Jeff Morris isn’t a novice when it comes to film festivals: the LA-based writer, producer, and director has participated in around 20 of them since completing his first feature, You Did What?, last year. That’s enough experience to give him some perspective on Chicago’s fourth annual Indiefest, held at the Village Theatre at North and Clark and the Seneca Hotel earlier this month. “I can speak candidly, because I’ve already sold my movie,” he says. “It was far and away the worst festival I’ve ever attended.” He’s not alone in that opinion: Seattle filmmaker Drew Emery, who says he “tried to find a silver lining” during the five days he spent in Chicago with his marriage documentary, Inlaws and Outlaws, calls Indiefest a “soul-sucking disaster” that ought to have a “wooden stake driven through its heart.”

Indiefest, “created by independent filmmakers for independent filmmakers” to “give your project as much exposure as possible,” promised its 2006 festival would “showcase the best in independent film to the general public, filmmakers, the media, and to distribution executives.” The entry fee for features was between $70 and $120, and though Morris says that’s relatively high–more expensive than Sundance–he thought it would be worth the money. The festival seemed like a good match for his film, a mainstream romantic comedy, and offered not only four separate screenings but a grand prize worth $300,000 in goods and services from industry sponsors including Resolution Digital Studios, Bexel Video Production, and Zacuto Rentals.

But early on there were signs of trouble. Dates and venues kept changing, and Morris says what little communication he had with festival organizers was off-putting. Filmmakers were asked to limit their contact to “absolute emergencies, as we are extremely busy.” They were also informed that it was their responsibility to publicize and sell tickets for their films, even though Morris and Emery both say they didn’t receive their screening schedules until two weeks before the event at the earliest. An e-mail that arrived a week before opening night warned, “If your film is not selling tickets, [it] may be pulled out of the festival.” Filmmakers were required to attend the festival or send representatives, at their own expense, and the scheduling delays forced them to make expensive last-minute airline and hotel bookings. Morris says an e-mail asking the best way to get from the airport to his hotel went unanswered, and Emery says phone calls seeking information on projection weren’t returned.

Filmmakers were required to send copies of their entries to Chicago’s major publications, but Emery says the press list he was given was miserably out-of-date. (It would’ve been very difficult to contact Ted Shen, the reviewer listed for the Reader–he died nearly three years ago.) He and Morris felt there was an almost total lack of awareness of the festival in the city at large; Morris claims audiences were painfully small, with fewer than a dozen people at each of the eight or nine films he saw. Both say the quality of the screenings was atrocious and that there was a severe shortage of festival staff and volunteers on hand. Emery says the Village’s ticket office knew nothing about advance sales for his film, so he simply let in anyone who walked through the door. “There was no one from Indiefest there,” he says, “no one to introduce the filmmaker. I ran my own Q & A and my own houselights. But the worst thing was the picture was blown out–they didn’t have the right settings on the projector. And the sound–the right speaker had crackle and hiss and the left speaker didn’t work. It just produced a loud hum through the entire film. Four or five days later nothing had been fixed. I’m thinking, wow, they’ve shown 20 or 30 films in here with one speaker. That’s tragic for the filmmakers.”

Indiefest director Lee Alan blames some of those problems on the condition of the Village. “It’s old,” he says. “They don’t have the greatest sound system. And when we’re showing approximately 20 films on each screen every day, we have to set the projection and sound to a happy medium. Everyone’s got different aspect ratios, different formats. It’s not going to be optimal for each film; we can’t keep adjusting it.” But Jay Bliznick, who headed Village management during the festival, says the video projection equipment was brought in by Indiefest. “We were only contracted to provide 35-millimeter equipment,” he says, “and they had very few 35-millimeter films. Everything else was projection equipment they brought in and tried to set up themselves. They didn’t do an accurate job of looking at our sound system–which was fine for 35-millimeter–to see what equipment they would have needed to patch in.” And Emery says the problems weren’t limited to the theater. When a DVD of his film was screened in a conference room at the Seneca, the equipment was set to an aspect ratio of 16:9, even though his film was shot in 4:3. He asked the volunteer in charge to make the change–a simple menu command involving a few clicks of a remote control–or allow him to make it. The answer was no way. When Emery threatened to take his DVD and walk rather than suffer through 100 minutes of distorted viewing, the volunteer had to get Alan on the phone to OK the switch.

Alan says Landmark’s Century Centre, which hosted the festival in 2005, waited until June to announce that it couldn’t accommodate Indiefest during the summer. He then settled on the 3 Penny–right before the city shut the theater down for failing to pay back taxes. Even so, Alan maintains, filmmakers knew the dates by the end of June and screening schedules were announced “at least a month ahead of time.” He says there’s no way Indiefest could promote 88 individual films, but claims he publicized the festival by distributing 20,000 programs and 45,000 postcards, flyers, and posters. Alan estimates total attendance at just over 3,000, and says the festival did get some mentions in the local media. There are always going to be a few disgruntled folks, he argues, but “every filmmaker I talked to was really happy, and a lot of them thanked me for riding them to do their own press. They said they were tired of going to film festivals and seeing filmmakers sitting alone in the audience.”

As for the winner of the $300,000 prize, Ely Mennin’s Breathing Room, it was chosen by a panel of seven judges, including Alan, two people on his staff, and “some people in the industry who want to remain anonymous.”

Morris and Emery posted accounts of their Indiefest experiences on the industry Web site, saying they felt compelled to warn other filmmakers. Elizabeth Donius, executive director of the Chicago branch of the Independent Feature Project, says she would “advise filmmakers to be wary of this festival. We’ve received a lot of complaints about it in years past.” But there may not be a future for Indiefest: Alan said this week he’s thinking of ending the festival unless an angel comes along. “It’s become a hardship,” he says. “We’ve spent my family’s money for five years helping filmmakers who don’t want to help themselves.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nadia Dee Tanaka.