If you want to find the heart of the Atlanta Film Festival, just look up. One floor up and one door over from the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema is The Independent, where filmmakers, badge-holders, and harried festival staff swill (festival sponsor) Stella Artois longnecks between screenings. There's the usual exchange of business cards and war stories, but there's also a sense of cameraderie that grows over the course of the festival week as names and faces become familiar through repeated contact. You may not have seen Jay Zimmerman's short Done in One (winner of the festival's Rapid I Movement short filmmaking competition), but after an afternoon of trading jokes with him and lead actor Matthew Cornwell you'll be making mental notes to catch the next screening. Across the room Exec Director Gabe Wardell schools an unsuspecting filmmaker on the second level of Donkey Kong before dashing down to introduce the next round of screenings.
The Atlanta Film Fest's venue is hardly isolated -- it's an easy walk from Piedmont Park and a bevy of other city landmarks. However, with the various screens located just steps away from one another (the fest takes up about half of the cineplex's screens), the lounge upstairs, and a good selection of eating alternatives in the same shopping center, it's easy to think of the festival as an ecapsulated world unto itself. All this coziness makes it hard to inject glitz into a festival by moving the proceedings to a swankier location for the evening (parties are held at a variety of off-site locations), but the fest staff manages to do so even if the locals make faces at the thought of driving anywhere.
When it comes to movies, ATL FF (under the watchful eye of programmer Dan Krovich) strikes out on its own, apparently drawing from its pool of submissions more often than relying on crowd pleasers from larger fests. Some of the usual suspects were in the program -- American Teen and Son of Rambow can hardly be considered "undiscovered" -- but for the most part the lineup feels cultivated for the Atlanta audience. Locally-made (Rome, GA) horror comedy Dance of the Dead packed three screenings and Southern-interest doc 'Bama Girl earned an additional screening after a strong first night. This is good news for submitting filmmakers, particularly those with local ties or with pics of special interest to a Southern audience. The fest's homegrown "Teen Screen" and "Rapid I Movement" segments make for programming unique to Atlanta.
The festival is not without its quirks -- post-flick Q&As can be a bit awkward without proper lighting or PA systems and films can jump from theater to theater without warning. (Confusing but hardly fatal when the alternative venue is a few yards away.) More important, however, are the fest's growing pains: how do you add more opulence, attract more prominent filmmakers, and bring in bigger crowds without sacrificing the intimate vibe that current participants seem to enjoy so much? I don't have an answer, but I think the tight-knit bunch at the Atlanta Film Festival do. I look forward to finding out at future ATL fests.