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Cinetopia International Film Festival expands in metro Detroit

Los Angeles and Detroit are cities bonded by the industries that shaped them.

It’s not a connection most people make, but the film and automobile culture brought the cities and the rest of the country together.

“L.A. and Detroit grew up at the same time,” says Russ Collins, co-director of the Cinetopia International Film Festival. “The thing that started in the movies — communication through media, the field of transportation, and the mechanical and business innovations added to develop the automobile — transformed our lives.”

The relationship is important to Collins because of the potential he thought Detroit had to play host to a film festival. He came up with the idea while serving on the jury for the Cleveland Film Festival.

And Cinetopia was born. The film festival brings the best films from Cannes, South by Southwest, Toronto, Sundance, and Tribeca to Michigan.

Detroit and Ann Arbor will host the festival June 4-8. This year it will feature more than 45 films and 100 screenings of comedies, dramas, and documentaries. Festival attendees will get a chance to go behind the scenes of films with panel discussions and Q&A sessions with actors, directors, and writers, including independent filmmaker John Sayles.

Now in its third year, Cinetopia has expanded to more venues and added a fifth day to accommodate the increase in interest.

Cinetopia received a $50,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge. Other sponsors include AT&T Michigan, Toyota, and Masco Corporation Foundation. “Thanks to some wonderful sponsors we’re able to grow very aggressively,” Collins says.

New venues in Detroit include the College for Creative Studies, Michigan Science Center, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and Cinema Detroit, along with the original location, the Detroit Film Theatre.

Ann Arbor will add the University of Michigan Modern Languages Building and Rooftop Theater to the Michigan Theater and State Theater.

While growing Cinetopia is a main goal, it is still important to maintain easy access for attendees.

“We’re hoping to achieve that walkable campus feeling,” says Amanda Bynum, festival co-manager.

Ann Arbor was the only host city when Cinetopia began in 2012. For its second year, the festival was expanded to Detroit, and the Michigan Theater connected with the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts to achieve this goal.

The Detroit Film Theatre already screens about 50 new films every year, many from the same festivals Cinetopia films come from, says Elliot Wilhelm, Detroit Film Theatre director.

The decision to join the festival was an easy one because of the potential it has. “There’s no question that the film festival puts the kind of excitement into moviegoing that regular, weekly moviegoing, as wonderful as it is, just can’t duplicate,” Wilhelm says.

Cinetopia will add a new “Cinema Circus” this year, with free outdoor screenings at night. It will kick off a few weeks before the festival. Music, fire-eaters, and jugglers will serve as entertainment. Films will be shown at Eastern Market, the Ford Resource and Engagement Center, and New Center Park.

As important as bringing films from around the world is to the festival, it’s also essential to shine a light on local talent. The Detroit Voices filmmaking competition gives metro Detroiters an opportunity to tell their own stories about Detroit by shooting their own short films. One winner will be selected from an adult group and another from a group of contestants 18 and younger.

Winners will receive a cash prize as well as having their film screened at Cinetopia.

Sultan Sharrief, a Detroit filmmaker who recently moved back from Los Angeles, was involved in the development of the program.

He says it’s a way for students and adults “to make films to really showcase what they experience around the city.”

Collins says that the future of Cinetopia is bright because of passionate people. “There’s a lot of talent in our community, and it’s just a matter of tapping it, directing it, and making it work.”