Why not a film festival in Hagerstown?

September 19, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND |
  • Tim Rowland
Tim Rowland

Why not a film festival in Hagerstown?

It’s opening night and the spotlights, like luminous metronomes, are sweeping across the evening sky. Gowns glitter and tuxedos hang smartly from famous shoulders as stars whom you know — like Robin Givens, Tom Sizemore and Kevin Farley — are sauntering up the red carpet into The Maryland Theatre.
Wait, into the what?

Yes, unlikely as it might seem, that’s expected to be the scene in downtown Hagerstown a little less than a month from now with the introduction of the first Maryland International Film Festival-Hagerstown. (For schedules and information, visit

Film festivals are common throughout the world, but it’s a coup to open in year one with as much star power as the festival’s director, Tracie Donahue, has assembled for the Oct. 13-16 contest.

There’d been talk of hosting a film festival in Hagerstown on and off for some time, but it was Donahue’s arrival from California a year ago that proved to be the catalyst. A film-festival reporter and self-confessed festival junkie, Donahue had the connections to apply the torch locally to a genre that thrives on sizzle.

And strangely enough, a lot of the building blocks were already in place. Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Tom Riford has extensive ties to the local and state film agencies; the new Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, where Robin Givens will host a workshop, is a natural fit; and three venues with enthusiastic and savvy management will show films — The Maryland Theatre, Leitersburg Cinemas and Bridge of Life theater.

The film festival will need all three to handle the load. It received an incredible 250 film entries from around the world, a number that was whittled to the 51 that will be locally screened. They range from short films to documentaries to features, right up to an uncut production of the Civil War cinematic epic “Gods and Generals” (expected to be personally introduced by director Ron Maxwell) that includes the Battle of Antietam footage that was left on the cutting room floor in its original release.

Film festivals in general are curious mixes of serious business and serious schmoozing. Filmmakers pay an entry fee to have their productions judged and hopefully included among the festival’s screenings.

If it wins in its category, it attracts a laurel and, better yet, might catch the attention of a movie distributor in attendance for possible commercial release. “The Blair Witch Project” is an example of how a filmmaker with a camera and a fascination for close-ups of leaves and sticks can be parlayed, via a film festival, into a quarter-billion-dollar production.

For the rest of us, the festival is all about star gazing — and, of course, film gazing.

Festivals, Donahue said, “are more about interaction with directors, or talking with actors and actresses about what it was like to work on a film.”

One of Donahue’s bigger coups was landing “The A-Team” director Joe Carnahan. Carnahan has gone from having to borrow cameras to one of Hollywood’s elite artists. So, Donahue said, he understands the struggling filmmaker concept, as well as the role that festivals play in nurturing successful movies.

Carnahan’s (et al) attendance is appreciated, and it’s also a lesson. So often, we ourselves don’t see the potential of our community. Yet here are bona fide, marquee Hollywood players who are taking a chance on Hagerstown and who obviously believe in the city. Why Hagerstown? Why not Hagerstown? They don’t see any reason not to believe, so why should we?

This translates, of course, into us joining the fun and filling theater seats next month. We sacrifice our right to complain that there’s noting to do around here when, upon there being something marvelous to do, we fail to show up.

Western Maryland Blues Fest has proved that it can be done, attracting a wide spectrum of local, regional and long-distance fans. The Maryland International Film Festival-Hagerstown quite conceivably could be a fall anchor for what increasingly and incredulously, I suppose, can be referred to as the Washington County scene.

Building blocks of entertainment are coming into place: Blues Fest, Antietam, Barbara Ingram and the aforementioned theaters. Perhaps you can’t put Hagerstown in the position of “trendy” just yet, but you’re starting to see how it could happen.

And the beauty of getting there is that we can help — one theater seat at a time.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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