think one of the aspects that we have built up over the years is that filmmakers appreciate the opportunity to come to Wilmington and screen their films at Cucalorus," Brawley said. "We have created a really valuable opportunity for filmmakers."
Steph Sosinski, house manager for Thalian Hall, said crowds fluctuated depending on the time of day, but that Friday night and Saturday drew the the biggest crowds.
"Saturday night, we had a short-films block playing in the Black Box theatre that sold out and quite a few people got upset because they were turned away," Sosinski said.
For those festivalgoers who were turned away or found scheduling conflicts when deciding what films to see, Sunday's lineup provided a few second-chance screenings of popular films like "Blue Ruin," "The Kill Team" and "Short Term 12." But it also marked the festival's shrouded-in-secrecy screening of filmmaker and actress Josephine Decker's latest film, "Butter on the Latch."
The screening, simply dubbed "Secret Screening" in the festival program, almost sold out City Stage as some came to see the big reveal and others came after hearing whispers of what was to be shown.
"I love this town and I love this festival," Decker said to the crowd before the film. "Being here is a big honor."
Megan Dawkins and Haley Ray were among those to show up for the secret screening. Former University of North Carolina Wilmington film students, the pair has been coming to Cucalorus for years and agreed that this year would be no different.
"The festival brings the film community together because I feel like it can get spread out here and forget who all is involved," Ray said. "Plus, we get to catch up with alumni working as staff members now."
Dawkins added, "We love Cucalorus. It is like a reunion."
While the festival is known for welcoming back both filmmakers and movie fans year after year, plenty of newcomers were taking it all in this year.
Sandy York, a first-time attendee, finally got the chance to see a film Sunday after spending her time volunteering in the Filmmaker's Lounge.
"This is my first Cucalorus, so it has been really fascinating walking into this system," she said.
York has worked as an extra on several films in Wilmington and used the festival to network with the film community.
"Cualorus has given me the chance to meet filmmakers and other people who are in different jobs all over Wilmington," York said. "You don't get paid for volunteering, and its long hours, but at the end of the night, after working, we all get together and party and have fun. It is everyone just blending."
As in years past, Cucalorus was not without its unexpected moments, plenty of which came through in the discussions with filmmakers that immediately followed most screenings.
Aaron Hillis, a film writer for "The Village Voice," got big laughs when he moderated the Q&A for the Christmas film "White Reindeer" in a Santa Claus suit. He also donned a full-body Bigfoot suit for Bobcat Goldthwait's horror film "Willow Creek."
Actress Shirley Knight, who attended to speak to audiences about her film "Redwood Highway," also got movie fans talking when she detailed how she, Mary Tyler Moore and Linda Lavin accidently stole a car they thought was Tyler's rental car while filming a movie in Wilmington in the '90s.
Throughout the festival, it was hard to escape talk of the uncertain future of the film incentive program, which is set to expire at the end of 2014. State legislatures are scheduled to vote on the issue when session begins in mid-May.
Joe Chianese, executive vice president of EP Services, a company that handles logistics for incentive programs worldwide, attended the festival and talked with concerned North Carolina filmmakers and festival attendees about what the future holds.
Chianese, who moderated the "State of the Slate" panel on Thursday, also spoke to how a festival like Cucalorus can only help raise awareness for the film industry's value in the state and nationwide.
"I think this is important because it is a showcase for local film," said Chianese, who mentioned that he sat in on Thursday's screening of the locally filmed drama "A Short History of Decay." "I think the festival will help the local community (going into next year) get recognized outside of the state. And having a growing, indigenous film community will only help the festival's appeal."
As the sun set on another Cucalorus, Brawley said this year's success indicates that the festival is only going to gain momentum.
"Every year feels like an important year, but I think that Cucalorus is on the verge of the next stage. It is getting a little bit bigger, but it still has that sincere, rooted feeling where filmmakers can come hang out with each other in more intimate settings," he said. "It has been a good festival."
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