Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The promotional poster for the 2018 San Antonio Film Festival recalls the 1927 silent film Wings, which was shot on location at Kelly Field in San Antonio. In part for its stunning aerial battle sequences, the movie won the very first Academy Award for Best Picture for its director, William A. Wellman.
San Antonio native Jesse Borrego, best known as an actor, recently won an award for his first feature film, Closer to Bottom. Shot in his hometown and Austin over a four-year period, the movie won the "Best Made In Texas Feature" award at the inaugural Austin Indie Fest in 2017.
Closer to Bottom is one of more than 150 films to be screened during the 24th annual San Antonio Film Festival, which takes place at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, Aug. 1-5. Borrego will also be honored with the festival’s annual Legacy Award at the awards ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 4. His feature film will screen Sunday, Aug. 5 at 6 p.m.
Even with its 31 feature length narrative films and documentaries, and 120 short films, San Antonio's is among the smaller festivals, especially compared to major festivals like Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Berlin and Toronto that attract international attention.
“Hey man, we’re local – but we’re representing all this diaspora of incredible filmmaking, from the indie to the major,” Borrego told the Rivard Report.
Borrego himself represents that spectrum, having worked as an actor in major Hollywood releases like 1997’s Con Air and 2011’s Colombiana, and television hits like 24, Dexter, and the recent Fear the Walking Dead.
As a festival honoree, Borrego has curated a program of films he’s been involved with, in particular those which he feels did not receive the recognition they deserved at the time of their release.
Features include Tecumseh of 1995 on, Bienvenido-Welcome of 1994, and Follow me Home of 1996, which he said was a "big hit” at Sundance but did not receive a distribution deal in part because at the time, Latino-themed films were not generally considered for wider release. His continuing legacy, he said, will be to help such stories to come to light, and receive the attention they deserve.
Another major release featured at the festival is Stella’s Last Weekend, a comedy by Polly Draper of the 1980s-era television show Thirtysomething. Draper will be in attendance for the Saturday, Aug. 4, world premiere at 9 p.m.
Festival director Adam Rocha and a cadre of dedicated volunteers and sponsors bring the festival to the Tobin Center, Borrego said, to allow filmmakers to connect directly with their potential audience.
For any filmmaker, finally screening a finished film is “the end of an arduous journey,” he said. “Little do they know it's only the beginning, because now you gotta try to sell it.”
In 2008, Kerry Valderrama won the “Best Local Filmmaker” award for his first feature film, Garrison. Valderrama, now chief executive officer of the Alamo City Studios production company, followed up in 2013 with the “Audience Award for Best Feature Film” for his second feature, Sanitarium.
The awards “meant a lot to me each time, and gave me the confidence and strength to continue to move forward in the film industry,” Valderrama said, adding that both films went on to receive national and international distribution.
Agents and potential distributors don’t generally attend smaller festivals, he said, but some filmmakers are able to parlay their local festival screenings into further festivals, which can lead to potential distributors seeing films and arranging deals. That's what happened to Valderrama at the Hollywood Film Festival and Miami International Film Festival.
First, as Borrego noted, a film must be finished. To that end, the City of San Antonio Film Commission offers five annual Local Filmmaker Grants in the amount of $5,000, said Krystal Jones, film and music commissioner for the City's Department of Arts and Culture.
Recent winners include Natasha Straley, Mark A. Zuniga, Will Shipley, Rogelio Salinas, and Scott Langford. Langford’s short film Damsel debuted June 6 at Brick at Blue Star, and the local director is now entering the film into festivals and seeking distribution.
Salinas’ award allowed him to use funds specifically for distribution for his film Waiting for the Storm, which screened at last year’s local festival, Jones said. With the help of DVDs and marketing materials, Salinas has secured a distribution deal and is now preparing to release the film, she said, but the 2019 round of awards will be applicable only to production costs.
Part of the legacy that Borrego will be honored for is his facilitation of local filmmaking, in part through the San Antonio and Austin-based nonprofit production company Cine Studio, which he started with his screenwriter brother James in 2013. Cine Studio has so far produced Closer to Bottom and the documentary film Las Tesoros de San Antonio: A Westside Story, which screened at last year’s San Antonio Film Festival.
Cine Studio capitalizes on local high school film programs like the Borrego brothers’ alma mater Harlandale High School and the Design and Technology Academy at Roosevelt, as well as youth programs that teach film and video production like SAY Sí, Borrego said. The purpose of the program is “workforce development, youth empowerment, youth education,” and filmmaking students from Austin and San Antonio have been involved in the production of Closer to Bottom and other projects.
The hope, he said, is that “the next Robert Rodriguez, the next [Martin] Scorsese are here,” or even “the next Borrego.” If they win the awards for their next projects here, they could go on to win the Legacy Award, like Borrego did, for their work in the community.
“It’s been a long journey to the legacy, but I can still ‘shake a legacy,'” he quipped, playing on the phrase "shake a leg."
He wants to continue to grow Cine Studio into a full-fledged production company and inspire others to join and strengthen the industry. The technology is easily available and there are plenty of local connections to the larger industry, he said.
“Why not us?" Borrego said, of San Antonio's potential to become a film hub, adding later that "if Tyler Perry can do it in Atlanta, I can do it here.”