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Independent Spirits: Reel rebel Chris Gore takes charge in Sonoma Valley.

Movie Madness

Indie maverick shakes up Sonoma Valley Film Festival

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Chris Gore orders his third margarita, flashes a wicked grin, and proudly utters the words again. "Robot Bastard," he announces, "is a great short film! It's so off-the-wall, so cutting-edge, that I promise you--I promise you--your jaw will hit the floor when you see it."

The jaws in the next booth are already dropping as patrons here at Piatti Restaurant in downtown Sonoma crane their necks to see who keeps saying "robot bastard." They glimpse an energetic gentleman with a well-trimmed beard. Little do they know that he is about to do much more than simply shout "robot bastard" in a crowded cafe.

As the new director of programming for the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, Gore is preparing to bring Robot Bastard--whatever that is--right here to the unsuspecting little town of Sonoma. Gore will also be introducing benevolent drag queens, Star Woids, karaoke addicts, the "real" Spider-Man, and a certain quirky filmmaker known and loved by every fan of TV's Survivor.

All of this and more hits town April 12-14, when the Sonoma Valley Film Festival returns for its fifth year with a whole new attitude.

Gore, 36, is best known as the founder of the legendary Film Threat Magazine (www.filmthreat.com) and as the author of The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide. An outspoken champion of independent films, Gore founded Film Threat in 1985. He sold it to Larry Flynt in 1991, then bought it back from Flynt five years later. Along the way, he acquired a reputation as one of Hollywood's most persistent and tenacious critics. Raised in Detroit, he now lives in Los Angeles, where he can do the most damage.

Gore's unlikely involvement with the five-year-old Sonoma Valley Film Festival came about when Brenda Lhormer, the festival's volunteer executive director, picked up Gore's Film Festival Survival Guide and suddenly realized what the event needed.

It needed Chris Gore.

"Till now, this festival has been marketed very locally, very niche," explains Lhormer. "It was time to hire a program director who could achieve the goal of having a more broadly appealing program that has a combination of mainstream elements and also plenty of 'out there' esoteric elements." With the words "out there," Lhormer gives Gore a solid punch in the arm.

"Here's the thing," responds Gore, barely flinching, "we're not trying to be like other festivals in the Bay Area. We're avoiding genres of films that are being covered better by other film festivals. And we're avoiding genres that are overexposed in hopes of being able to champion some other stuff that doesn't get much attention."

Right. Stuff like Robot Bastard, which, by the way, will play as part of a new concurrently running minifestival in Sonoma called the Lounge, a showcase for strange movies that also offers--get this--plenty of free beer. Now that should get some attention.

"These films are the cutting edge, the bizarre, the weird," says Gore. "These films may contain content that will be a problem for more sensitive viewers. Oh my God, this is going to be awesome! I predict that the Lounge will become the sleeper hit of the festival."

Though final decisions are still being made, Gore confirms that the Lounge will be screening Star Woids, a flick about the crazy people who spent 40 days in line for tickets to Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace. Also on the schedule is The Real Spider-Man: The Making of 'The Green Goblin's Last Stand', a documentary about a Baltimore filmmaker named Dan Poole who apparently does think he's Spider-Man--and can climb three-story buildings to prove it.

The main festival will feature about 25 films with a more mainstream sensibility, equally divided between feature films, documentaries, and shorts. About one-quarter of these were made by Bay Area filmmakers.

According to Gore, the criterion used to select these films is that they must all be life-affirming. By that, he does not mean sappy.

"It could be a comedy, it could be drama, it could be an amazing thriller," he says. "But everything we choose fits the criterion by saying, in some way, that good or bad, life is worth living."

Asked for an example, Gore launches into a 30-minute rundown of all the films selected so far, nearly floating up out of his seat as his excitement builds. Though maybe that's just the margaritas kicking in.

Gore describes a documentary called Nine Good Teeth, the life story of a 96-year-old storyteller, and Queen of the Whole Wide World, a behind-the-scenes look at a major drag-queen competition in San Francisco. Gore is especially revved up about a documentary called Karaoke Fever, which tracks a bunch of would-be karaoke champions through 16 months of elimination trials on their way to a final showdown in Las Vegas.

"It's a major crowd pleaser," Gore says. "By the end of the movie, you're on the edge of your seat waiting to see who wins. I like to describe it as Survivor with karaoke."

And speaking of Survivor, the feature-film category, which inexplicably contains two films starring Happy Days' Scott Baio--"You will never think of Scott Baio the same way again," promises Gore--also boasts a little film called Finder's Fee, the directorial debut of Survivor host Jeff Probst.

Starring Matthew Lillard (who plays Shaggy in the upcoming film Scooby Doo ), Academy Award nominee Robert Forster (Jackie Brown), and James Earl Jones, Finder's Fee is a psychological thriller about a young guy who finds a wallet containing a winning lottery ticket worth $6 million.

"This is a great movie," insists Gore as Lhormer nods in agreement. "It just won the Audience Award at the Seattle Film Festival. I'm telling you, Jeff Probst is a top-notch filmmaker, who just happens to have become the host of the most successful reality show in television history."

Probst will be in Sonoma for the festival, along with Lillard, Forster, Baio, and several other actors and directors from films Gore isn't willing to talk about yet. In addition to appearances at the film screenings, Probst and company will be participating in Gore's other favorite part of the festival: a series of panel discussions that he's considering calling the "Indie Film Smackdown."

Moderated by Gore, the discussions boast such titles as "The Secret Life of Actors," "The Impact of Buzz on the Success or Failure of a Film," and "How to Shoot a Nude Scene," which will focus on methods directors use to establish an emotionally secure environment on the set.

Clearly, Gore and Lhormer are swinging for the fences, hoping to win a reputation that draws festivalgoers from far beyond the borders of Sonoma County, even beyond the Bay Area itself.

"There are 1,200 festivals worldwide, and over 400 in the U.S. alone," says Gore. "And the San Francisco Bay Area has one of the biggest concentration of film festivals anywhere. It's not like Indiana or Ohio. So my challenge is, how do we make this festival different?"

"This is the pivotal year," adds Lhormer. "This is our chance to make this festival something that differentiates itself from other festivals, something that people will look to and say, 'Sonoma Valley really has something different to offer,' that people will go home from and talk about to their friends, and say, 'Now that was really something special.'"

Gore goes one step further.

"We want people to say that our festival is short but intense," he says. "I want the highest concentration of good films in any festival in the world. I want people to see three or four or five films, and walk away saying, 'You know what? They were all good.'

"Different, but good."


For information about the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, go to www.sonomafilmfest.org or call 707.939.3889.

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From the February 21-27, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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