Christopher Coppola Wants You

Robert Avila December 6, 2007

Somewhere between iPhone and YouTube there’s a wee festival known as miniPAH. A more slender version of PAH-FEST, the touring weeklong digital film festival founded a year and a half ago by filmmaker Christopher Coppola, “miniPAH: San Francisco” happens this weekend at Coppola’s alma mater, San Francisco Art Institute, ahead of a full-fledged Bay Area PAH sometime next year.

In keeping with this fest’s unusually autonomous, community-centered, and spontaneous design, the participating filmmakers are truly unknowns: even they don’t necessarily know they’re participating yet. And as for their films, they’re not even at the idea stage. But over the course of six hours this Friday, and with only minor technical assistance from the professionals on hand, an exhibition of new work by members of the general public — using their own (or specially rented) video-enabled cell phones — will be created and put online to be voted on by a panel of celebrity judges and anyone else who cares to weigh in. The films, each no more than a minute in length and crafted to a single theme announced at the outset on Friday, screen together the following day at SFAI. One lucky participant goes home with a 500 cash prize, but that’s about as hierarchical as this festival gets.

That’s because PAH (or Project Accessible Hollywood) means to emphasize the “we” in the ancient and universal impulse toward storytelling, as well as digital media’s unprecedented power to channel our stories around, as it were, the global cyber campfire. Hence, admission to the festival is free and open to all.

While other film festivals have acted as forums for emerging filmmakers, by incorporating similar programs and contests either as a central component or sidebar, the emphasis normally falls on working or would-be professionals and industry processes and standards. PAH’s amateur, art brut emphasis stands out as fundamentally different.

“It’s really more about the creative process than product,” Coppola explained by phone from Los Angeles, “so nothing exists until people come together, the stuff is created, and then it is shown.” Moreover, PAH places a premium on community, communication for its own sake, and making connections across differing backgrounds. As he puts it, “It’s the beauty of all these PAH fests, or mini-PAH fests, that people from different walks of life, who never met each other before, came together in a focused time frame, and we created this stuff together. And it didn’t exist before. That’s the magic of it.”

So drastic a departure from an industry-oriented approach may seem surprising coming from a member of so storied a filmmaking family (Christopher is nephew to Francis Ford Coppola and brother to Nicholas Cage). Then again, there’s always been a maverick aspect to the Coppola clan. Since graduating with a film degree from SFAI in 1987, Christopher (who started out as a music composer under early tutelage of grandfather Carmine), has himself cut an individual path through Hollywood, not only with his independent films but with his production company EARS XXI: A New Media Studio, which develops content for new platforms and distribution models made possible by the digital revolution.

But it was an experience he had while working with the Albuquerque-based Flicks on 66, a digital festival designed to create new work by emerging filmmakers, that led him to conceive of a radically open festival that would be about storytelling and the creative process first. “[Flicks on 66 was] kind of like PAH, except they had to write a screenplay, and it had to be approved, and you were given notes. It was still the Hollywood method of making movies. I’m interested in seeing what the plumber has to say — a plumber that doesn’t really want to be a filmmaker, but just would like to tell a story.” In this context, Coppola found himself coaching a former construction worker who had miraculously survived electrocution, a man without any previous filmmaking aspirations.

“Because of the accident he lived in his basement,” recalls Coppola. “He was like a Frankenstein — he’s a large man and everybody was afraid of him. But he started listening to my vlog, talking about creativity and art, and he sent this poem in. I wasn’t the judge in that category but he got picked. His son flew him out to New Mexico and I worked with him to tell his story about how it happened. It was a very great experience for him, as well as eye opening to me. I just felt, man, this changed this guy’s life! We should do this for everybody! Something about the healing process in the creative process in art — and the fact that digital is so accessible — you know, we can do this all over the world. That’s kind of how it started. I really saw a light go off in this guy and it wasn’t about anything but the fact that he got to tap into the creative process. And it wasn’t exclusive; it was inclusive. And he felt like a star. That’s why I say Project ‘Accessible’ Hollywood. It was like, you know, let some of that shine on everybody.”

As this anecdote suggests, the empowering aspect of PAH’s approach has as much to do with face-to-face contact as the virtual communities opened up by online social networks. “It is both an online festival and a community festival. I always say that if MySpace was a country it’d be the sixth largest continent in the world. But people hide behind it. With PAH we go into the community, we do stuff, we deal with people. Then we put it up online and people see it and vote on it. Then maybe some connection happens with somebody in Slovenia who’s a fisherman and sees a cell phone art piece from a cab driver in San Francisco, and they make a connection — a real world connection by using the online world. That’s kind of my whole concept, how to blend those two.”

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