June 15 2011 12:00 AM

Waterfront: Saugatucks cinematic success story

There are certain ideas that sound like theyre doomed to failure from the very start. For example, holding a film festival in a Michigan resort town that doesnt have a single movie theater.

But that was exactly what Holland/ Saugatuck natives Tod Hopwood DePree, Dori DePree, Dana DePree, Kori Eldean and Judy Smith wanted to do in the summer of 1999 in the city of Saugatuck, a place where, if you wanted to watch a movie, you had to either drive 20 miles to Holland, rent a DVD or subscribe to cable.

Yet that didnt stop the quintet of film fans from launching the weekend-long Waterfront Film Festival in June 1999. They created screening rooms in an American Legion Hall and a yacht storage space. They used the connections theyd made by visiting other film festivals to get filmmakers and actors to come into town for a few days of promoting movies and doing meetand-greets with guests. They joined forces with local businesses.

And — somehow — it worked. In the 12 years since, Waterfront has become a June tradition, not only for lakeshore residents, but for Michigan movie lovers in general. Waterfront has been the place where such films as "March of the Penguins," "Napoleon Dynamite," "Murderball," "Grizzly Man," "Winged Migration," "Man on Wire," "American Splendor," "Eagle vs. Shark" and "Open Water" had their area premieres. Its also become a place where obscure films have a chance to be not only seen, but embraced by audiences. In 2003, "The Story of the Weeping Camel," a National Geographic documentary about life in Mongolia, came into the festival with practically no buzz whatsoever and became one of the weekends hottest tickets; it would end up becoming an Oscar nominee.

Not every film is a classic. "Trophy Kids," which screened last Friday night, was a slick but tedious and confused study of a wealthy Manhattan slacker trying to buy artistic credibility. But "Senna," a documentary about the life and untimely death of Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, the thriller "Leave" and the comic mystery "The Drummond Will" were generating strong word of mouth among festivalgoers.

Many Waterfront attendees seem open to the idea of taking a chance on movies made by people theyve never heard of. As one woman noted, "I never know exactly what Im going to see, but its almost always interesting."

From the start, Waterfront has gone beyond simply showing films to offer panel discussions and seminars in which aspiring actors, screenwriters, directors and producers can get advice from professionals.

You dont need to register for credentials to attend one of these gatherings — you just show up.

That casual atmosphere sets Waterfront apart from many other film festivals. Celebrities dont hide away in VIP rooms or plush hotel suites: They mix and mingle with the same people who come to see their films. You may find yourself sitting on the same shuttle as the guy who starred in the film you just saw, or wind up eating dinner one table away from the producer who was speaking at the industry roundtable you attended earlier that day. That generally wont happen at Sundance or Cannes.

Long before Michigan started offering generous tax credits to filmmakers, Waterfront was showing its support for homegrown movies with special showcases devoted to films made in the state.

Last Saturday, Tod Hopwood DePree stood outside the Sauagtuck Yacht Club, watching hundreds of Waterfront patrons file out of a screening of director Andrew Rossis documentary "Page One: Inside the New York Times," one of the most talkedabout titles on the Waterfront slate.

"Its been a great festival," DePree said.

"Attendance is way up. We added two new venues this year and we didnt really know if we were going to have the people to support them, but weve had showings that were standing room only."

Not bad for a film festival in a town without a single cinema.