by Betsy Thaggard

The thing I like about the USA Film Festival is that it exists solely for film lovers.

Big name directors don't teach master classes, wannabes have very little opportunity to corner people who can help their careers, and chances are nil you'll get to stand in a restroom line with Faye Dunaway.

This is a good thing. It keeps us refreshingly unjaded. And it keeps things amazingly affordable.

Hollywood Comes to Dallas
With every USA Film Festival (and this year's 25th anniversary was a good example), Dallas gets a week of Hollywood without using up its frequent-flyer miles. Stars are kept at a respectful distance and we, the viewing public, cheer for their films because for that one week, they're ours.

We hardly live in the boonies here, but let's face it, we get a kick out of rubbing elbows (on April 22, Jimmy Smits touched mine) with the folks Jane Sumner mentions in boldface. And if you're a true cineaste, you like seeing films that may or may not recover their production budgets but are worth 10 times their cost -- the kind of films that seldom make it to Dallas movie theatres.

This year's festival gave us a lot to love. Studio projects opened and closed the week, and enough display-ad films screened to bring in stars and patrons who prefer known quantities. But I maintain that the best money spent on this or any festival goes toward films whose existence will remain a mystery to all but the most hip.

An Eclectic Lineup
From the 1995 lineup, we found that tiny budgets can triumph -- the giddy Party Girl has picked up distribution even though the director had to leave her one big-name cameo, Eric Stoltz, on the cutting room floor. In one little documentary about two retired Disney cartoonists, Frank and Ollie, I learned more about writing, partnership and humanity that I'll ever glean from the entire Arnold catalog (Schwarzenegger and Tom).

There was personal inspiration, too. Films shot in Texas made it to the-big screen -- including The Stars Fell on Henrietta and Among the Dead -- and I survived the two clunkers I saw by chanting "if that can get made, my screenplay's a shoe-in."

And how could we do anything but worship a festival that invited editors from Movieline magazine (cinema's answer to SPY) to host/analyze/dish a screening of their all-time favorite bad movie, Valley of the Dolls? (We knew it would be good when the audience roared for the credit "Gowns by Travilla.")

For the sake of disclosure, I admit that USAFF Managing Director Ann Alexander and I are old beachgoing buddies, and I've adored from afar Artistic Director Alonso Duralde since he and I were fellow freelance journalists in this unjournalistic town. And my status as a DSA officer (and friendship with the Parties chairman) got me into places I couldn't have accessed as General Public (cadging scripts from Paul Schrader, schmoozing with the Movieline guys, driving filmmaker Chuck Workman), but that's all icing.

It doesn't take acquaintance to admire and appreciate Alonso, Ann and the rest of the USAFF gang for their 25th anniversary present to Dallas-area filmgoers. If you missed this year's screenings, too bad. If you miss next year's, don't bother to call yourself a film lover.

This article was written for the Dallas Screenwriters' Association.

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