I readily confess that I’m madly in love with film festivals, but the best time I’ve ever had at a fest is – hands down – at the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival held October 12-16, 2011 in New York City. I have to hand it to executive director Charlie Prince and his staff. They created a festival that was all about high energy, fun, and laughter.
The films were shown in excellent venues, and parties were held in the fabulous six-floor Renaissance mansion in midtown Manhattan that is the home of the famed Friars Club. In addition to the films and parties, there were stand-up comedy performances, improv shows, and panel discussions.
I have lived in New York for a long time, but I had never had a chance to step inside the hallowed halls of the Friars Club, a private club founded in 1904 and best known for its racy roasts. It was humbling to think of the many comedy greats who have held court in those rooms, including George M. Cohan, the first Friar Abbott (sort of like the Grand Poobah). And when someone laughed at one of my jokes during a conversation, I was in heaven. “I’m getting a laugh in the Friars Club!” I thought, pinching myself.
Architecturally, the building is beautiful, and there are photos of comedians and actors all over the premises. Most of the rooms are named after some of the Club’s favorite members, such as Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and Ed Sullivan.
One of the festival’s special events was a Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony for director Bret Ratner (Tower Heist), an evening that proved to be another pinch-worthy experience. Russell Simmons spoke, Eric Bogosian was in attendance, and when a pre-taped congratulatory statement from current Friar Abbott Jerry Lewis malfunctioned, Richard Belzer walked up to the podium with his cell phone in hand. He called Lewis on the spot and asked him to congratulate Ratner “live” over the microphone. Shortly after, though, the DVD worked, and Lewis appeared on a screen wearing a red clown nose.
Another highlight of the festival was a panel discussion with Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, the writer/actors best known for Reno 911! and the Night at the Museum films. The two discussed their new book, Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too!
Lennon and Garant talked about how viral YouTube videos are now being optioned by studios. Nothing may ever come of it in many cases, but if enough people watch your video, you have a chance at turning it into a film. Lennon was full of advice: “If they hate your guts, you’re getting a huge producing deal on this lot” and “Never talk about sequels; it’s the worse jinx ever” and “Never play hard ball because they have all the cards.”
Garant’s advice was very practical: “You’ll only get good by writing a bunch of movies, not writing the same one over and over.”
They said that big budget films must play everywhere in the world in order to make money, which is why Christmas films are rarely made anymore. “The trick is to try to keep as much as possible of your own sensibility while fitting it into a formula that everyone will like in a number of languages,” Lennon added. It sounds impossible, but the pair have managed to do just that more than once. Despite their success, not all of their ideas sell. They treated the audience to a screening of a shelved TV pilot.
Nearly 60 short and full-length films were shown during the festival. I missed the opening night film, Robbie Pickering’s first feature, Natural Selection, because I was attending the New York Film Festival (so many film festivals; so little time), but I heard nothing but good things about the movie. Pickering was given the Breakout Comedy Filmmaker of the Year award. The other main featured film during the festival was Clown by Mikkel Nørgaard, which is based on a Danish television show about men behaving badly. It was very funny, although sometimes almost painfully so.
My favorites included the documentary, Township to the Stage: A Comic Journey by David Paul Meyer, about young South African comedian, Trevor Noah, and Heterosexuals, which, it turns out, was directed by an old friend of mine, Rob McCaskill. Heterosexuals is an ensemble film about relationships starring Ashley Williams, Natasha Lyonne, Alexander Lyras, and Tovah Feldshuh. I also loved Aisha Tyler’s short film, Committed, which made a comical but clear statement about recycling. A stand-up comic and actress, you may recognize Tyler from her work on TV’s Ghost Whisperer.
Amanda Jane’s Australian film, The Wedding Party, which stars Isabel Lucas of Immortals and Josh Lawson of the new Showtime series House of Lies, also screened during the festival. I wrote about this hilarious movie in my stories about the New York City International Film Festival and the Manhattan Film Festival.
Jury and audience awards were presented (Township to the Stage won the jury award for Best Documentary Feature), but the big winner of the festival was The Selling, which took home both the jury and audience awards for Best U.S. Narrative Feature. A sidesplitting spoof of films like Poltergeist and, of course, The Shining, the movie was written by actor Gabriel Diani (who admits to being a Ghostbusters fanatic) and directed by Emily Lou. Diani stars alongside Janet Varney, Jonathan Klein, Etta Devine, Nancy Lenehan, and Barry Bostwick (as an exorcist) in the story about a real estate agent trying to sell a haunted house. Simon Helberg, who plays Howard on The Big Bang Theory, also makes an appearance.
While The Selling has shown at other festivals, the wins at Friars were a “huge honor” for Diani. “We were sitting in the back [during the screening],” he said, “and we just felt like everyone hated the movie.” So, he and Lou were shocked to win not one, but two awards. As for how Diani felt about the Friars Club Festival in general, he echoed my feelings when he said, “Everyone there was great and a lot of fun to work with.” I’m already looking forward to the 2012 fest.