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Las Vegas Film Festival is where newbie filmmakers can have their moment

I’m in a small, empty, polygonal room that serves as the VIP Lounge for the Las Vegas Film Festival at LVH, the off-Strip hotel formerly known as the Hilton. I’ve dropped in to check the schedule and see what might be going on this last day of the festival, maybe talk with a few filmmakers about their experience. I also want to see if the oppressive July humidity is still reaching into the room as it had the day before, when festival guests Louis Gossett Jr. and Lea Thompson graciously held court for Q&As with a handful of local media and cineastes.

Thompson, sitting next to LVFF Executive Director Milo Kostelecky, had opened the floor for questions to an uncomfortable silence akin to Ben Stein’s class-roll scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She handled it like a pro, cheerfully parleying a few initial dud questions into anecdotes about Clint Eastwood’s directorial methods, memories of @Back to the Future and All the Right Moves, moving to Caroline in the City on television, and her teenaged daughters’ forays into acting. Gossett stopped back in for a hug from her on his way to pick up his Male Indie Icon Award after a screening of An Officer and a Gentleman. Thompson was the Female Indie Icon, and had picked up her award after the screening of opening-night film The Trouble With the Truth.

Gossett (so hard to not bust out his line, “If his tongue moves again, cut it!” from The Deep) and Thompson effortlessly light up whatever rooms they are in. But indie icons? Seemed like a stretch. The block of short films I had just seen weren’t all that impressive, either, sometimes stopping just short of PSAs (aspiring filmmakers: Don’t end your film with statistics about the plight of returning veterans, kids on drugs, etc.). I’m about to head to LVH’s Ballroom F for the Producer’s Panel when a friendly guy who looked like he could be Vin Diesel’s younger, less intimidating brother comes in, smiles and says, “Hi.”

Small talk reveals that this is his first film festival, that he’s having a great time, that he’s from South Florida, that his debut documentary is up for an award. I ask when it screened. He says it didn’t. “I guess they didn’t have enough room for all of the entries.”

Whoa, red flag. He came all the way out here to pick up an award, but no one could see his film at the festival? Yeah, he says, before segueing into the impact that getting into film has made on his life. He was surprised to find himself developing his own method, one that didn’t require a screenplay. His film was a sort of telephone game concept in which one person briefly interviews another before the interviewee gets to ask questions of the next person. He’s a little vague, but passionate, committed … hooked.

He splits before I can get his name, but I see him again at the Producer’s Panel, stepping up to the microphone to ask the assembled experts what the next step for his film is. The more vocal panelists give advice, warn about pitfalls (“work with producers who have their own money”), decry the state’s lack of tax incentives and assistance from the “Las Vegas Film Commission” (Nevada Film Office?). The Downtown Project-backed Silver State Production Services never comes up, and the panel ends before I get the moderator’s attention to ask about it.

Sunday night’s awards ceremony is the best-attended event I observe — the theater is 75-80 percent full, a little more than the Marley screening. (Saturday night’s crowd was sparse, but a bartender told me Friday night had a lot more people.) I see the Florida guy at a distance. He waves before his suit and proud smile disappear into the rows of seats. LVH’s theater actually makes a great, giant screening room and, as the host reverently tells the assembled nominees, we’re in a place where people came to see the King, a place of honor. Have your moment. The winners come in a near-endless parade, but as each aspiring filmmaker — from an 11-year-old whose award is picked up by an adult surrogate to a beaming 77-year-old craft services worker who observed student crews for years before deciding to try her hand at directing — walks to the stage, you can see them having their moment.

My acquaintance from the lounge had found his calling, his passion in life, and wanted more. This was his first time. Just the start.

I split before I can find out whether he wins. It’s better that way.