Though I’ve written about the Omaha Film Festival since its inception in 2006 this is the first time I’ve posted a story about it because I was concerned readers might mistake an article about the 2011 or 2010 or whatever festival as being current. The following piece for Metro Magazine is an overview of how and why the fest came to be and offers a general idea of what to expect at the 2012 event, which runs March 7-11. As a film buff and former film programmer I’ve always been impressed by how well organized the festival is and by the range of films and programs it offers. The three founders who continue to make the fetival go –Jason Levering, Jeremy Decker, and Marc Longbrake – are quoted extensively in the piece. They’re all filmmakers themselves and it’s a big reason the event has such a focus on craft through its filmmaking conference, which annually draws big industry names.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in the February 2012 issue of Metro Magazine
The Omaha Film Festival has become a go-to staple on the local culture scene for its premiere screenings, top-notch panels and special events
In 2005 three filmmakers frustrated by the metro’s sparse independent cinema offerings took matters in their own hands to launch the Omaha Film Festival. As the March 7-11, 2012 event approached, the founders expressed satisfaction at having made it this far and growing the area’s film culture.
Filling a gap
It’s expected OFF will screen as many as 90 films from dozens of countries at the Great Escape Cinema 16. All the movies will make their Nebraska premiere. In its short history the event’s presented some 500 films from around the world and hosted award-winning filmmakers working in features, documentaries, shorts and animation. Upwards of 4,000 moviegoers attend each year.
Movie Maker Magazine named the OFF among the “top 25 film festivals worth the entry fee” – high praise for a still young event.
“I knew it was something we could do and do great,” says OFF director Jeremy Decker, an Omaha native now based in Austin, Texas.
The vital film scene Omaha enjoys today simply didn’t exist before. When OFF began, Film Streams was still two years from opening. When it came to indie art films, documentaries and shorts, cineastes had few options to feed their fix.
Executive director Jason Levering says, “The things that Film Streams and the festival offer are things that just weren’t readily available to the community before. Without those two entities I don’t think Omaha would have an outlet for it.”
Program director Marc Longbrake says the festival filled “a gap” no one else seemed willing or able to fill at the time. Decker says the prevailing thought behind the fest was, “Wouldn’t it be great if people here could get the same experience people get in many other cities across the country?” Besides, he says, everyone he and his comrades talked to agreed “it would be good for the city and for film lovers and for people who want to learn the craft.”
A festival is often the only theatrical screening filmmakers get for their work. Decker says there’s nothing like the thrill of seeing your baby on the big screen.
As the organizers are both film buffs and filmmakers, they designed a festival that not only screens pictures but presents film artists in Q&As and panel discussions. Its annual conference devoted to craft has featured many notables, including Oscar-winners Mike Hill (editor) and Mauro Fiore (cinematographer), screenwriter Shane Blake, producer-writer-director Daniel Petrie Jr. and script guru Lew Hunter.
Producer-director Dana Altman, whose midtown Image Arts Building is where the OFF offices and parties, has also been a panelist. Filmmaker Nik Fackler, too.
“The conference is a huge part of what we do and it’s got to be a special event every year,” says Levering. “So we do our best to fill those professional seats with people who really understand the business and who are exciting to hear.”
Putting established film pros in the same room with emerging or aspiring filmmakers sparks a certain creative synergy and fosters connections and collaborations. Establishing more of a film community or collective is just what Decker, Levering and Longbrake hungered for. They got a taste of it attending other festivals and decided to make it happen here, where filmmaking circles once isolated from each other have grown more inclusive.
“It’s a like-minded thing,” says Longbrake. “We all have this common thing centered around filmmaking. We all bring that passion. That was a big impetus to do this. We’ve seen people meet at our festival and then a screenwriting group springs out of that or you see five people who didn’t know each other last year working on a film together this year. It’s a point of pride for us to see that.
“The quality of locally made films has gone up significantly. If we’ve had a small hand in that with our conference then were proud of that and glad.”
In an industry all about relationships, every advantage helps. It’s about who you know and networking to get a foot inside the door for a pitch or meet.
“You get a chance to meet producers, directors, screenwriters. It’s an opportunity and a handshake that could lead to future business. We’re connecting those dots for the local film artists,” says Longbrake. “I’m always struck by a statement producer Howard Rosenman made here: He said, ‘You cannot make it in this business unless you know somebody and right now you know me. So, if something happens and you find yourself in L.A., you now have an in.’”
Longbrake says one such connection led to a Hollywood gig.
“We had a young filmmaker here in town who met Dan Petrie Jr. at the festival. They talked, shared a beer at one of our parties, and within six months he was out in L.A. working on a project with Dan Petrie Jr. We hear stories like that every year.”
This exclusive, in-the-know aspect of a festival is “a huge part” of the appeal, says Longbrake. People naturally like attending premieres and being privy to behind-the-scenes tidbits, not to mention rubbing shoulders with film veterans
“Screenwriter Ted Griffin last year talked about Tower Heist. He railed on how horrible this film he wrote was going to be. We got to interact with him, ask him questions, and then when it came out nine months later we knew some insider stuff about this movie,” says Longbrake.
“Three years ago we had Mauro Fiore talk about how this movie Avatar he worked on was going to be awesome. He went on about James Cameron creating a whole world with blue people…and then of course Avatar came out and smashed all the records,” says Decker.
Levering says, “I think one of the biggest highlights was when we had Shane Black come back last year for a second helping of the festival. Shane talked about an upcoming project, Iron Man III, that’s highly anticipated, and he actually shared some insight he hadn’t shared with anyone before. We got some notoriety because no one else had heard that yet. It was kind of a cool thing that he felt comfortable enough to tell the audience.”
Bigger than the sum of its parts
Guest appearances by select cast and crew from featured films are another festival tradition. As are opening and closing night parties. Indeed, there’s an official party every night. Pre-release and Oscar parties in February whet film buffs’ appetites for the March fest. Special preview screenings in the summer give the fest a year-round presence. It’s all part of adding cinema value and extending the OFF brand.
“We’re trying to create more memorable moviegoing experiences than just going to Twilight and going home and talking about it with your friends,” says Longbrake.
Then there are those films whose profile subjects attend: the parents of teens lost in the Iowa Boy Scout tornado tragedy; Madonna Rehabilitation patients who survived trauma; and a young woman abducted by North Korean agents and held in servitude before her release.
The months-long process of screening entries finds organizers and judges discovering their personal favorites and championing them for selection. A festival finally emerges from all the politicking and debating.
“You get excited about a particular film and you just want other people to see it,” says Longbrake, “and then months later there’s a crowd of people watching the film and having a shared experience.”
He says he and his co-directors go from theater to theater as movies play to gauge response. Nothing’s better than the thumbs-up or nods or approval appreciative audiences give as they file out.
To make all the moving parts work smoothly the OFF relies on volunteers. Sponsors help underwrite OFF and its prizes.
To inquire about volunteer-sponsor opportunities, call 402-203-8173. For details on the 2012 fest, including all-access pass info, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.
- Omaha’s Film Reckoning Arrives in the Form of Film Streams, the City’s First Full-Fledged Art Cinema (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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- Tell Your Story At Your Film Festival. (professoradman.com)
- ‘Out of Omaha’ (‘California Dreaming’) Project Adds to Area’s Evolving Indie Filmmaking Scene (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Ann Arbor Film Festival – Special hotel rates (annarborspecialevents.wordpress.com)
- Silver Circle Crew Sets Sights on Telluride Film Festival (musicians4freedom.com)
Here is the promised cover profile I did on Leola McDonald, whose Leola’s Records and Tapes shop in North Omaha was an African American cultural bastion for years before she decided to close the operation. This piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as business was appreciably slowing for her, and as the short follow up piece I posted earlier here reported, she eventually called it quits. It was no great surprise. The times were changing, and she wasn’t changing with them. She said so herself. The writing was on the wall and so it was just a matter of time.
Leola Keeps the Faith at Her North Side Music Shop
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (wwwthereader.com)
The iridescent, rainbow-palette mural splayed across the brick west wall spells LEOLA’S in big block letters. The name on the side of the Omaha music store formally known as Leola’s Records and Tapes belongs to founder/owner Leola McDonald. Both the handle and the woman are synonymous with music on the north side.
Her small shop at 56th and Ames Avenue is where today’s beat generation heads for the latest hip hop and rap tracks, including hard to find mixes and chopped and screwed versions of hit cuts.
Bright as the colors decorating that wall is Leola’s own passion for music.
“I love music. I always have. I used to play it all. At one point in my life I even sang. I sang in the church choir,” said the former Leola Ann Francis.
A 68-year-old church lady who prefers gospel may not be what you expect behind the counter of an urban music store carrying CDs and tapes with R-rated lyrics, but that’s exactly what you get. Her operation is pretty much a one-woman show. Oh, her grandkids come by to help some, but “mostly I do it by myself,” she said.
As its sole proprietor, she’s there seven days a week. Waiting on customers. Answering the phone. Registering sales. Bantering back and forth with whoever saunters on in, some just to “conversate” with her. Others to inquire after new releases. The door bell rings and it’s a young man, Eric Miller, who’s been shopping there since he was a boy.
“Hi, Miss Leola.” “What you want, babe?” “I’m lookin’ for that CD that got, uh, Slim Thug and, um, Young Zee-Zee on it…” She searches the shelves in back of her. Another young man comes in, hawking a box-full of high-end electronic gadgets. Leola tells him, “Honey, my money’s funny and my change is strange. I’m broke.”
Whatever brings them there, she greets all with — “Hey, sweetie” or “Hey, babe” or “How ya doin’?” or “What’s up, doc?” — in a musky voice that years of cigarette smoking ruined for singing. She used to love to sing. In the Sunday baptist church choir as a youth. In church-sponsored competitions. She once dreamed of performing professionally. That was a long time ago.
“I could sing once in my life…I won every contest I got into. But I messed up my own voice. I started smoking and drinking. I was grown. I could do what I wanted to do. But didn’t nobody suffer for it but me. Now, I can’t carry a tune across the street and bring it back in one piece,” she likes to say.
That doesn’t change her passion. That’s why she’s still at her store every day when most women her age are retired.
“I love music and I love people. So, it’s easy for me. And you really have to to deal with this because you can get some fools in here, and sometimes it’s more than one, and you have to deal with ‘em,” said the Omaha native, who divided her growing up between here and Cheyenne, Wyoming, where her mother moved after splitting up with her father.
Then there’s “that crap they call rap” she feels obliged to carry. It’s what sells these days. It doesn’t mean she has to like it, though. Still, she must be familiar with the artists and their work. Like it or not, it’s what customers want.
“Yeah, I pretty much have to be up on all of it now. I don’t particularly care for it, but hey, maybe if I was these kids’ age…But I don’t think I would go in for it. To me, it’s nothin’ but noise. But different strokes for different folks,” she said.
Eric Miller said despite the generation and taste gap, McDonald stocks what’s in vogue. “You can find things here you can’t find at a lot of places,” he said. Carmelette Snoddy said she prefers Leola’s for its “quality. Like with these mixed CDs,” she said, holding up a few, “you can buy them off the streets, but they’re not quality. They don’t play as good.”
Leola tries to ensure customers know what they’re getting.
“If they don’t know what something sounds like, I’ll play the music for them, so they’re not just buying something blind. I’ve always done that,” she said.
Long before rap, back when jazz, blues, R & B and soul ruled the charts, she was a respected black music source. Music buff Billy Melton of Omaha said he often relied on her opinion in compiling some of his extensive collection.
“She’s very studious. She knows music. She always had what I was looking for,” Melton said. “And she loves what she’s doing now, too. She’s been faithful to that music line. I just wish she would have stayed with the older music, but there’s no money in that. She knows I love music and she’s given me pictures and things of older artists over the years. She’s quite a gal.”
Her savvy got her a job at the Hutsut, a now defunct music store. Then an advertising salesperson with the Omaha Star, she called on the store one day. When she saw the clerks couldn’t answer customers’ questions about black music, she offered to help. The owner agreed and she so impressed him he hired her on the spot.
She and a partner soon opened their own store, Mystical Sounds. She then went solo. Leola’s followed. For a time, she ran both. For the last 30 years, just Leola’s.
While most of her store’s inventory is given over to current CDs or tapes, she reserves a few bins and racks for old-school vinyl recordings.
Her own personal collection of CDs, LPs, 45s and 8-tracks, drawn from four decades in the business, is all R & B and gospel.
“Gospel music to me is like no other. I love it. Nothing compares…There’s just something about it.”
There’s another reason she opens the doors of her business daily. As a small independent, she’s squeezed by national chains and bled by music pirates. With so many under selling her, she can’t afford not to light up the neon Open sign.
“I don’t have a choice. I have to work. If I didn’t have to work, God knows at my age I wouldn’t be. I’m sure doing this for the love of it. Besides, I’m too old to go get a job. I can’t even think about it. But if push comes to shove and that’s what I have to do to survive…”
Profits are down as a result of black marketeers. Her no-return policy is aimed at pirates who buy CDs, copy for resell and bring back for a refund. “Like I tell ‘em, I wasn’t born yesterday. I was born the day before yesterday. You have too much competition from the bootleggers,” she said. “They stand on the street and they make more than I do sittin’ up here. Why, it’s not fair…I have sat up in here all day long and gone from open to close and walked out the door with $20. Before, it might have been $500-$600 in the drawer. So, there’s no comparison.”
That’s why she takes umbrage when some suggest she pack it in and rest easy on her supposed riches. “If I had the money people tell me I have I probably wouldn’t be here,” she said. “But I love to work.” It’s not as if she has a pension or retirement fund to fall back on. “No, when you work for yourself, unless you save or invest your own money, you don’t have any. And I had four kids to raise, so I didn’t do any saving,” said the twice-married, twice-divorced McDonald.
Single is something she never counted on being at 68. But things never quite worked out with the men in her life. Like any young woman coming of age in the 1950s, she bought into the happily-ever-after ideal.
“I never wanted to be (single). It just happened. Back then, you were to get married, have some kids and be happy. Well, I got married, had the kids, but damn if I was happy,” she said, laughing at herself. She takes it all in stride. “If you don’t have any regrets, you haven’t had any life,” she said.
Faith has a way of healing wounds and easing doubts. Church is where she renews herself. Mount Nebo Baptist Church is where she gives praise and worship.
“I’ve always liked church. It’s been a very short time I wasn’t in the church. Now, I go every Sunday and, if I can, Wednesdays, too. It’s just that I enjoy it so much.”
With that, she turns up the boombox on a cut from the William Murphy Project’s All Day CD. The rousing choir anthem fills the store, rising, rising…the spirit moving her to answer the call…“Oh, yes…He got it together. He got them together…”. As the words “I am trusting you, to bring me through” reverberate, she hums and sings along, swaying to the beat. Hearing the lyric — “So, all you’ve got to do is…” – she finishes it with “Be strong…”
Be strong, Miss Leola, be strong.
- Miss Leola Says Goodbye (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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