Who Needs Cannes?

Who Needs Cannes?FSU Torchlight Film Series brings cinema to 30-ABy Wendy O. Dixon and Rosanne Dunkelberger

Usually, the fun of getting a sneak peek at a new film weeks or months before its national release is an experience reserved for the lucky few who live in and around New York and Los Angeles.

Now, however, events are happening on another coast as the yearlong Torchlight Film Series works its way around the communities of 30-A.

Through the combined efforts of local tourist development groups and the Florida State University College of Motion Picture, Television and Recording Arts (better known as The Film School), locals are being treated to pre-screenings of critically acclaimed contemporary feature films that have not been shown to mass audiences.

Much of the credit for the series can be given to Paul Cohen, who is teaching at FSU while enjoying a 30-year-long career as a film marketing and distribution executive. His extensive network of contacts in the moviemaking industry gives Cohen knowledge of and access to quality new films and the people who make them.

To launch the series, which began in October, the award-winning film “Adopt a Sailor” debuted in front of an audience under starry skies on the St. Augustine Green in Rosemary Beach.

Directed by Charles Evered and starring Emmy Award winners Peter Coyote and Bebe Neuwirth, as well as Ethan Peck, a newcomer to film and grandson of the late Gregory Peck, the story takes place in a trendy New York City couple’s apartment as they “adopt a sailor” during Fleet Week. Through the interaction between the successful yet miserable couple and the doe-eyed and innocent sailor, their lives are forever changed. The screening was followed by a discussion led by Evered, who attended the screening and shared his vision and inspiration for the film, as well as his expertise on the filmmaking process.

The 30-A community responded enthusiastically to the screening.

“It’s been absolutely wonderful, inspiring,” Cohen says. “In addition to getting numerous letters from community members who are delighted with the screening and the subsequent discussion with director Charles Evered, they are thrilled that we are bringing films to 30-A.”

After the series kickoff, residents of the beach communities had the opportunity to discover two more feature films that are “as unique as they are compelling,” according to Cohen.

Guests at the sold-out Seaside Repertory Theatre were treated to the action-packed foreign language film “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” based on Stefan Aust’s novelization of the true story of Germany’s revolutionary Red Army, made up of radicalized descendants of the Nazi generation fighting a violent war against the new face of fascism.

Alys Beach hosted two screenings of “The Cove,” a chilling story of filmmakers who take great risks to make a thrilling film that reveals to the world the important truth about previously denied events.

“The gripping subject matter and bold filmmaking techniques gave South Walton County residents a rare opportunity to enjoy cutting-edge independent cinema at the same time that the films are running in theaters around the nation,” Cohen says.

In December, the WaterColor Boat House hosted Torchlight’s Emerging Filmmakers Program, during which Cohen presented a collection of short films created by up-and-coming filmmakers from FSU’s Film School along with notable guest speakers who are highly regarded by film industry members. Valerie Scoon, former director of development for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Pictures whose credits include “The Great Debaters” and “Beloved,” joined Cohen to moderate a discussion with the filmmakers after the screening. Scoon mentored all three filmmakers through the creative development process of their films.

Cohen predicts that filmmakers on the West Coast will be hearing about Northwest Florida’s film screenings and taking notice.

“For me, that is wonderful because it will lead to word of mouth among the Hollywood community that there are successful screenings at unknown areas,” he says. “We’re doing this on a grassroots level to show that there are ways to roll up your sleeves and discover new ways to show the films.”

The people of the 30-A communities have asked Cohen to continue to show these types of films throughout the year. Organizers are planning more such events through October.

The only hitch is that, while the dates and venues are set, in order to obtain the best movies and the most interesting guest speakers, the name of the films being screened may not be known until the last minute.

Film School Dean Frank Patterson likens it to being invited to a friend’s home to be treated to a meal prepared by a marvelous chef.

“You’re not going to ask what he’s serving,” he says. “This will be the best cinema that we can possibly select.”

One thing Cohen guarantees: Patrons will be watching adult-oriented independent films rather than high-profile, big-budget blockbusters.

“We’re not doing Hollywood pictures,” he says. “You can go to the mall to see ‘Transformers.’”

The benefits of the series, says Cohen, are twofold. FSU film students get practical experience in the ins and outs of distributing and publicizing a movie, and locals are learning and talking about cinema culture.

To get that conversation started, each screening is followed by “an expanded conversation” with someone familiar with the film, its creators or its subject — including critics, screenwriters, directors, producers or distributors.

“We plan to surround the film with a lively discussion that enhances the viewing experience,” Cohen says.

He adds that there is a certain insider cachet to viewing a movie before the rest of the world.

“You ‘discovered’ it more than you would have if you had seen it at the local AMC,” Cohen says. “You’ll be participating in the national conversation about cinema.” When the movie does get a wider release, those who have seen it can judge how it is being reviewed and see how it fares at film festivals and in competitions.

Cohen sums it up this way: “You’ll be seeing the next, new unknown film — and you don’t have to travel to see it.”

For more information on future Torchlight film screenings, including dates, times and ticket information, visit torchlightfilmseries.com or call (850) 645-8454.