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Moviegoers win with dueling festivals

Two African American film festivals are about to open two weeks apart.

Both will show between a dozen and 15 films, selected personally by the promoters.

Both will run three days and offer social events, panels and screenings of films that primarily feature black directors or actors. Both are making their debuts this year and have collected a fistful of corporate sponsors and local backers.

And both promoters, who wish each other well with the formal cordiality of heavyweight boxers at a weigh-in, say they think the city is big enough for everybody – especially when their events take place at opposite ends of it.

The Charlotte African-American Film Festival (www.runandshootfilmworks .com) runs Thursday through Saturday. It comes to us from Floyd Rance III and Stephanie Tavares-Rance, who've just finished running the sixth annual Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival in Massachusetts. They'll be centered at suburban Ballantyne Village, though Saturday's early segments will be held uptown at ImaginOn.

The Charlotte Reel Soul Film Festival (www.reelsoul will run Oct. 2-4. It's the brainchild of Dennis Darrell, who's promoted films here and around the Southeast for six years. It'll take place entirely uptown, at Spirit Square.

So what are the differences?

The Rances' festival has bigger names: The capstone film is “The Express,” a Universal Pictures biography of football great Ernie Davis with Rob Brown and Dennis Quaid. Janice Burgess, creator of the “The Backyardigans” for the Nickelodeon network, will preview two episodes of her show.

Darrell's fest focuses more on smaller independent films, such as “A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy.” He'll show “Jury of Our Peers,” a movie about friends who take the law into their own hands; it was shot around Charlotte and produced by former Charlottean Ryan Walker, executive director of Urban Film Alliance.

“Martha's Vineyard became a good mix of established films and new films,” says Stephanie Tavares-Rance. “Our festival isn't a celebrity gawkfest; the vibe there is relaxed and cool. We had (producer-director) Reginald Hudlin come to the brunch and talk to people.

“For this first festival in Charlotte, we knew what we wanted to show. We had a back catalog, so we thought we'd use some of the best of the last few years. In the future, we plan to open up to submissions, and filmmakers can submit to both (of our events).”

Darrell plans to keep his fest open by invitation. “Part of the money to run a festival comes from (submission fees),” he says. “But I was looking at some entries that were atrocious and knew there was no way they'd get into the festival, and I had to refund that money.

“I'd seen what was on the black festival circuit. I thought, ‘Just let me grab movies I think are good.' Ultimately, I know what my audience would like.”

Both he and the Rances will bring in filmmakers for their audiences to meet. Darrell has producer-director Doug McHenry on tap for Tanqueray Lounge, a meeting room that will be built in Spirit Square's Middleton McMillian Gallery.

Where the Rances offer two festival platforms and hope to connect filmmakers with distributors, Darrell has a natural circuit for his new product: His Reel Soul Cinema travels to seven Southern cities and will extend to Washington this fall, giving a limited theatrical release to small titles.

Why not collaborate?

At this point, you may be wondering why these three aren't collaborating. They met briefly when the Rances came to the area three years ago but decided not to be partners.

Both the Rances and Darrell spoke occasionally about starting a festival. Plans began to solidify after the Rances addressed the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America in January, saying they'd set October 2008 as their target date. Fifteen days later, Darrell announced his dates for Reel Soul as Oct. 2-4. Eighteen days later, the Rances set Sept. 18-20 as their dates.

The Rances arrived with sponsors from their Martha's Vineyard festival – HBO, Universal, The Hollywood Reporter and others – and have added Wachovia locally and partnered with the Urban League of Central Carolinas, which is hosting a Town Hall forum.

Darrell collected sponsorships from Tanqueray Gin, Blockbuster, Center City Partners and The Light Factory, among others, and thanks Tom Gabbard (president and CEO of Blumenthal Center for the Performing Arts) for letting him take over Spirit Square.

Though both sides have solid beginnings, both say conditions could change in 2009.

“A new venue is a learning experience,” says Floyd Rance. “Martha's Vineyard is a vacation place, where people have free time all day. Charlotte is a working city; audiences may not be around during the day, so we're having events at night.

“It's not just ‘insert city here.' The logistics and planning and sponsorship are cake to us, but now we're finding out what things Charlotte likes. Even the dates could change next year.”

Darrell, meanwhile, faces the chance that Spirit Square – “the best place in town for one-stop shopping for a film festival” – could be gone next autumn, if developers take it over.

“It would be hard to find another place downtown like that one,” he observes. “But I'm not worrying about that now. I'm just going to have some fun and exhale when this is all over.”