This year, Joshua Butler (’06) expects to screen more than 250 documentary submissions in his Denton home. Out of that pool, about 75 films will gain admittance to the fifth annual Thin Line Film Fest, Texas’ only documentary film festival. Put on by the nonprofit educational organization Texas Filmmakers that Butler co-founded with friends while completing his radio/television/film degree, the festival features submissions from all around the world, from well-known filmmakers and from UNT students.
From Feb. 10-19, films will be shown in the historic Campus Theatre on the Denton square for $8 each. Although the event started out with just a handful of attendees, that number has explosively multiplied in the past five years. Butler and Texas Filmmakers are working harder than ever to provide a unique movie-going experience in Denton.
“When we screen films, rule No. 1 is that they have to be entertaining,” Butler says. “People go out to a movie theater to be entertained. We want to give people a world-class cinematic experience.”
A documentary festival is born
Texas Filmmakers was organized to provide students and media makers with resources such as equipment, grants and loans. In 2004, the group gave itself a goal: create a film festival within three years.
“At first it was like, ‘How come Denton doesn’t have a film festival?’” recalls Butler. “The festival was one of those things that the organization felt needed to happen in this town.”
Dallas-Fort Worth is heavily peppered with film festivals featuring a kaleidoscope of genres. As planning was under way for Denton’s first film festival, Butler was intrigued by a UNT class on cinema vérité taught by Ben Levin, professor in the Department of Radio, Television and Film. The class broke down the documentary genre and examined the influence directors have on their subjects.
“If you’re setting up scenes and interviews and creating a situation to film, is that real?” wondered Butler. “Cinema vérité is that kind of fly-on-the-wall mentality where the subjects don’t know the camera’s there. We’re catching real life, uninfluenced by the camera. But is that even possible?”
There were no documentary festivals in the state, so Texas Filmmakers decided its festival, scheduled that first year in the Campus Theatre for Labor Day weekend, 2007, would feature only documentaries and observe the “thin line” between fact and fiction.
Butler lost $40,000 the first year.
“We had no idea how big we could be or how many people would come or what people wanted,” says Butler. “The first year, we really over-extended ourselves.”
World-class on a shoestring
Now, the event boasts a slew of sponsors, including UNT, Panavision, the Denton Record-Chronicle and many local businesses.
Butler says he and his team try to offer a world-class experience with high-quality equipment on a shoestring of just under $25,000.
“We’re doing so much on so little,” Butler says with a laugh. “It feels like a crapshoot a lot of the time. We’re making a lot of intelligent guesses.”
It’s paying off. The festival has started to attract explosive documentaries. The 2010 festival saw the Texas premiere of Gasland and Oscar-nominated The Most Dangerous Man in America. The 2011 fest featured The Big Uneasy by legendary filmmaker Harry Shearer, who was in attendance.
“But we always try to feature local work and student work,” says Butler. In 2010, a UNT student took home the prize for Audience Choice for Best Short — Crazy Diamond by Hanny Lee.
Submissions can be documentaries or documentaries fused with another style.
“That could be mockumentaries or docu-fiction,” says Butler. “The name Thin Line comes from the idea that documentaries are both fact and fiction, and it’s up to the viewer to determine what is real.”
This year’s festival has expanded from its previous five days of screenings to 10, and Butler says growing the budget and adding films and attendees are steps he knows will eventually pay off.
“We’re slowly making a name for ourselves and building a strong foundation that will, we hope, become a big international festival in the near future. We’re here to stay.”