Alabama Theatre
Bill Snow/Special to The Star

When Huntsville director Ben Stark finished the final cut of his movie "Dead Saturday," in March, there was no question which film festival he would go for first.

He and producer Jeremy Burgess submitted the work — a nine-minute thriller starring Eric Roberts — as early as possible to Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival, now in its 17th year.

They knew it would be a long shot; event organizers received about 1,300 submissions for Sidewalk17. But, Stark said, "We just wanted to be part of that community."

"Dead Saturday" will be one of around 200 films presented at this year’s Sidewalk, which opens Friday and runs through Aug. 30. About 10,000 people from around the world will come to downtown Birmingham for the event, put on every year by the nonprofit Alabama Moving Picture Association.

The historic Alabama Theatre serves as the festival’s centerpiece, but organizers will host screenings throughout Birmingham’s historic theater district, including at the Carver Theater and venues at the Alabama School of Fine Arts.

Those 10,000 attendants will eat dishes from local food trucks; they’ll snap photos of the Alabama Theatre’s soaring, gilded ceiling; they’ll pump around $1 million into the local economy.

The best part, said Sidewalk board president Michele Forman, is that filmmakers will go back to places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles to tell their friends about Birmingham and independent films in Alabama.

"It certainly has had an impact on Birmingham’s image, regionally, nationally and internationally," said Atticus Rominger, a spokesman for REV Birmingham, a nonprofit economic development group.

Rominger said his group is grateful that Sidewalk organizers have recognized their role in revitalizing the downtown area. The festival often serves as a showcase for up-and-coming businesses that set up booths or temporary stores for the event. Previous businesses at Sidewalk have included Magic City Sweet Ice and the design and print studio Yellowhammer Creative.

Sidewalk has been named one of Time magazine’s "Film Festivals for the Rest of Us." It also made USA Today’s "Top Ten Places for a Fabulous Film Festival."

Two films from last year’s Sidewalk — "An Honest Liar" (a documentary about psychic-buster James "The Amazing" Randi) and "The Search for General Tso" (a documentary about Chinese food in America) — were available this month on Netflix.

This year’s festival will include a screening of the documentary "Wolfpack," the grand jury prize winner for the Sundance Film Festival.

Forman, who has been a part of Sidewalk since the festival began in 1999, said it’s often hard to believe all that’s been accomplished in 17 years — especially considering it all started over burgers at a pub in downtown Birmingham.

The opening scene

Forman said Sidewalk began as a vision shared among Erik Jambor and Wayne and Kelli Franklin, all of whom were involved in video production in Birmingham. Pretty soon, they got in touch with Alan Hunter, one of MTV’s first VJs and the owner of Workplay Theater in Birmingham.

"They had a vision for this city," she said.

Soon they would bring in Forman, who was an associate producer for Spike Lee and who worked on "Four Little Girls," a documentary about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.

Forman returned to Birmingham in the late 1990s to help UAB establish a documentary film program. She’s been working full-time at UAB since 2003 and is now the director of the media studies program.

Though the Alabama Theatre was part of Sidewalk from the beginning, Forman said organizers had to use empty storefronts to screen some of the films at the inaugural event.

Ben Flanagan, the entertainment managing editor for al.com, attended the first Sidewalk at age 14. Flanagan and Stark are both involved with FilmNerds.com, which describes its podcast and articles as "casual, low-fi movie conversations with serious, high-quality movie connoisseurs."

Flanagan recalls one film in particular from that first year: "Dill Scallion," a mockumentary often described as the country "Spinal Tap."

"It felt so fresh and funny to me, and it felt like it was such a great opportunity because I was in a room full of people who loved film as much as I did," he said.

During the early years of Sidewalk, Jambor chose the films. Forman said he had an astounding gift for predicting what would be successful with Birmingham crowds.

For the last eight years, however, Rachel Morgan has filled the role of programmer. According to Forman, she’s helped by audience members who volunteer to watch more than 40 hours of movies to narrow the list from the more than 1,000 submissions.

Sidewalk employs only two full-time staff members. The festival happens each year because 500 movie lovers volunteer to take tickets, run projectors and corral audiences. Morgan is technically part-time — something Forman laughed at because Morgan spends most of the year traveling the country scouting movies.

Forman said that in the early days of Sidewalk, the organizers were more like ambassadors for independent film in Alabama.

She said they would travel to film festivals like SXSW in Texas and Sundance in Utah, working the room, convincing filmmakers to come to Birmingham.

"And now … to me, it’s very hard to believe," she said.

Stark, the Huntsville filmmaker, has had two movies shown at Sidewalk. He said standing in the back, watching an audience react to his film, is a surreal experience.

"Every time you watch your movie with another audience, it’s like my relationship with that movie changes," he said.

Most of all, Stark said he enjoys talking about a movie afterward. "The conversation about the movie afterwards is as important as the movie itself," he said.

Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3560. On Twitter: @DGaddy_Star.

Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @DGaddy_Star.

I'm the assistant metro editor for The Anniston Star. I edit, post online stories and write the occasional story.