Indie filmmakers look for attention at Kansas International Film Festival

It’s hard enough for an independent filmmaker to assemble a movie.

Writing a script, raising money, finding locations, casting, shooting, editing — the process can take years.

But within the last decade, perhaps the most crucial step has gotten trickier than ever: what to do with the flick once it’s done.

As the traditional distribution model erodes, filmmakers are relying more and more on festivals to generate interest.

“Every fest has its niche,” says Brian Mossman, president of the Kansas International Film Festival (KIFF). The 12th annual event starts Thursday and runs through Oct. 11 at the Glenwood Arts. “Our goal is to play quality independent movies: narratives and docs. We try to get the filmmaker exposure that leads to distribution or a cable deal.”

KIFF showcases more than 50 films, primarily ones created outside the studio system. One standout Mossman points to: “The Ghastly Love of Johnny X,” a 1950s-style sci-fi horror musical.

“We all felt like we had a pretty neat project when we started,” says “Johnny X” writer/director Paul Bunnell.

The Los Angeles-based filmmaker shot test footage as far back as 2002 and then began mobilizing a cast and crew two years later. He chose to use black-and-white 35mm film at a time when the whole industry was shifting to digital.

Bunnell shot for about 10 days before running out of cash.

“We put a really nifty trailer together using existing footage, and we went out and knocked on every door and studio in order to raise money. No one was interested,” he says.

So Bunnell borrowed money against his house.

“On the set, everyone was having fun but me. I was doing all the worrying,” he says. “The most challenging aspect was not knowing if I was going to be able to finish the film — the frustration of trying to come up with more money.”

Eventually, when Bunnell was “ready to give up,” his friend Mark Willoughby decided to kick in the funds to finish “Johnny X.”

“That was like in the 11th and a half hour,” Bunnell recalls.

But indie filmmaking never proves that easy. A new hurdle cropped up that seemed insurmountable: Kodak abruptly discontinued making Eastman Plus-X negative film.

Bunnell scrambled to find the specialized film stock he had been using. Eventually, Kodak came to the rescue, reaching out to its various outlets to gather as much remaining fine-grain Plus-X as it could. The amount was just enough.

The recently finished result is a crazy collage of juvenile delinquents, Eisenhower-era monster movies, super-powered aliens, “The Twilight Zone” and “Grease.” It’s weird and quirky and indie in all the right ways.

The film also features a truly wacky cast, which includes Creed Bratton of “The Office,” Reggie Bannister of the “Phantasm” series, songwriting legend Paul Williams and, in his final screen appearance, the late Kevin McCarthy of 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” fame.

Bunnell and producer Willoughby are scheduled to conduct a Q following the screening of “Johnny X” at 7:35 p.m. Monday.

“Audiences don’t always


the movie,” Bunnell admits. “I tend to follow the old David Lynch rule: It’s better not to explain my personal feeling about the meaning behind the film. I don’t want to ruin it for someone else who may have come up with their own theories. But people like it a lot better the second time around because they already know the general idea of where it’s going.”

Although he’d hoped to earn a theatrical release for the $2 million effort, Bunnell ultimately signed with Strand Releasing.

“They’re going to put it on DVD and On Demand. No theatrical. They said three or four years ago this would have been a slam dunk theatrically. But because the business has changed so much, they’re going with the DVD thing,” he said. “It’s a tough market out there.”

Next up, Bunnell is starting a movie called “Rocket Girl,” which will be filmed in 35mm color. Even though it has a sci-fi bent, he describes it as more “serious and emotional” than “Johnny X.”

“We start shooting next summer,” Bunnell says. “That one’s not going to take 10 years.”

Another KIFF highlight, according to Mossman: “Dead Man’s Burden.”

“Making a Western was living a Western,” says Jared Moshe, the film’s writer/director. “We shot on location at the end of a two-mile dirt road that became a mud pit every time it rained. There was no cellphone reception, a limited amount of film, and I had to figure out how to be timely and efficient in directing actors in period costumes, who were riding horses, shooting guns and doing some of their own stunts. There were also snakes.”

The project was staged in tiny Abiquiu, N.M. Like “Johnny X,” it was filmed in 35mm.

Set after the Civil War, the plot focuses on a homesteading couple (Clare Bowen and David Call) who have recently buried her father. With no family left, she prepares to sell the property to a copper mining company. But the unexpected appearance of her brother (Barlow Jacobs) — whom she presumed dead in the war — disrupts the plan, especially when he begins to question whether their father’s death was accidental.

Moshe cites four Westerns as his primary influence: “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Unforgiven.”

“It’s really important to think about distribution from day one. And I mean day one,” Moshe says. “My producer and I came up with A, B and C plans for distribution before we even started raising money. We also brought on Submarine (Entertainment) as a sales agent early in the process so they could strategize our festival launch to best attract buyers.

“All this work ahead of time meant that going into our world premiere we were prepared for the variety of possibilities that any independent film faces when it hits the distribution market.”

The movie debuted in June at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It screens at KIFF at 5 p.m. Saturday.

“Dead Man’s Burden” and “The Ghastly Love of Johnny X” are finalists for KIFF’s Best Narrative Jury Award, along with “Close Quarters,” “Small Creatures” and “Zad Kadar (Voice Over).”

Finalists for Best Documentary Jury Award for Social Justice include “Dave,” “Eyes of Thailand,” “Living Downstream,” “Peace Out” and “Unfit: Ward v. Ward.”

Mossman is excited about the number of filmmakers who will be attending. He will also conduct live Skype sessions with a handful of others who couldn’t be present. (Moshe is unable to come to the fest.)

Mossman notes past KIFF events have drawn as low as 2,500 patrons and as high as 7,500.

“There are a lot of specialized movies playing Kansas City compared to bigger markets,” Mossman says. “The way the theaters are located so spread out, people go to their favorite neighborhood venue. They won’t necessarily drive across town because it’s not their habit. That’s why Kansas City is fortunate it has so many screens that show alternative films.”

Alternative indie filmmakers are fortunate as well.