The annual Rehoboth Beach film festival is set for next month, but interest in cinema — both the consuming and creating of it — is a year-round love affair in coastal Delaware
By Mary Ann Benyo
In the aftermath of World War II, when the country was looking for a good time, Americans often found it at the movies. In Rehoboth Beach during the ’50s and early ’60s, there were three theaters downtown, underscoring how popular films were then. And “they still are,” says Richard Derrickson. He should know: His family has owned the local theaters since the late 1940s, moving and expanding them “to keep up with the times.”
Tiffany Derrickson, Richard’s daughter, represents the third generation of that ownership; she’s vice president of Atlantic Theaters, which operates The Movies at Midway, a 14-screen multiplex showing the latest releases. People may come to the area in summer for the beach, she acknowledges, “but there are times when it’s just too hot or it’s raining. Then we can have a couple thousand people through our doors throughout the day.”
The locals are there year-round. After traffic lessens in the off-season, the manager notes, the seniors come back. And she describes a steady stream of regulars, from teens on weekends and couples on date nights, to families descending on Sunday afternoons. “So, we do pretty well,” Derrickson says.
The reason for such success? “The movie-going experience is still one of the best bangs for your buck,” she answers unequivocally. “It’s great entertainment for all ages.”
Despite the lure of Netflix and Redbox, or the ability to stream or download movies with the click of a few buttons, plenty of people still find something special about going to the movies. “You can have your phone, your iPad, your TV. They’re nice,” Derrickson allows, “but it’s not the same. … There’s nothing like seeing a movie on the big screen, sitting next to strangers, sharing the same laugh, the same gasp at shocking moments, exchanging can-you-believe-that-just-happened looks.”
As thrilling or moving as that experience may be, equally strong passions are involved with the other side of the coin — the process of creating the stories and images that unspool on screen. With the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival set to begin early next month, both moviegoing and moviemaking are in the air. In keeping with that, Delaware Beach Life offers this look at area filmmakers, the increased local interest in cinema, and the outlets that have emerged locally to satisfy that appetite.
Keeping it short but sweet
In the last five years, as recording and editing technology became more sophisticated and yet less costly, a lot more people have been able to follow their cinematic muse. But Rob Waters, a local filmmaker who teaches an advanced course on the topic at Delaware Technical Community College, cautions his students that great tools alone are not enough. The key to crafting a film “is to be able to tell your story in a consistent and strong manner,” he says.
The Lewes resident clarifies the terms typically used when discussing this subject. The word “movie” is usually associated with entertainment, he notes, and is typically applied to full-length features, which run 90 to 120 minutes. “I like to say I make films. … They’re more elastic in terms of time. And more artistic.”
Waters has made about a dozen short films, personal projects ranging from only five minutes to just over a half-hour, along with the advertising work he does for commercial clients through his company, W Films. But even in 30-second television commercials, he says, “there’s always a
story to tell.”
Waters says his recent short film, “Need Change,” is probably the most personal one he’s ever made. With an all-local cast and shot in the Delaware beach area, “Need Change” examines the mix of kindness, sympathy and pity he witnessed while temporarily working a second job delivering pizzas. It was test-screened and well-received, he says, at the Milton Theatre this summer. The next step is to “take it out on the circuit and see how it does” — meaning the independent film festival circuit. “The more festivals [in which your film is shown], the more press and prestige your film gets,” Waters explains. “The ultimate goal is getting your film into one of the big festivals like Toronto, Sundance or Cannes.”
Though feature films get the lion’s share of critics’ and the public’s attention, making one takes “three or four years of your life. It’s all you’re doing,” notes Waters. “But shorts — it’s a few months. That’s it.” He also appreciates the format for the opportunity it provides to experiment with different styles, from drama to comedy with lots of variations in between. Waters has been generally happy with the results but acknowledges there have been failures as well. “You try something. It didn’t quite work, but you learn and move on,” he says philosophically.
He cautions his students that they will get more criticism than positive feedback on their path to becoming successful, and advises them “not to get too discouraged. It’s a really tough market to break into.”
The distribution challenge
Alex Pires elaborates on that point. “It’s a distribution problem,” says the Dewey Beach lawyer and entrepreneur. (He’s the principal partner of Highway One, which owns and operates numerous bars and restaurants in coastal Sussex County, and is also the chairman and CEO of Community Bank Delaware.) “It’s easy to make a film, but if you don’t have a market for it, what good is it?” He describes the challenges he faced with “Mayor Cupcake,” the family-friendly feature he co-wrote and directed using area shooting locations and actors (though the cast also featured Lea Thompson and Judd Nelson). Despite having a distribution plan, Pires was disappointed with the movie’s 2011 release. Though it “did OK in Europe” after being translated into French, German and Italian, in the United States the film “ended up on the traditional second-hand market — Netflix and The Movie Channel, some five or six different cable channels, but it never got distribution [to the theaters].
“So it taught me a lesson: Don’t spend a lot of money unless there’s a place for it to go.” Although he’d prefer not to say how much was spent, he will say that “it wasn’t cheap.”
On his next project, Pires learned the value of time expended. He made a pilot for a reality television show that was considered by MTV, but ended up “in a box somewhere. It never got seen. We” — mostly the same crew and editors that worked on “Mayor Cupcake” — “spent a good year on that.”
Now he’s following a new path. Rather than making a completed film and hoping someone buys the rights to it, Pires is producing shorter films that function as long teasers. These can be shown to pro-spective producers and their distributors with less of an upfront investment of both time and money.
“The movie industry is very, very, very, very difficult,” he asserts. “A lot of my friends in the industry are moving over to TV, or trying to do what I’m doing to figure out how to make just enough of it so [producers] can see where we’re going.” He’s been shopping two of these teasers around, but to no avail thus far.
Despite the frustrations, Pires is undeterred. Drawing on the “three sides” of his professional success — Highway One, banking and the legal careers he and his wife have had — he makes movies “to try to stay in the entertainment world, either to make a product, whether it’s a film or video or reality show, or to sponsor it or produce it or direct it.” And, he adds, “the life over here on this side [in film] is more interesting than on the other three.”
Spreading the joy
Rob Rector’s affection for movies is unaffected by such obstacles. Indeed, it’s a lifelong love affair. When his peers were receiving baseball encyclopedias and sports paraphernalia, 10-year-old Robbie was asking his parents for Leonard Maltin’s “Movie Guide.” Even back then, he says, “I kept a film journal. I had my own ‘star rating’ in it of the films I watched, and had little reviews in a tiny spiral notebook that I kept to myself. … It was wonderful escapism.” His favorites included Godzilla flicks, kung fu movies and the “Star Wars” films.
He laughs as he recalls making little backyard movies with his friends, spinoffs of whatever was popular at the time: “I was always able to tell them I would give them top billing.” The experience “hooked me early on.”
And it never let go. Rector went on to pursue a life that revolves around films and filmmaking. After earning a degree in English with a concentration in journalism at the University of Delaware, the Rehoboth-area resident reviewed films for the Coast Press and the Beachcomber, and has had a weekly column reviewing movies for the Cape Gazette for more than a decade.
He is also chairman of the Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College. Rector teaches a film class and chairs “everything to do with movies and broadcasting,” he says. “I just love it. I love the students here.”
Rector has always been eager to create opportunities for others to share in this passion. One evening in 1997, he and a group of friends were bemoaning the limited film choices available in local theaters and video stores. (This was long before Netflix existed.) “As these conversations grew, we decided that maybe we should try to put a film society out there,” he says.
They soon found that plenty of others shared their interest, and formed a board for the Rehoboth Beach Film Society. A year later, the group launched its first independent film festival, a three-day event. (See “A Film Society’s Supporting Role” on page 82.) All of them knew people “who were in the industry in some way, shape or form… or just knew businesses that would be interested in hosting a screening. It all kind of fell together,” Rector recalls. “It was the right place, the right time, the right people. … It was meant to be.”
Rector remained on the board for 10 years and served in a number of roles: from president to educational outreach to starting a student film group. After becoming a father, he gave up all the nightly meetings to spend time with his family and now, having been honored by the society with a lifetime membership, he says, “I am happy to watch it all take place from the comfort of a theater seat.”
Like the inspiration for the film society, another pivotal moment occurred around Halloween last year. Again, Rector was hanging out with some friends, talking about movies and great movie houses. At some time in the past, each of them — Rob Waters, Erin Tanner and Rector — had been to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas. They marveled at the offbeat/retro venue that hosted “off-the-wall film-themed events” and they decided coastal Delaware should have something like that too.
The threesome proposed a list of events that would be fun and entertaining, such as a program called “Your Roots Are Showing,” which showcased modern cult films and the films they inspired — “Like how “Blade Runner” influenced almost every sci-fi film since its release,” Rector says. They added music, an art exhibit and local food vendors, and pitched the idea to Fred Munzert, executive director of the Premier Centre for the Arts, which operates the Milton Theatre. “He immediately embraced” the concept, dubbed Revival House, which in March became a popular monthly addition to the theater’s schedule.
Clearly, Rector’s passion for cinema hasn’t diminished since his early days, but when asked if his filmmaking impulse continued into adulthood, he answers: “No. I always wanted to help others do that. [Teaching’s] my wheelhouse.”
Mary Ann Benyo, a longtime Delaware resident, is a frequent contributor to Delaware Beach Life.