In the summer of 2007, Brad Bores, Rich Hooban and two other idealistic filmmaker friends piled into a 1988 Caprice Classic with an Eclair 16mm camera and drove from Ohio to New Mexico filming Soda Can Love. For two weeks, the crew took turns acting (as versions of themselves), filming (on re-canned stock) and watching for police (no permits here!) as they filmed the real-life encounters and unpredictable emotions found on the road. The result was raw, compelling and pure, exactly how Bores had envisioned.
But most film festivals weren’t interested in Soda Can Love or its impressive DIY back story.
“You buy into these ideas that if you make a good film, Sundance is going to show it and you’re going to sign a distribution deal and start your career,” Bores said. “Maybe it was like that at some point a long time ago, but it just doesn’t exist as much now.”
After Hooban encountered similar problems finding outlets for his self-funded project — “We were rejected by too many film festivals to count,” Bores said — the two disgruntled friends realized even festivals that stand for independence had gone off course.
So they maxed out the last of their credit cards, put out a call for submissions and created Zero Film Festival, a “for us by us” forum for truly independent cinema.
“We just had a hunch that there were more filmmakers like us going through the same struggles,” Bores said. “We said, ‘Let’s start something — let’s embrace those films.’”
With no previous festival planning experience and nothing to lose but their credit scores, then-LA-based Bores and Hooban took a bold stance against the independent film festival status quo with last year’s inaugural ZFF. The four-day, five-venue underground movie extravaganza disregarded big-money investors and B-list actors in lieu of self-financed masterpieces from only the most passionate filmmakers.
Utilizing a side of the city as opposite to Hollywood as the films in its program, ZFF took over Downtown LA warehouses and revival theaters, screening everything from experimental Italian shorts and one-take British mumblecore to narrative features developed with hand-extracted battery acid.
The showcases were paired with music-fueled after-parties, where equally-as-independent local bands (such as Warpaint and RESTAVRANT) played until the free drinks ran out.
“Last year was fun for everybody because nobody knew what to expect,” Bores said. “We had no idea how it would be received.”
But 2008’s ZFF did more than attract just a few free-film thinkers. Although Bores and Hooban knew their festival would appeal to a niche of independent moviemakers, they underestimated how much an event like theirs was needed.
After taking the films on a miniature West Coast tour this past spring — and noticing a “no-budget” category popping up on Sundance’s entry form — the two realized that ZFF was forming a reputation big enough to influence the festival world they left behind.
“I think we’ve made them re-assess their roles and their whole mission,” Bores said. “What has been defined as ‘independent’ really isn’t, and we’re coming in to clean that up.”
Knowing that other festivals are catching up to their purist ideals only motivates Bores and Hooban more. Refusing to let ZFF’s main objectives be overshadowed by larger institutions’ copycat attempts, this year’s festival — affectionately known as ZERO9 — is the most ambitious yet.
After personally watching over 600 entries (and reading every line of every heart-pouring cover letter), the two organizers settled on 115 new underappreciated films that will be shown not only in Los Angeles, but also at the first New York ZFF, held next week in Brooklyn, NY.
While ZFF’s unexpected impact proves the meaning of “independent film” is still in flux, so is the definition of what makes a “zero” film. The movies screening this year are in line with Bores and Hooban’s original vision of exposing dedicated filmmakers, but they also represent a looser interpretation than last year — one that doesn’t necessarily exclude larger-budget or award-winning pictures.
“It’s Zero Film Fest, but it’s not that you have to go out and shoot the film for pennies. It’s about not letting the financial side paint the vision,” Bores said. “We’re looking for a level of purity in the work — it’s as simple as that. We want to know that this is something that they, as an artist, have really put their heart and soul into.”
With that in mind, this years expanded lineup includes visual art from working fine artists, experimental music videos, hand-animated shorts and a block of activist films addressing important global issues (like the commodity of bottled water).
Other highlights include a renegade Afghan documentary by the Razzie-award winning director of Xanadu, an evening of shorts filmed by a group of Echo Park high schoolers and a George-A.-Romero-meets-Boris-Karloff throwback zombie flick that was made for only $75 (and hailed at Cannes).
In addition to five-day events in both Los Angeles and New York, this year’s enhanced ZFF is spending the upcoming spring on an international tour with over 20 North American dates and even more in Europe, giving cinephiles worldwide a chance to experience the next generation of moviemaking zealots.
While films such as Precious and Paranormal Activity are using their low-budgets as a marketing tool for mainstream success, ZFF is continuing to cultivate a modest co-op where investors and B-list actors mean nothing compared to the blood, sweat and tears of those who dreamed it.
“It’s really crazy to think that a year and a half ago, Rich and I were disgruntled filmmakers and we had no community like we do now,” Bores said. “We have the biggest, craziest goals; we want to change the world of independent film.”