WATERVILLE — Maine’s biggest film festival almost sank after its second year.

“We weren’t getting huge crowds,” said Alan Sanborn, one of several people behind the creation of the Maine International Film Festival in 1998.  “It was a lot of work. It screwed up our summer.”

And it lost money.

“A friend in Olympia, Washington, told us before we started that 90 percent of his festival budget was covered by ticket sales,” Sanborn said. It sounded good but failed to translate to Maine. Almost immediately, too much time was spent pursuing sponsors and grants.

Then, in 2000, the Waterville-based festival started to catch on.

Crowds increased, and the little movie event — snubbed in year one by Greek filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gavras for a meeting with Cuba’s Fidel Castro — gained momentum.

Notoriously reclusive film director Terrence Malick — the Oscar-nominated auteur behind “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line” — accepted the Mainers’ year-three invitation and their “Mid-Life Achievement Award.”

“He was coming here because he believed in the purity of the mission,” said Ken Eisen, another of the festival’s creators.
“Within the industry, having him come, that made us a festival on
the national scale.”

Malick gave the festival a further boost by suggesting his friend, actress Sissy Spacek, for the following year’s award. Attendance in 2001 jumped again when Spacek screened her Maine-made drama “In the Bedroom.” The movie was later nominated for eight Oscars, including nominations for Spacek and the movie as “Best Picture.”

“When we had the wrap-up meeting that year, no one even talked about not doing it again next year,” Sanborn said.
“It became clear that this was something important.”

Since then, the festival has drawn several more big names — including actor Ed Harris and “Silence of the Lambs” director Jonathan Demme — and bigger crowds.

In 1998, about 3,500 people attended. This year, festival director Shannon Haines hopes to break last year’s record of 9,500 attendees. “We want to hit 10,000,” she said.

The 2009 festival will be the 12th.

Nearly a thousand submitted movies have been culled down to a festival program of 57 movies, to be screened at the Waterville Opera House and the Railroad Square Cinema a few blocks away.

The 10-day festival begins on July 10.

Opening night will feature a world premiere documentary, “The Rivals.” It tells the story of rival high school football teams from upscale Cape Elizabeth and working-class Rumford

Portland director Kyle Rankin, who was featured in the second season of HBO’s make-a-movie reality show “Project Greenlight,” will be showing his new film, “Infestation.”

In addition, an archive-quality print of “Carousel,” the 1956 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical filmed on the Maine coast, will be screened.

And one of American movies’ greatest living filmmakers, Arthur Penn, is scheduled to be honored with the big award.

“In 1969 or 1970, I’d say the two major names in the film world were Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn,” Eisen said. “People remember Kubrick but not Penn. They know his movies but not the man.

Kubrick had made instantly recognized classics “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Dr. Strangelove.” The director became known for sardonic humor and creating stylized and antiseptic worlds.

By contrast, Penn’s classics surged with life. “Bonnie & Clyde” became a pop culture touchstone. The epic “Little Big Man” put the western on its head by simultaneously making Native Americans sympathetic and discarding decades of movie Indians’ silly, cigar-store gravitas.

“We think his work is unbelievable,” Eisen said.

Penn, now 86, plans to accept the award in person. Eisen and the others are eager to meet him, but after 12 years of festivals they appreciate their guests without becoming too enamored with their celebrity.

“We create a real sense of relaxation and celebration of film,” Haines said.

“Silence of the Lambs'” director Demme stayed for several days. Before a screening of his documentary “The Agronomist,” he hung out in the lobby, largely unnoticed by the film buffs as they walked in. After the film, he led a discussion, prompting people to give him their thoughts on his still-unfinished movie, from the pacing of certain sequences to the font used in the main titles.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re watching this movie being created,'” Sanborn said.

In the end, the movies is what the festival is all about. It’s why he and the others created the event.

“We saw lots of films that were tremendously exciting films but not likely to make a commercial run at the theater,” said Eisen, who was a member of a group that decided to start a distribution company, Shadow Distribution, to circulate small independent movies.

“We thought, ‘There are all these great films out there that are not being seen,'” he said. “Let’s get them into a festival.”

[email protected]

WATERVILLE —  Kyle Rankin, best known as half of a Maine film-making duo from HBO’s “Project Greenlight,” plans to premiere his new film at the Maine International Film Festival.

“I’m totally honored to come back and show it,” Rankin said in a phone interview from his home outside Los Angeles.

The made-in-Bulgaria feature, “Infestation,”  is a horror-comedy about a guy who wakes up trapped by a  three-feet-long bug. He later finds that giant bugs have taken over his town and he joins the battle against them.

“It’s kind of a mash-up of genres,” said Rankin, who wrote and directed the movie. Long-time filmmaking buddy Efram Potelle helped make the bugs come to life, despite a budget that was “way under $5 million.”

Rankin, Potelle and friend Shayne Worcester first drew notoriety as Portland movie makers, putting together the state’s first independent feature,”Reindeer Games,” in 1996 and “Pennyweight” in 1999. Sadly, Worcester was murdered that same year, shot during a random mugging in San Francisco.

Rankin and Potelle went on, eventually filming “The Battle of Shaker Heights” for Miramax films. “Project Greenlight,” which aired in 2004,  followed the production behind the scenes.

“Infestation” is Rankin’s first feature-length film since “Shaker Heights,” starring then-unknown actor Shia LaBeouf, star of the “Transformers” movie franchise and other movies.

“You could see at 17, he had a bucket-load of talent,” Rankin said. Watching his actor beside Harrison Ford in last year’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was extraordinary, he said.

“That was mind-blowing and so cool,” Rankin said.

“Infestation” will be shown Saturday, July 11 at 9:30 p.m. at the Waterville Opera House.

For lots more on this year’s Manie International Film Festival go to http://www.miff.org/


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.