Cultivating Boise’s Film Culture

May 2, 2018

By: Mike Culton

Strip away celebrity, multi-million dollar budgets, and armies of visual effects artists from a film production and what’s left is a team of committed individuals creating a compelling visual story. Far from the red carpeted debuts of Hollywood but with a firm grasp of the fundamentals, a handful of scrappy auteurs in the Treasure Valley are making their own movie magic. Backed by a community of dedicated supporters, they build the future of Boise’s film industry one screening at a time.

One such cinematic event took place on a Tuesday night in February. Squeezed into a darkened community television studio lined with lights, cameras, and artificial foliage, forty of Brandon Freeman’s peers watched his latest micro-budget, short film “I’m Fine.” Without a word of dialogue, the story conveys a woman’s inability to open up and share her personal struggles at a prayer group meeting. “It shows the secret pain we carry,” conveyed Randy Fowler during a post-viewing discussion. Several members of the audience nodded in agreement, shared their interpretations, and personal experiences.

If a director’s goal is to create a cathartic experience for his audience, Freeman accomplished it that night. “Film is a visual medium. We need to get to the emotion and show where someone is at [in their life],” Freeman concluded.

Finding and Supporting Each Other

Seth Randal, founder of the Boise Cutters, offers a forum for Brandon and other creative professionals to showcase their work, share tricks of the trade, and discuss all things film and digital media. “Networking is important. These meetings are helping to build a community,” Randal observed. He estimated that 30 to 40 people attend the monthly meetings and more than double attend their larger events. Randal assessed, “community buy-in is essential and [films] should be substantive for a wide group of people.”

“Idaho independent filmmakers need to unite and work together to make high quality content,” echoed John Wee, founder of the Idaho Indie Filmmakers (IIF). Like Randal, Wee hosts monthly meetings for his fellow visual artists to collaborate and develop their skillsets. “There is so much local talent here and they are already doing stellar work [locally] and at the national level,” Wee observed. He estimates that there are over 1,500 members participating in the group’s social media community, ranging from indie film buffs to studio-seasoned Hollywood ex-pats.

Gauging the local film industry’s scope and scale presents a challenge. Currently, the filmmaking community consists of about five to six groups that hold regular meetings, which includes the Boise Cutters. An additional five Facebook and MeetUp groups keep local indie types connected. Tangentially, a smattering of forums for writers and actors are dedicated to fine-tuning their crafts. Outside of these circles, dozens of independent film crews and commercially-focused production companies autonomously ply their trade and build their client bases.

Idaho’s Film Office attempts to quantify the industry’s footprint in a yearly report. Tourism Specialist, Amy Rajkovich, who, for all intents and purposes, is Idaho’s Film Office, compiles financial data supplied voluntarily from both in-state and out-of-state productions. Although it doesn’t paint a complete picture, in 2016 alone, productions spent over $5.7 million in the Gem State, which represents a five-fold increase from 2014. No small potatoes.

Despite the industry’s progress, financing remains a palpable concern. Rajkovich’s reports lead with a disclaimer highlighting the lack of funding for a state-sponsored incentive program. The defunct legislation, which remains on the books until 2020, offered $1 million in rebates for qualified film projects that staffed at least 20 percent Idahoans. Without public funding, major productions in more established markets tend to have corporate sponsorship but that option is elusive for locally-made projects.

Finding Their Audience

Nonprofit organizations have stepped up in recent years to provide resources and venues for local filmmakers while doing their part to bolster a vibrant community.

“We’re like individual flowers reaching towards the sun. We just need water to grow,” analogized Melinda Quick, the Executive Director of the Boise Film Festival (BFF). With her mind already on spring, she is optimistic about ongoing initiatives to bring Boise’s creative professionals together and ensure that their work finds its way onto a screen. The BFF is working on ways to lessen resource burdens by developing sponsorship opportunities with local businesses and exploring the viability of cooperative arrangements.

Quick admits that financing is a significant hurdle but, like her filmmaking colleagues, she emphasizes the importance of community building. Having experienced film industry culture in both New York and Los Angeles, she recounts that it’s usually every man and woman for themselves. Boise is different. Few would give a second thought to offering a helping hand or lending a mic stand. Cheerfully and cleverly representing that uncommon Boise spirit, Quick added, “we want to be everyone’s BFF.”

Over 350 of her BFFs are expected to take over several venues downtown, including the JUMP building and Flicks Theatre, in September for the annual festival. Despite opening night being months away, Quick reports that they have already received 50 submissions including their first Virtual Reality movie.

Quick is hopeful but she puzzles over, “how do we build an audience outside of the filmmaking community, how do we fill seats, how can we get the Edwards crowd?” She is referring to the chain of multiplex theaters. Convincing the “Black Panther” moviegoer to screen a made-in-Idaho production is no easy feat. If funding is the water needed to grow a budding film industry, organizations like the BFF provide fertile soil by showcasing accessible films while mounting a sustained outreach campaign. Every public screening encourages Boise’s film industry to firmly root itself as a cultural institution.

As Quick searches for festival sponsors, Randal and Wee solicit speakers for next month’s meetings, and Rajkovich puts the finishing touches on her 2017 report, Freeman assembles three actors and a writer at a small recording studio called the Wormhole. They are doing the first table reading for a short buddy comedy, “Starving Dogs.” The 10-minute scene presents four single dudes squabbling over their plans for a night out on the town. The first read is a bit rough; actors flub and trip over each other’s lines. After the third reading and a few lively feedback sessions, the characters and scene dynamics finally start to click. The collaborative process transforms the work in ways the writer hadn’t conceived. Another story is brought to life as the nascent production finds its voice.