With a firm grounding in reality, three local filmmakers shoot for success. 

Eyes Wide Open

Despite the phenomenal — and much-reported — success of "The Blair Witch Project's" co-creators, most independent filmmakers spend their lives struggling with anonymity and shoestring budgets. Screenings of their work, if they're screened at all, are relegated to the odd film festival, museum exhibition or a small but dedicated film community in the filmmaker's hometown.

Sadly, America's mainstream moviegoer has a mind-set that embraces little other than Hollywood-produced, Hollywood-controlled fare. So choosing to make movies outside the recognized system is to go it alone.

In an industry where to succeed is to sell, the independent filmmaker rarely achieves success. Artistic success? Yes. Creative success? Most definitely. Financial success? Not often.

Consequently, it is not a career path for the faint of heart or the easily discouraged. But for those rare individuals who think in pictures, it is less a choice than a need.

Mark Ching, Luke Fannin and Jonathan Jones are just three of many talented, committed filmmakers in Richmond. They've made it through the initial rush of a well-received student film. They've mastered the short subject. Now, they're taking a giant leap of faith and commitment, and making feature-length films.

For Ching, whose first feature "Beyond Expectations" premiered in June 1998 at the American Independent Film Festival in San Antonio and snagged a Filmmaking Excellence Award, that leap of faith extends to leaving Richmond for Los Angeles. But the 30-year-old Ching hasn't gone Hollywood per se, he's still committed to independent films.

"I thought long and hard about this move," says Ching from his and his wife's new apartment in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "But this is where the people are who fund independent films. I don't want to sound pretentious, but my main interest is still exploring film as an art form."

Ching, who readily admits he's still paying off debt from "Beyond Expectations," says he's in it for the long haul. "I wouldn't be out here if I didn't think I could make it. I mean I'm ready to spend five or six years working at it." Ching points to David Williams, perhaps Richmond's most "established" independent filmmaker, as an inspiration.

Ching's admiration for Williams comes from watching him work. While Ching was developing "Beyond Expectations," he worked on "Thirteen." In return, Williams lent Ching his camera and served as director of photography on "Beyond Expectations."

"Let me be really, really blunt," says Ching, "For so many people, making a movie looks like fun. And it is for the first two or three weeks. But what makes you a filmmaker is finishing a project and putting it on the circuit. You have no idea how many people I met who were in the midst of making a film, and then I never heard from them again. Filmmaking isn't just about telling a story, it's also about growing."

Although Ching has another screenplay in development, he's concentrating on the business side of his new venture, making connections and getting copies of "Beyond Expectations" into the hands of the right people.

On the other side of the coin is Luke Fannin. Don't make the mistake of suggesting his wonderfully offbeat short "Puberty: Benji's Special Time" must be a terrific calling card.

"I disagree with that whole concept," says 27-year-old Fannin. "I make films because I like telling stories, not to have something to show what I can do. I want people to watch my movies and have fun."

And when it comes to "Benji's Special Time," film fest audiences have been doing a lot of that. A big winner on the independent film circuit, "Benji" has racked up wins at such prestigious competitions as Philadelphia's Reject Festival (Best of Fest Award); D.C.'s Rosebud Film and Video Awards (Rosebud Award), and less than a month ago it took the Audience Choice Award at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival.

"Benji's Special Time" is a painfully funny look at the hard truths and misconceptions about male puberty, shot in the grainy, black-and-white style and tone of those '50s government health and educational reels.

"I tried to do too much in my first short," Fannin says. "I threw in all my grandiose ideas and consequently it didn't work. I didn't have the money or equipment for what I wanted to do. So with 'Benji,' I thought, OK let's make a movie that's supposed to look like shit. I had no idea it would get such a response. I mean it's my meal ticket."

What did he learn from the experience? "You need to make a smart movie before you make a good movie."

Even though "Benji's Special Time" is still actively sought for festival screenings (Japan is its next port of call), and several companies are pursuing him, Fannin is deeply immersed in his first feature, titled "Fernando."

Shot locally, primarily at his alma mater, Randolph-Macon College, "Fernando" sounds like "El Mariachi" meets "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" by way of "Mr. Holland's Opus."

Fannin sees no problem with some films being commercial blockbusters and others being quiet, provocative art films. "Hey," he says, "sometimes you're more in the mood for 'Red Sonja' than 'Red Sorghum.'"

Seconding that emotion is Jonathan Jones. This Richmond native has wanted to do nothing else but make movies since he was 14. And once he made that decision, he set out to make it happen. His single-mindedness of purpose is awe-inspiring.

"You just have to do it," he says. "Making anything happen is all in you."

Jones, son of Richmond entrepreneur Millie Jones of Festival Flags, credits his mentor/mom with his uncanny ability to network and schmooze.

That business savvy has helped him rise within the production ranks. Jones started out doing location work, working and learning from another star in the Richmond film community, Charlie Baxter.

"Charlie taught me that you can't want to do this as just a job," says Jones. "You've got to love it. And you have to know what you're doing," adds Jones, which is why he started taking any job on a movie he could find. From the location work he graduated to production assistant, working on movies being made in the state and in New York, and then finally to assistant director. Along the way, he studied at The New York Film Academy.

Now he's back in Richmond finishing up his first short. A suspense film titled "Neurotic Navels," the short, in typical Jones fashion, is more than it appears. It's really being made to help promote the upcoming feature film he plans to direct, "Romeo is Dead."

"It's 'Rent' on screen," he explains, "showing people who are struggling with life. That's the kind of movies I want to make. Ones with stories and characters you can relate to in real-life situations. I want to show the struggle, and then show why there's reason for hope. I want to show the 'for real' story."

Jones is 23. For real.

Your Own Private Film Fest

If you missed the Palm Springs Film Fest or last year's edition of the James River Festival of the Moving Image, do not despair. Thanks to the folks at Video Fan on Strawberry Street, copies of both Mark Ching's "Beyond Expectations" and Luke Fannin's "Benji's Special Time" are available for rental. Better still — they're free. The downside to this largess? There are limited copies available so you might want to call Video Fan at 353-7891 before you plan you own private film fest.

Indie Richmond

If you would like to check out the city's independent film scene, the best place to start is Flicker. The bimonthly film festival features short films (under 15 minutes) shot by area filmmakers and meets at Cafine's, 401 E. Grace St. The next meeting is set for Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. The program is titled "Attack of the 50-Ft. Reels" and will include 25 in-camera edited Super 8 films. For more information call James Parrish at 644-4084 or log onto www.flicker.org

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