The short film "A Band of Thieves," produced in San Antonio, will be screened at the Alamo City Film Festival. Courtesy image
The short film "A Band of Thieves," produced in San Antonio, will be screened at the Alamo City Film Festival. Courtesy image

While the third annual Alamo City Comic Con unfolds in the exhibit halls and ballrooms of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, the first-ever Alamo City Film Festival (ACFF) will take place Sept. 11 and 12 at the Lila Cockrell Theater inside the convention center. The organizers of Alamo City Comic Con (ACCC), which saw its total attendance rise from 35,000 in 2013 to 73,000 in 2014, are taking advantage of downtown crowds eager for more entertainment during the pop culture convention.

While ACCC’s main mission is to celebrate the artists who entertain the public through comics, movies, television, gaming and cosplay, this film festival will focus on independent documentary, short and feature-length films from mainly up-and-coming filmmakers, and a few established ones. 

ACFF Director Kerry Valderrama said Alfredo “Apple” de la Fuente, founder and CEO of the local comic convention, contacted him soon after last year’s event had ended. An Army veteran who has lived in worked in San Antonio for a decade, Valderrama himself has acted in, produced, directed, or written several low-budget independent films.

A handful of independently produced and financed movies screened at Lila Cockrell Theater during the 2014 ACCC, Valderrama said the “pop-up screenings” were a success.

The short film "Guest Room" will be screened during the Alamo City Film Festival. Courtesy image
The short film “Guest Room” will be screened during the Alamo City Film Festival. Courtesy image

One such screening, “Now Hiring,” came from San Antonio filmmaker Mark Cantu. The family-friendly action-comedy with a superhero angle was crowdfunded, then filmed almost entirely in San Antonio.

The screenings pulled in crowds large enough to convince ACCC officials that a more serious film festival could be organized as part of the convention.

“The idea is to maximize these two events and all the people will be in the (same) area that weekend,” Valderrama said.

Organizing the film festival began in January. Staff and volunteers went about the process of providing the festival with nonprofit status, calling for submissions, developing a sponsorship model, spreading the word via social media, and other duties.

With the addition of the film festival, San Antonio expands its image as a cinema-friendly and knowledgeable community, Valderrama said. Events such as the San Antonio Film Festival and CineFestival have been taking place for years, but he said there’s room for more formal local celebrations of cinema.

“Alamo City Comic Con comes with a huge fan base that’s just getting bigger. That gives us leverage,” said Valderrama. “(De la Fuente) was wise to wait until year three of the comic con to do a film festival.”

Valderrama said the film festival’s attachment to the comic convention gives ACFF more credibility at the beginning, so more filmmakers feel inclined to submit their works. The film festival received more than 300 submissions. Thirty-four works were selected.

The short film "Bandito"  will be screened at the Alamo City Film Festival. Courtesy image
The short film “Bandito” will be screened at the Alamo City Film Festival. Courtesy image

But the film festival is not just about showing genre movies that most fans associate with a comic convention, such as science fiction, action, horror or fantasy. 

There are two feature documentaries: “Poverty, Inc.” explores who profits from impoverished people and “Kingdom of Shadows” follows three individuals struggling with difficult choices and consequences of the U.S.-Mexico drug trade. The latter, directed by Bernardo Ruiz, and featuring cinematography from San Antonio native Antonio Cisneros, was shown at South by Southwest (SXSW) this year.

In a press release, Ruiz – born in Mexico to a Mexican father and an American mother – said he has spent his whole professional career exploring the sometimes “dysfunctional” relationship between the two countries. He previously addressed the violent drug trade south of the border in his 2012 documentary, “Reportero.”

“Everything I’ve worked on so far has had something to do with the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico,” Ruiz explained in the release. “I see ‘Kingdom of Shadows’
as a continuation of the work I’ve done throughout my career.”

The new film festival also contains 27 short films, seven of which were locally produced. One local film, “Squeezebox,” comes from local filmmaker/educator Sam Lerma. He, colleagues, family and other supporters spent about one year to raise just under $20,000, mostly through Kickstarter, for “Squeezebox,” which tells the quirky story of an aging musician who encounters a mysterious box.

Production on “Squeezebox” finished this February. Lerma submitted it to various film festivals. He wound up premiering it at CineFestival, and is screening it this week at the South Texas International Film Festival. “Squeezebox” won Best Short at the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival, and has received showcase status at some other festivals locally and around the state.Lerma said a new film fest in San Antonio is always welcome.

“Filmmakers thrive when they are able to show their work to an audience. Alamo City Film Festival is another opportunity to have their work seen, and to network with other working filmmakers,” he said.

“When I heard about ACFF, I was excited because it will tie in with the comic con, which is a whole new audience. I’m hoping some of it will spill over into the film festival, so they can be exposed to some local filmmakers, and also so they can watch films from around the globe. I wanted to help contribute to the growth of the festival.”

San Antonio native Fidel Ruiz-Healy went even smaller scale to direct “A Band of Thieves,” which is about a young, western-obsessed girl who turns her quiet Texas suburb into a lawless playground built in her imagination.

Based on a thesis he did as a film student at New York University, Ruiz-Healy worked with family and friends to raise about $10,000 grassroots-style. In 13 days, he got help from a New York crew to shoot the film in San Antonio in 2013. Post-production took much, much longer. From concept to submission to film festivals, it took Ruiz-Healy more than four years to make “A Band of Thieves” a reality.

The short film "A Band of Thieves," produced in San Antonio, will be screened at the Alamo City Film Festival. Courtesy image
The short film “A Band of Thieves,” produced in San Antonio, will be screened at the Alamo City Film Festival. Courtesy image

“Honestly, I love being able to screen my movie where it was made surrounded by the friends and family that helped make it,” Ruiz-Healy said, adding that the size of Alamo City Film Festival, and the pedigree of its organizers, could not be ignored.

“When ACFF came about and I saw that this wasn’t just an event in someones garage but something a lot bigger and much more planned than other local events, I knew I had to try and get my movie in there. Also, I love being able to show movies in San Antonio so I can get to know more local filmmakers and hopefully start relationships with them to pursue future local projects.”

Local filmmaker Scott Langford directed the short “Family Spirit,” about two San Antonio families, living over 175 years apart, faced with life-changing circumstances. He spent money mostly out of pocket toward a budget that numbered a few thousand dollars. Filming was done in two days. Langford said he sought a quick turnaround with this movie as he’s planning on relatively larger works that will require fundraising.

Langford’s first professional experience in cinema was with a film festival, so he knows the positive impact it can have on a community -when done right.

“I’m excited for (ACFF) and hoping that it will bring new audiences with the collaboration of Alamo City Comic Con, which has been incredibly successful these past couple years,” he added.

Additionally, five narrative features will be screened. More established performers have short works showing at ACFF, including actor Josh Brolin who directs his daughter Eden in “X.” Lauren Potter from the series “Glee” stars in “Guest Room.” Native San Antonian singer/actress Patricia Vonne stars in “Zorro Girl in Dead Man’s Alley.”

All told, there will be three world premieres, five regional premieres, and two Texas premieres, including films from France, Japan, Spain. Greece, and the Netherlands.

Stars and crew members from several selected movies will be in attendance during their respective screenings, with more to be scheduled. Actress Joey Lauren Adams, who appeared in “Chasing Amy” and “Dazed and Confused,” will attend the showing of her film “Valley Inn” on Sept. 11. Actors Dolph Lundgren (“The Expendables”) and Ron Perlman (“Sons of Anarchy”) will appear during a Sept. 12 screening of their film “Skin Trade.”

Some stars and crew members from “Star Trek: Renegades” will be present for their Sept. 11 screening, a special late night event for film fest and comic con VIP badge holders. The movie, based on a piece of “Star Trek” fan fiction, was crowdfunded and had a full trailer released online a few weeks ago. It is not an official, licensed part of the “Star Trek” movie franchise.

Promotional image for "Star Trek: Renegades," which will screen during the first annual Alamo City Film Festival.
Promotional image for “Star Trek: Renegades,” which will screen during the first annual Alamo City Film Festival.

Tim Russ, who co-starred in the series “Star Trek: Voyager,” directed and stars in this movie alongside former co-star Robert Picardo, Walter Koenig of the original TV series and films, Gary Graham (“Star Trek: Enterprise), Adrienne Wilkinson (“Xena: Warrior Princess”), Sean Young (“Blade Runner”) and Edward Furlong (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”).

Valderrama said “Renegades” is a perfect example of independent-minded fare that the Alamo City Film Festival aims to feature.

“That’s our family movie in a sense – our bridge between the film festival and the comic con,” he said.

Valderrama said he is excited by the positive public feedback to the film festival so far.

“It’s been overwhelmingly positive from the film fest and comic con communities,” he added.

Tickets for ACFF are $100 for a duo VIP badge/three-day pass, $75 for a regular VIP badge, $45 for a two-day badge, and $25 for individual Friday or Saturday day passes. VIP badge holders may be able to attend the film festival’s opening ceremony set for Sept. 10 on the Riverwalk. Tickets for individual premieres and “short blocks” of short films are also available.

A panel of judges from the entertainment industry will award film prizes to “Best Feature,” “Best Documentary,” “Best Short,” and “Best Shot in Texas.”

*Featured/top image: Detail of the poster art for the short film “A Band of Thieves.” Courtesy image.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.