The Arc of Apex: How a New Film Festival Gave Low-Budget Filmmakers a Voice

By Kirk Klocke

Before I crossed paths with my emerging director friend’s generic-sounding “Apex,” the term ‘film festival’ made me think of wealthy patrons flying into Aspen, Salt Lake City, and New York donned with diamonds and designer evening gowns, ready to walk down red carpets reserved exclusively for the rich and the well-connected. I pictured Robert De Niro schmoozing the American Express Centurion Card holders around an ornate backstage bar between films.

The idea that such an event could be accessible to a working-class audience and low-budget fledgling film producers seemed grandiose. My new filmmaker friend, whom I met in an abandoned gallery squat on by local creatives, assured me that a grassroots film fest would be a hit. More than that, he was oddly confident that paid submissions would trickle in from all over the world. Being the skeptic and realist I am, I had a hard time believing that. Our little local rag-tag no-budget filmmaking group had a hard enough time finishing any project, much less launching a new event that would require community support, branding, marketing, event space, volunteers, and a cadre of indie filmmakers desperate enough to punch through our $5- to $10-dollar submission paywall.

I reserved judgement, because under my shell of skepticism was an ember of idealism that recent tough life and health circumstances had almost been snuffed out. I needed something meaningful to do, and I needed something to believe in, so I kept participating in the local group as a writer and occasional on-set grip.

A few months after I heard of Avai d’Amico’s idea to launch a local film festival, he invited me to his house to be part of a screening panel. I couldn’t believe it: People – not just local people – were submitting all sorts of short films and music videos. There will be pizza, they told me, funded in part by the submissions. Seriously?? Well, OK, I’d go – because #pizza. OK.

I arrived and my friends were seated on his living room floor in front of a large TV watching the submissions, most of which were beyond awful. By awful, I mean utterly un-watchable, if that’s a word. Would we have a category for *worst* submission? Because that one would be quite competitive.

Guests arrive at the 5th annual Apex Film Festival, held February 23 in Tucson.

Guests arrive at the 5th annual Apex Film Festival, held February 23 in Tucson.

Out of the 100 or so submissions which took multiple pizza-on-the-floor sessions to evaluate and mostly reject, there were a few good ones. People who submit to small and unknown festivals have wide and varied motives, the most common of which is visibility and getting their stuff ‘out there.’

This is when I learned that there are a ton of small local and regional film festivals, and the shotgun approach to them is common and made easy by sites that catalogue them, accept and then distribute the submission fees for a small cut. Low-budget film hustling is big business. And the events generate local and regional economic ripples via their participants’ travel, lodging, food, sponsorship deals, and venue costs.

With hopes high but expectations low, Apex surprised itself the first two years out of the gate, roughly breaking even. Year-one took place in the abandoned gallery that the city of Rochester, MN soon after began to handle as a nuisance property. Thirty or forty people cycled in and out throughout the day. The next year, it was held in a cleaner location – a basement yoga studio next to an expensive prohibition-themed cocktail bar. Many more came that year and local interest in independent, low- or no-budget filmmaking grew.

Then Mr. d’Amico skipped town in favor of the warmer, more progressive city of Tucson, an unassuming and still-affordable melting pot of military contractors, Mexican immigrants operating hundreds of small businesses, students, healthcare workers, and a thriving arts scene – essentially a blue stronghold in a deeply red state, a sort of baby Austin Texas. He sold literally all his stuff (I know this, because I lived with him at the time) and his house and bought a custom tiny home – an RV-like dwelling on wheels fashioned with house-like siding and trim.

Creators discussed the making of their short films.

Creators discussed the making of their short films.

Almost as soon as he hit the ground in Arizona, he found himself among a disjointed mix of creative types interested in filmmaking – some quite sophisticated – but none really unified as a community. So he set out to re-launch Apex in his new city and began to get to know local filmmakers by recruiting them to participate in his first feature length film: a comedy loosely based on his experience up and leaving the snowy Midwest and downsizing to a tiny home in a city with no friends or relatives.

Between the Tucson edition of Apex and his ambitious Tiny House Movie project (to premier in late-2019), he began to rally and organize the local filmmaking community, grooming it with a collective voice that it hadn’t had before.

This year Apex took place at a local indie theater called The Screening Room, an homage to a bygone era of families going to the movies on Main Street, U.S.A. Throughout the day about 100 people cycled in and out, with most staying for most of the five-hour marathon of short films, music videos, and live performances. Attendees were mostly local to Tucson, but a couple came from New Jersey and another person flew in from Washington. I visited from Minnesota.

The evolution of Apex mirrors the greater truth that performance art brings strangers together and from far-away places, kicking the butterfly effect into high gear. If you had asked me what I thought would become of all this that evening we were eating pizza on Mr. d’Amico’s living room floor getting cat hair stuck to our pants, I’d have told you that year would be a flop and be the last year.

I can’t be objective about the topic, because I’m sitting right in the middle of it. So take this as a curious musing from the field, and think about how cool it is that people can rise above material gain as a sole motive in everything and make big, magical things happen just for the sheer love of doing something in real life with real, fellow humans. ♦

Avai d’Amico speaking at Apex’s first event, held at an abandoned gallery in Rochester, MN. (photo submitted by Avai d’Amico)

Avai d’Amico speaking at Apex’s first event, held at an abandoned gallery in Rochester, MN. (photo submitted by Avai d’Amico)