When Josh Butler took an energetic leap of faith toward his dream, he didn't exactly land on his feet. It was more like a really bummed film junkie who landed in bankruptcy court. Staring at the floor he shook his head, "Why! Why did we just have to have limos for all the filmmakers?"
Making the great Texas film festival was going to take more than spastic enthusiasm, but Butler learned his lesson: Don't spend money you don't have. The festival and the nonprofit he created to run it, Texas Filmmakers Association, survived intact while he swallowed a $40,000 debt. But since that 2007 Thin Line Film Fest left him broke, the festival has nearly doubled its revenue each year.
The Texas Filmmakers Association, set-up as a nonprofit dedicated to arts education and funded by donations, grants and Thin Line box-office sales, used the money to award grants and scholarships. It set up offices with film-editing stations and provided cameras, lighting and audio gear to members for a small rental fee. A standing tradition is the annual Docu-Denton 7K video race, in which contestants have five days to shoot a documentary on randomly selected subject.
Now in its seventh year, the Thin Line documentary film festival has a reputation for offering a wide variety of international films and increasingly sought-after awards. Sixty films are screened at two venues over the five-day festival with competition categories earning between $300 and $10,000. More than one Sundance winner has traveled straight to Denton to compete (including the makers of Gasland and Blood Brother) and enjoy documentary screenings with locals.
This year the festival is doubling in size to include an entire music program with at least 100 bands at six venues.
"Building what appears to be a $100,000 film festival and doing it for $25,000 cash in a way that people are impressed every single year -- you do that for long enough and eventually people trust you," Butler said. "That was the situation we found ourselves in this summer, where we saw an opportunity to fill a void that was created with the absence of 35."
The high-powered 35Denton music festival that usually fills Denton mid-March with thousands of musicians, artists and an array of industry enthusiasts is on hiatus this year, and the documentary festival is capitalizing on local support and organizers who might be feeling empty handed in the absence of Denton's music festival. Relations between the two festivals are friendly enough, but differences like Thin Line's nonprofit versus 35Denton's for-profit drive make it difficult to collaborate on events. Butler and the Thin Line board are all volunteer and any money made goes straight to the nonprofit.
The two Denton festivals share the same operations crew, volunteer organizer and public relations personnel. They share some board members, and volunteers and venues that work with 35Denton also work with Thin Line. It's all good for Denton, Butler said, to invest in the community. "I don't think I could have waited another year or more to see this vision transpire. The city and community have always wanted to see a combined festival that time of year. It just makes sense. The Thin Line board decided we had the resources and the access to personnel to expand our bandwidth."
Their work has paid off, landing national act Sebadoh early on, and Snow Tha Product, the Mexican-American, Texas-based rapper (and looking good while doing it) is confirmed for Thursday night's show. The ninety-something other local and regional bands are a mix from genres including punk, jazz, metal, folk, hip-hop, bluegrass, indie rock, blues, Americana, world, and experimental. Locals bands include RTB2, Star Party, AV the Great, Boome and the Skywalkers, Ishi, Criminal Birds, Fab Deuce, Yeahdef, Spitfire Tumbleweeds, Cornell Hurd Band, Two O'Clock Lab Band and tens others.
Each day of the festival will include day and evening film screenings followed by full rosters at one of five supporting venues including Rubber Gloves, Hailey's, Dan's Silverleaf, Andy's Bar and Sweetwater Grill & Tavern. 35Denton is presenting the Thin Line main stage on Valentine's night with Den Locator, Robert Gomez, Danny Rush and the Designated Drivers and Curvette.
The main stage will be one block east of downtown in a lot across from Oak Street Drafthouse and Cocktail Parlor, the third oldest house in Denton (built in 1886) turned bar. Bands will play in an enclosed, heated tent with a 30-foot ceiling that can withstand 90 mph winds. And, with Butler's access to a pretty sweet employee discount at Freeman, a corporate events, conference and convention production company with world headquarters in Dallas, the Thin Line Tent venue will be dressed to the nines.
"I'll have really extreme capabilities in the tent and pro gear all the way through," he said. A rear projection screen behind the stage will double for film screenings and bands' visuals, and the tent will include an array of lighting and seating, three full bars and food vendors including Mellow Mushroom pizza.
Thin Line is backed year after year by a support network of arts institutions, local businesses and an array of sponsors including Panavision, one of the world's largest manufacturers of high-precision filmmaking gear. The company provides the grand prize of a $10,000 credit toward any of their products or services to the winning feature length filmmaker and $5,000 for the winning short film. There are also student and Denton films competitions.
Adding bands means a reduced film schedule, but Butler said with 60 strong documentaries on the program, it will be hard to find yourself wanting for more, especially when the films include a huge international selection and Thin Line's first Blurred Line series, a testament to that place where real life is truly stranger than fiction.
You know the place -- where you feel a little sick yet supremely entertained after watching a good documentary, when you can't tell if it was real or not. It comes from films like A2-B-C which details the Japanese government's practice of dealing with radioactive fallout in Fukushima using tiny brushes to "decontaminate," meanwhile hundreds become ill from toxic nuclear waste.
Then again, some documentaries can be uplifting with a family appeal, like the free Saturday morning screening of Disney's Wings of Life, which will be followed by a free tent show with music by the Cornell Hurd Band, High School Ceasar and Boxcar Bandits. The film Gold Star Children grabs you from the beginning, never lets go and stars the insightful 8-year-old daughter of a fallen soldier. Yemeniettes accompanies a group of women in Yemen as they form a genius entrepreneur troupe that swept an Arab competition with their invention of a solar-powered phone charger.
Antarctica: A Year on Ice is a haunting photographic journey through the winter at the bottom of the planet, where only about 20 other humans stick around for the season. Escaramuza is a team of women rodeo riders competing in choreographed riding competitions in full traditional uniform, while The Last Safari chronicles the work of photojournalist Elizabeth Gilbert and her observations on the psychological and cultural effects of outside exposure on tribes people who begin to act for the camera, blurring the line between reality and show.
The gentrification of Coney Island, the Syrian revolution, an Israeli gay love story, an 82-year old diver, cardboard boats, train squatters, navigating the rap or hand-painted sign industry, vinyl toys, dancing dogs, poets, organ donors and much more is in store at the 2014 festival.
For Dentonites there's the hyper local When We Were Broncos, a film about Denton High School during integration, which expects a huge turn-out, as a photo op with the director brought 800 people to the high school stadium. The tent screening will be followed by experimental polka group Brave Combo and the DHS Lab Band One. For Dallas natives there's When Dallas Rocked, a chronicle of the golden era of Dallas as a center of radio, records and the blues from the '50s to '70s. Even Austin is covered, with the Texas premier of Pretty Brutal roller derby chicks in New Zealand tracing their roots to a sport that was born and bred in Austin, Texas. Pretty Brutal is followed by a punk show at Rubber Gloves featuring The Distressers, The Longshots, Fungi Girls and Sealion.
The festival also includes a film produced by Guerilla Pictures and partly funded by WikiLeaks that nearly brought Julian Assange to the screening via a Skype Q&A. But, Assange won't be available and the filmmakers are busy prepping for the Toronto festival. The film, The Engineer follows the only forensic investigator in El Salvador digging up the bodies of victims of a brutal gang war while the government turns a blind eye. "It's very CSI-like," Butler said. "The camera is right there at these crime scenes, and it's very graphic but very real. And the guy has this troupe of mothers and fathers who follow him around the country hoping the next body he digs up is their child."
Butler glows when he talks about films, spouting off synopses with an endearing reverence for the characters and filmmakers. A filmmaker himself, he produced a 2007 series of films on the burning of Fry Street, an eclectic intersection near UNT that erupted in protest and a fire when developers bought out half the block and bulldozed what many felt was a piece of Denton history. He also created a 2005 documentary called One Eyed Girl about Hurricane Katrina. In 2015 he will premier his film about light painting, in which he traveled to seven European countries to document artists. "It's still about the films for me."
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It's been seven years since Butler filed bankruptcy, and he says he's a better man for it. This February won't find filmmakers stepping out of limos curbside to be whisked into the crowd under the bright lights of the flashing Campus Theater facade. It's more like a sensible black SUV that was budgeted in during planning and driven by a volunteer. Ungloved but friendly hands sometimes open doors. Bowties are optional. Good taste, a great people and incredible documentaries abound.
In June, the non-profit Texas Filmmakers Association will celebrate its tenth anniversary. And come 2016, Butler's bankruptcy will clear the books. For Butler, planning a major film festival has become second nature, and now he's got music planning under his belt. Next year he'll be ready to add a third dimension to the festival. In July Butler will launch a call for entries in the first Thin Line Film, Music, Photo festival happening February 2015. The photography competition will have around a dozen categories, including light painting, and 30 venues for displaying selected entries.
"I haven't found another documentary and music festival out there," Butler said. "It's now tied to our future --can't go backwards. And adding photos is going to put us in a unique place. I'm not sure there will be another event like Thin Line."
Don't miss out on history in the making and on the big screen. Get a festival pass, day pass, single show ticket (ranging $15-$150) or enjoy the free offerings. The festival starts Thursday February 12. Tickets, schedule and film trailers online.