Saturday, Sept. 23, 2006 | Robin Laatz would do just about anything to avoid getting a 9-to-5 job. It was more than five years ago, when she was threatened with that prospect, that she and her then-boyfriend, now-husband, filmmaker Karl Kozak, hatched the idea of starting a film festival in San Diego. Laatz, an event planner and marketing coordinator, had been running publicity for Kozak’s film, “Out of the Black.” Somewhere along the line at one of the film festivals they visited, Laatz realized her duties with that film were coming to an end.

“He was like, ‘Just start a film festival,’” she said. So, the San Diego Film Festival was born.

Celebrating its fifth year this year, the festival starts Wednesday and runs through Oct. 1, with film screenings, panels, parties and a conference co-sponsored by the American Screenwriter’s Association. All of the events are held in downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter, with the screenings taking up four screens at the Pacific 15 Theatre on Fifth Ave. About 100 pieces will be screened during the festival, falling in categories such as features, documentaries, women filmmakers, shorts and music videos.

The just-turned-30 Laatz found some time between taking care of her babies – her literal, 1-year-old daughter and her more figurative, 5-year-old film festival – to sit down with at the Gelato Vero cafe in Little Italy to fill us in on the film scene in San Diego.

So, it’s coming up really soon, right? How are things these days – under control, or are things popping up?

We always have things very under-control come Sept. 1. August, we get a lot of kinks worked out. … Then, normally the last week (before the festival) everything we’ve put into place starts changing – new sponsors come on-board, different celebrities are coming, screening times are changing. … The whole month of September is spent putting out flyers, changing things around.

Have you been involved all five years?

Yes, I founded it with my husband. He’s a filmmaker and I used to do special events for a department store. So I did all the grand openings, the benefits. He’s completed four feature films now, and three of them are in Blockbuster…. “To Hell with Love,” “Out of the Black,” “Clawed,” and “Skid Marks.”

He handles all the film programming, the content part of it, and I handle the sponsors, the volunteers, the parties, coordination, press, marketing, other things like that.

What brought about the creation of the festival? What sparked your interest?

[Kozak] was my boyfriend at the time, and San Diego was one of the only big cities in the country that did not have a non-exclusive film festival. We have a great Latino film festival here, we have a great Asian film festival, a gay and lesbian film festival, black, student – we had everything, except we didn’t have a film festival that (just) anyone could submit to. I think for filmmakers, it’s important for them to have a film festival in their hometown. …

For the first year, we were thinking, “Well, if we had a couple thousand people, that’d be awesome.” We had 10,000 people the first year, so now, as we celebrate our fifth anniversary there’s over 17,000 people, and it’s just grown a lot. We’ve received a lot of national awards, top 10 best regional film festivals, top 10 best vacation film festivals, best party film festival, we’ve received awards locally … there’s 1,700 film festivals in the U.S. alone, so in our five short years, we’ve really put our name out there.

How many people work on the festival?

Our staff is also all volunteer; even though some of them work 40 hours a week on the festival, they do that in addition to full-time jobs. So everybody is a volunteer, including myself. … Hopefully, that’s gonna change in the next year. … I invested my own money in it to start it and we really put everything back into the festival to make it the biggest and best yet. That was my goal, was kind of the slow and controlled growth.

Literally every dime we get – each year our budget grows a little bit – I put it back because I’m able to bring in more filmmakers, we just got the banners downtown on Fifth Ave., we’re just able to spread the word a little more. There’s about 10 of us that work on it … pretty much year-round. And then there’s about 150 people that work, you know, August, September, mostly during the week of the festival.

What’s the culture for independent film like in San Diego?

You know, there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of different resources here. You just really have to get in it and you have to be enthusiastic. You’ve got a lot of film festivals happening here, and those were just the major ones that I named. You know, there’s the film commission here. … There’s so many colleges here that a lot of the college students are making films … There’s a lot of avenues, just a little bit of disconnect, I think, between the different entities.

As far as big cities go, from your experience with people working in film across the country, does San Diego factor prominently, or is there some catching up to do?

We do well, we do fine. Our proximity to L.A. is probably one of our biggest draws. … San Diego’s a great market for a test audience, because we’ve got the desert to the east, Orange County that sort of separates us from L.A., we’ve got the ocean to the west, we’ve got Mexico to the south – so it makes it kind of a bubble market to actually do test screenings at. We have all the resources here. … It’s just a lot of “who you know” and you can find work wherever you are.

Is there a committee of people who decide which films will be screened?

Beside my husband, we have … one [programmer] for the Native American track, one for the women’s filmmaker series that we just launched this year, one for music videos, and then we have a selection committee of 12 to 15 people that watch the films, get ratings forms – they have about two weeks to watch them, they send them back, and basically, they’re kind of the first round. They get rid of the horrible projects.

How many hours worth of film would you say those people end up watching?

Some of them are gluttons for punishment and they’ll take, like, 10 feature films, so that’s about 20 hours. Others will do short films, they could take 20 to 30 and it might be 4 or 5 hours. It just kind of depends. Sometimes we’re trying to mix it up.

Basically, that’s the first round. Every film is watched twice, all the way through. … We get about 1,100 [submissions] and they try to get ’em down to about 400. And so, once that happens, they go to the programming committee, and they narrow down the 400 to 100.

Is that a hard job?

The first round is easy, because, like I said, there’s a lot of bad films. We don’t have, like, any studio execs from Paramount or anything. The people on our committee are … the same as our demographics. We don’t take film professors or studio editors or anything like that. We have a really great mix – we have some retired people, we have some college students, and we have some people in between. They’ve been to the festival, they’ve seen the caliber of the films that we’ve screened, so that makes the judging a little bit easier. There’s a lot of films that you’d think, well, they tried hard, it was kind of a cute story, but then you see the production value and then compare that to what we screen, and recognize that this isn’t the caliber. …

So that’s kind of the first round – “decent,” or “definitely not.” And there’s a lot of “definitely nots,” especially with the advancement of digital technology now, it makes it a lot easier for people to make films. … It’s cheaper, it’s faster, so there’s a lot more products out there, I think.

Then it gets tough, because then it gets down to 400 … and then it gets to 200, and then it starts getting really tough, because you start turning down really good projects. If we had a 10-day festival, we’d take them all… but we can only physically fit a certain number of films in, which is about a hundred.

What do you expect the future to be like for film in San Diego… as far as film being a major player in the arts scene in the city?

Well, I think having a major, nationally-recognized film festival definitely helps. There’s a lot of times when people think of cultural activity that they think of the symphony, the opera, museums, which is all great, but I think to be considered a major cultural mecca you have to have a film festival. Because we screen projects that you might not otherwise have the chance to see. … They’re unique projects.

What are some of the things that you hear, as far as – ‘Oh, a film festival.’ What are some of the misperceptions floating around in San Diego?

Well, a lot of people think that independent films mean no budget, no stars, shot in your garage, weird films that are, you know, not for the masses. But all of the films that we screen, although they might not have the $30 million budget behind them, are really high-quality projects.

Is it always the goal of an independent filmmaker to be picked up by a studio, or to be recognized and given the chance to make a $30 million movie?

Well, they all want distribution, because that’s where the money is, and that’s how they pay back how much it cost them. … Most indie films don’t do a theatrical release. They’ll go straight to video, or they’ll do foreign markets. Sometimes what plays well here, plays even better in the foreign markets.

Is it ever seen, though, as selling out?

I’m sure some people in film have that mentality, but if you have any investors in your project, hopefully your goal is money. I mean, my husband’s a filmmaker … and you can keep creative control and still make money doing it. Sometimes you do have to let go of that control, but sometimes you sacrifice that for the money also. I’m sure some people would say, “Oh, I would never do that,” but they might not be making any money.

Do you think money is the biggest pressure faced by independent filmmakers?

I don’t know if I’d say “the biggest,” but definitely a major one. A lot of them have either maxed out their credit cards, they’ve called in favors from family and friends, a lot of them have taken a sabbatical from their full-time job or quit their full-time jobs to pursue this, and there’s, you know, thousands of films being made each year, and the chances of distribution are slim. … I think money really is a huge factor.

How many filmmakers whose films will be shown in the film festival are San Diego-local?

Out of 100, there are 15 local films. That includes one feature film, 10 short films and four music videos [that] are all done by local filmmakers. We had over 100 local submissions this year, which is unheard of. It was really hard for us, because that breaks our heart when we have to turn down a local filmmaker. We wish we could include all of them, but, like I said, we only have 100 slots. So that’s really tough for us. … And I think that also shows what’s going on in San Diego. In past years, we’ve had, like, 50 submissions, so the fact that that’s doubled in the past year is indicative of the culture here. … Hopefully, more stuff is being made here.

You were mentioning your one-year-old (daughter), so did that make this past year more difficult?

It’s really given me a good grasp on my priorities. Like I said, I don’t get paid to do this, and so I think she – she’s first, you know? And for the film festival … I have a great team of people that work on it, and it’ll all fall into place. I used to work on the film festival 60, 70, 80 hours a week and now, you know, if it’s 3:00 and she’s up, I play with her for an hour and then I’ll work again at 8:00, when she’s in bed. It all gets done, and we all do the best that we can …

That’s a big point, that we’re all volunteers. We do this because we believe in these projects, we think that it’s highly important that people have the opportunity to see them, and these filmmakers don’t have the budget to take out ads … so, I feel very passionate about it because I’ve been involved in it for so long. That’s really why we do it. … Pretty much everybody’s been with us for five years now and I haven’t paid them for five years, and it’s all really about the passion. Even the people who take the tickets during the film festival are all volunteers, they just do the best they can.

If people get really cranky because they can’t get into a film, or something’s sold out, it’s great for us – I mean, it’s not great that they get cranky – but it’s showing that we have a product that people want to see.

How long do you think you’ll be doing it?

‘Til I stop having fun.

Any threat of that?

Not yet, because there’s so much more I’d like to do. We just launched music videos this year, we just launched a women’s filmmaker series, which I’m really passionate about … I have a lot more that I’d still like to accomplish …

We’ll just see what happens, see how it plays out.

– Interview by KELLY BENNETT

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