Baltimore, Maryland

Languishing in the shadows of bigger-shouldered cities like Washington and Philadelphia, Baltimore is burdened with something of a municipal chip on its shoulder, exposed in reasonless civic sloganeering like the much-scorned recent campaign proclaiming it “the greatest city in the world.” Likewise, when, say, three studio films locate here over a one-year stretch, newspaper columnists will rush to christen Baltimore “Hollywood East.”

What the city has also developed, though, is a sense of humor and no one has helped Baltimore appreciate its own enigmatic existence more than John Waters. It matters that Waters, one of independent film’s undisputed mavericks, not only still films in Baltimore, but he still lives there, too. The lore surrounding his scrappily made early movies continues to inspire small and zero-budgeted filmmaking in Baltimore, and his legendary happy-atmosphere sets have instilled a spirit of collegiality that continues to operate here.

Subsequently, and for other reasons as well, Baltimore has developed into a viable home base for independent filmmakers and media artists—it’s an affordable city, and easy to negotiate. What exists in Baltimore is an interlocking system of opportunity for work and venue that, if it had been designed or premeditated, could not work any better.

The steady availability of studio work, especially with HBO Pictures (The Corner, and The Wire), provides emerging filmmakers with rent-paying work; the Maryland Film Festival and Skizz Cyzyk’s MicroCinefest have helped create support for experimental and short work; and the emerging Creative Alliance Movie Makers have all transformed what has historically been an already healthy presence of independent filmmakers into an even more nurturing and effective community.

A prominent figure in this community is Pat Moran, longtime confidante of Waters (and frequently uncredited veteran of early Waters films), and now the de facto casting director for virtually every studio and independent production that films in Baltimore. Having served Waters in numerous production capacities, Moran accepted her first official casting credit for his 1990 Crybaby. A tip from Whoopi Goldberg’s dresser in 1987 led the producers of Clara’s Heart to Moran, who provided the film with location and casting, and since then, without ever soliciting work, Pat Moran & Associates has provided principal and location casting for such productions as Enemy of the State (1998), A Red Dragon (2002), and Head of State (2003), earning a 1998 Emmy for their casting of Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Moran says she learned how to “rebound fast” from working on independent films. “Working under pressure, making a movie by your wits, prepares you for anything. And no budget matters more than loving what you do.” Moran’s appraisal of what makes Baltimore an attractive location for outside projects applies as well to independent filmmakers based here. “Baltimore’s the only East Coast city with hills,” she says, a shorthand way of describing the city’s varied landscapes, and the ensuing ease of moving a production from a gritty urban street corner in the morning to harbor or horse-country in the evening. And the proximity of Washington, DC is ideal for pickup shots. This, along with the availability (and sterling reputation) of locally based crews, keeps cameras whirring in Baltimore.

Founded by Jed Dietz and his Producers Club of Maryland, the six-year-old Maryland Film Festival has further enhanced the city’s reputation for nurturing film and filmmakers. By design, the festival has remained both noncompetitive and non-ghettoized. The festival’s program highlights short films with the same precision as showcased feature films. Short filmmakers are often surprised to discover that short programs are as well attended and advantageously scheduled as major independent films. A stated mission of the festival is to bring filmmakers in to introduce their films. At the most recent festival the relaxed, egalitarian spirit was captured brilliantly in Slamdance Film Festival co-founder Dan Mirvish’s eve-of-opening hotel party, which brought together Baltimore-based short filmmakers with the visiting directors of that season’s festival favorites.

The city supports the festival. Every available film is reviewed in the city’s alternative weekly, City Paper; cultural institutions provide passes; and the Cal Ripken family opens Ripken’s private skybox to visiting filmmakers. The festival has heightened its year-round programming, aligning with myriad cultural institutions for thematic programming. More quietly, in association with the Sundance Channel, the Producers Club of Maryland, the festival’s organizing entity, administers the annual Production Club of Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship. The organizational merger of the Maryland Film Festival and the separately scheduled MicroCineFest, a premier showcase for psychotronic cinema, has further solidified the festival’s reputation for diversity and filmmaker focused programming. Cyzyk, a tireless supporter of independent filmmakers, provides a direct link from the festival to the local filmmaking community.

Acceptance and exposure in the Maryland Film Festival has become an achievable goal for the city’s filmmakers. Their day-to-day concerns are directly addressed by the Creative Alliance Movie Makers, a five-year-old organization founded by filmmaker Kristen Anchor. CAmm seeks to establish a filmmaking community by providing access to equipment and materials, and offering year-round workshops and monthly salons.

Anchor, who moved to Baltimore from Richmond, Virginia, was particularly interested in combining her interests in filmmaking and social activism; her skills in the latter have helped CAmm earn the trust of local filmmakers. Baltimore-based filmmaker Kent Bye says, “The Creative Alliance is a blessing to the struggling filmmakers of Baltimore. They are not concerned with co-opting or profiting off the work of local artists, but are genuinely interested in advancing the interests of the individuals.” Bye, who left a job in the military-industrial complex to work full time on his current film in production, The Echo Chamber, was recently the subject of a lengthy story in The City Paper. He credits a CAmm marketing workshop and their staff with helping him to shape his story for the media.

Michelle Strotman, of Tepid Fish Productions, recounts how Anchor encouraged her production team’s inaugural filmmaking effort: “We were just a bunch of girls who thought it might be fun to make a movie someday, until Kristen finally made us put up or shut up by demanding that we enter the 2002 CAmm-Slamm, the forty-eight hour film-and-video competition. And our movie, The Vibranator won first prize!”

CAmm Slamm remains CAmm’s best-known program, bringing together groups of local filmmakers for one sleepless weekend of intense and supportive guerilla filmmaking (winning films are screened at MicroCineFest). Other CAmm filmmaker-based events include the annual College Film/Video Bake Off, the monthly salons that bring filmmakers together for a free evening of networking and showings of works-in-progress. More recently, CAmm has built up its scheduling of filmmaking workshops (e.g., scriptwriting, Macromedia Flash, Dreamweaver). “[CAmm’s] events are so numerous and varied, one of our videos is bound to fit in somewhere,” says Strotman. “It’s a comfort to know that all of our hard work will pay off with at least one screening at the Creative Alliance.”

Most of CAmm’s screening events take place at the Patterson Cultural Center, a reconverted movie house that now serves as the Creative Alliance’s headquarters, gallery and performance space. In addition to the works of local filmmakers, the Creative Alliance presents the Orpheum Film Series, a year-round schedule of screenings curated by George Figgs (with Alana Roth), named for his sadly departed revival house. Recent Orpheum series have been devoted to Bollywood, “bike movies,” and the works of Robert Bresson and Paolo Pasolini.

There are also events that feature silent films accompanied by live musical performances and collaborations with the Megaphone Project, a nonprofit organization providing production and distribution services for Baltimore’s social justice community. Last fall, the Creative Alliance convened the Maryland Documentary Symposium, a weeklong program of film screenings and panel discussions focusing on documentaries made in Maryland.

The inaugural exhibition at the Patterson featured, at the suggestion of John Waters (him again), the works of one of his longtime collaborators, Vince Peranio—“Trash to Treasure: The Production Design of Vince Peranio.” Peranio, Waters production designer most recently on A Dirty Shame (2004), has, like Pat Moran, advanced his career into the mainstream, designing for the HBO productions of The Corner and The Wire.

The interconnectedness and spirit of support that permeates the Baltimore film community also shows up in the venue support offered to independent filmmakers by the city’s beloved art house, the Charles, and its historic movie palace, the Senator. This summer, a rare and riveting feud erupted between the Senator and the Charles over clearance rights for Fahrenheit 9/11, marking the first film-community fissure in anyone’s memory, but also highlighting the city’s deep and resounding passion for film and filmmakers.

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