The Chicago Underground Film Festival has come a long way since Bryan Wendorf and Jay Bliznick, both video store managers, dreamed up the idea six years ago. The first edition attracted about 200 entries and was held at the old Bismarck Theater in the Loop; according to Wendorf its entire budget came from entry fees and program ads. This year nearly 1,000 films and shorts from around the world competed for 165 slots on the program, and with generous backing from Camel cigarettes and Stolichnaya vodka the sixth annual festival will be held at the Village Theater at Clark and North from August 13 to 19. For the first time, a five-member panel of CUFF staffers has awarded cash grants of $750 and $1,000 to six independent films it considers worthy of recognition. Among the filmmakers singled out are Chicagoans Ben Redgrave and Ben Berkowitz, whose first feature, Straightman, deals with the sexual awakening of two young men and the effect it has on their friendship. “The grants are intended to encourage the kind of work the festival wants to see done,” says Wendorf, who finds Redgrave and Berkowitz’s film a refreshing change of pace. “Most of the work tends to be heavily political, and there isn’t a lot of straightforward narrative like Straightman.”

Both filmmakers are happy to be honored by CUFF, but Redgrave admits that they have their sights set on Hollywood, and Wendorf confirms that recognition at an underground festival–even one that describes itself in a recent press release as “subversive,” “anarchic,” and “radical”–can help lure Hollywood studios looking for fresh talent with tangible accomplishments. Few budding filmmakers are lucky enough to find a major distributor for their work, and without festival exposure, the only way they can find a wide audience is to set up the distribution themselves.

Redgrave and Berkowitz met in an acting class at the School of the Art Institute, where Berkowitz studied film and performance and Redgrave is still enrolled. Straightman was budgeted at $50,000, and so far the partners have managed to raise about $30,000. As recently as last week they were scoring the film and working on the sound track, both costly and time-consuming elements in postproduction. “The money from the festival grant was really helpful in allowing us to get the film finished,” says Berkowitz. Straightman will be screened as a work in progress at next month’s festival. Berkowitz says the final print probably won’t be completed until early next year.

Roadworks Under Construction

Just two months after Phil Kohlmetz resigned as managing director, Roadworks Productions faces another significant personnel change: artistic director Debbie Bisno announced late last week that she’s leaving the company to join James D. Stern Productions, Inc., a local theater and film production outfit. Bisno has clocked seven years at Roadworks, where she was instrumental in developing a five-year business plan that was implemented last year. Over the past 12 months the company has introduced a new logo, moved into a spacious new office and rehearsal facility in the Randolph Street market district, and expanded its funding base and board of directors. Bisno will stay on as a board member, but effective immediately she is director of creative development for Jim Stern, who’s produced a variety of independent film and theater projects in recent years; his film adaptation of Keith Reddin’s play All the Rage, starring Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Andre Braugher, and David Schwimmer, is set for release in early 2000.

Replacing Bisno as artistic director at Roadworks will be Shade Murray, an ensemble member since 1995 who’s served as the company’s literary director, development assistant, and, most recently, associate artistic director. Murray says he’ll carry on with the strategy Bisno and Kohlmetz put in place, but he also wants to develop a subscription audience base and make Roadworks a laboratory for new work, putting playwrights on retainer and using the new rehearsal space for workshops. Next month Jennifer Avery will replace Kohlmetz as managing director; for the past five years Avery has been assistant to the general manager at Music and Dance Theater Chicago, where she helped develop the organization’s performance space now under construction at the north end of Grant Park, in Millennium Park. Before that, Avery served as managing director of the Great Jones Theatre Company; an offshoot of the Dolphinback Theatre Company, Great Jones produced Boy’s Life and American Divine, a portion of which, subtitled The Spirit, went on to the Edinburgh Theater Festival.

In a related note, Roadworks resident director Abigail Deser has agreed to direct Patrick Marber’s latest play, Closer, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company next season; the assignment comes to her largely on the strength of her work directing Marber’s play Dealer’s Choice at Roadworks two seasons ago. Closer will mark Deser’s debut on the Steppenwolf main stage, an honor normally reserved for Steppenwolf ensemble members and directors with national reputations; that and the flurry of administrative changes back at Roadworks could lead to a more visible role for her there.

Land of the Giants

Nearly two years ago John Walker left his job as managing director of Victory Gardens to join the animated films unit at Warner Brothers. Now his first movie, The Iron Giant, is scheduled to open August 6 on approximately 2,500 screens nationwide. The 80-minute film, about a boy who befriends an alien invader, is adapted from The Iron Man, a children’s book by the late Ted Hughes. As associate producer, Walker handled artist management and cost control for a project that employed 500 animators. “The scale at which money is spent in Hollywood is truly staggering,” says Walker. “I certainly don’t miss worrying how to make payroll.” Walker has already been assigned to two more animated features, but he says the animation unit has suffered some layoffs, and he doubts that the studio will continue to release as many animated films as it has recently. According to Walker, no one seems to know who will replace Warner Brothers chief executives Terry Semel and Robert Daly, who announced last week that they will leave to form their own company.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.