The “A Night on the Big Screen” film festival at City Base Entertainment in March aims to attract San Antonio filmmakers with the incentive of showing their films in a commercial-grade theater. It also might prove to be a barometer on the state of the film industry in San Antonio.

One indicator will be how many filmmakers enter the contest, with music videos, short films, and full-length features eligible for submission. The actual length of the festival, slated initially for two days on March 19 and 20, will depend on how many submissions are received by the March 1 deadline.

Another indicator will be how many local filmmakers can afford the potential $150 entry fee during a pandemic that has economically ravaged the entertainment industry. The fees will go toward preparing the entries for professional-grade display, with entrants keeping the trailers and promotional packages for future use. Entry is free if a filmmaker already has these materials.

A third indicator will be how many San Antonians are interested in seeing the work of their fellow residents presented on the big screen in a city that was recently named one of 25 Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker for 2021 by, the third year in a row that San Antonio has earned such a designation. Any filmmaker accepted into the festival must guarantee an audience of at least 20 paying ticketholders for the locally owned Southside movie venue.

The entry fees and audience guarantee are meant to share costs to produce the festival, according to Brad Smith and Aaron Lee Lopez, the City Base Entertainment managing partner and filmmaker, respectively, who joined efforts to create A Night on the Big Screen.

An independent filmmaker would normally pay $1,000 to $3,000 for the $100 Digital Cinema Package (DCP) entrants will receive for part of their entry fee, Lopez said, and would pay hundreds more for the promotional media kit that will cost $50.

Both are required to show movies at commercial theaters with professional-grade color, sound, and advertising. In this case, Lopez said entrants can keep the DCP and media kit for future use when seeking additional screenings and distribution.

An independent filmmaker might normally have to pay thousands to reserve an entire theater for a screening, Smith said. Both Smith and Lopez said they’ve seen how hard-hit the entire film industry has been during the pandemic and wanted not only to encourage filmmakers to continue producing films and seeking audiences, but to give audiences “a sense of release” during hard times.

Beyond Hollywood

Smith credits Lopez for giving him the sense that City Base could go beyond its regular slate of Hollywood cinema offerings to create opportunities for the local film industry.

While shooting a COVID-19 safety public service announcement for City Base, Lopez mentioned to Smith that he had produced two films locally during the pandemic, Teenage Vampire and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. Arrangements were made, and both films had their premieres at City Base, the first near Halloween and the second, a “holiday slasher” film, played just before Christmas. Both were well-received, selling out the theater at their 50% and 75% pandemic-reduced capacities, Smith said.

That sparked the idea to open the possibility to other local filmmakers. “This is the perfect opportunity for people that have movies that have been canned or shelved, or that had no ability or funds to be able to show movies, to take this opportunity and make the best of it,” Smith said.

Lopez felt he could offer support through his years of experience working in various positions on major Hollywood productions such as Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and The Hangover, and through his San Antonio-based company Mutt Productions, which will create the DCPs for festival entrants.

“I just really want people to put their stuff in the theater and get excited about it,” Lopez said. “And if I can influence them positively, this is cool.”

The “A Night on the Big Screen” film festival at City Base Entertainment in March aims to attract San Antonio filmmakers with the incentive of showing their films in a commercial-grade theater. Photos taken on February 3, 2021.
A marquee at City Base Entertainment reads, “Missed you / Welcome back to your theater.” Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

‘Real and ready’

In moving back home in 2010 after five years in Los Angeles, Lopez preceded the trend of filmmakers locating outside of traditional movie and television industry centers New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, to find more reasonable costs of living and to take advantage of other states and cities eager to attract business.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg credits the Department of Arts and Culture for drawing attention to the city’s status as a film-friendly city, having established a Film Strategic Plan in 2017 with the stated goal of becoming “the most production-friendly city in the U.S.”

According to Krystal Jones, the department’s marketing, film, and music administrator, the City has issued 170 film permits since September 2019, when a new digital permitting system was adopted, making tracking of permits easier.

Jones is quoted in MovieMaker as saying “San Antonio is real and ready … with authentic, unique, and screen-worthy locations, a rich culture and history, and a welcoming film-friendly community.” The blurb, which places San Antonio at No. 22 ahead of Seattle, Milwaukee, and St. Petersburg, Florida, twice mentions the city’s “budget-friendliness” for film production.

The strategic plan initiated an increase in the City’s film production incentive to 7.5% of budget from 2.5%, an enhancement added to Texas Film Commission incentives.

Young filmmakers are not being left out of the opportunities. The Department of Arts and Culture’s Film San Antonio division is offering the #FilmSA contest for aspiring filmmakers ages 14 to 21, with a World Heritage theme and incentives that range from inclusion in City social media posts and online advertising to festival screenings.

Deadline for entries is March 8, and an awards ceremony and screening is scheduled for May 1, with more information to come.

An alumnus of the Harlandale High School film program recently created a $5,000 grant to encourage entrepreneurship among students. Adrian Garcia, founder of the local media agency Onward Group, is paying forward her own positive experience at the film magnet school, which began with selling candy to buy her first camera.

“Almost 10 years later, my camera and what I’ve learned at the Film School of San Antonio at Harlandale has taken me all over the world” for the photo and video production work her agency performs, she said in a media announcement about the grant contest.

Students have until Feb. 28 to submit their plans for starting a business. Their entrepreneurship is not limited to filmmaking, but each student must make a two- to five-minute video to enter.

A magical moment

Lopez also works with local students at Northside Independent School District to foster video production skills, and in some cases, to help them realize their dreams. NISD students star in his two recent films, which are meant as lighthearted family entertainment.

He said though he continues to work in Austin and Los Angeles, he specifically chooses San Antonio students for his movies, in part to help build a vibrant film community in his hometown and help them realize their dreams.

Lopez said, “As a kid, that was my dream when I went to go see movies” such as Star Wars or the Indiana Jones films, “so for kids to actually get to see themselves on the big screen as if they were a big time movie stars, that’s an exciting moment.”

The excitement also works for filmmakers, he said, and is a primary motivation for the A Night on the Big Screen festival.

“It’s just a magical moment for yourself,” he said, recalling the first time he saw one of his films on an actual theater screen at age 25.

The moment of elation is quickly followed by self-critique, he said, as the big screen tends to expose any flaws in the film, another benefit to filmmakers seeking to improve.

He will have another chance to critique all four of his feature-length films, as they will play as part of the festival, though they will not be in competition. Prizes have not yet been decided, Smith said, but simply having the chance to screen a film for a live audience gathered in a theater – during a pandemic – might be reward enough.

Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...