Independent filmmaking thriving in Wichita

Cinematographer Jason Opat, left, explains a scene to actress Micky Maddux during filming of “Midnight Shanghai” at Cowtown in April.
Cinematographer Jason Opat, left, explains a scene to actress Micky Maddux during filming of “Midnight Shanghai” at Cowtown in April. File photo

If there’s one event that crystallizes just how far filmmaking in Wichita has come in recent years, it’s Down to the Wire.

The event, put on by the Tallgrass Film Association and CreativeRush every year since 2012, is a 24-hour film race, where teams of local filmmakers create short films in that time span, competing to win a grand prize.

Last year, 34 teams competed, with about 290 people participating on those teams.

Down to the Wire encompasses every aspect of filmmaking – acting, writing, producing, filming, editing and more. So as the quality of Down to the Wire entries increases, it’s indicative of the quality of Wichita film in general.

“I’ve been thrilled to see how much the community has grown,” said Lela Meadow-Conner, creative director at Tallgrass Film Association.

“I feel like there’s a much greater pride of place here now. … The Wichita filmmaking community is really proud to be here and to be working here.”

Independent filmmaking is burgeoning in Wichita, filmmakers say, because the equipment to produce films is attainable financially, organizations like Tallgrass are bringing independent film to the mainstream, and the local filmmaking community is collaborative and innovative when faced with a lack of funding.

“Wichita now has infrastructure for its educational institutions and professional companies to utilize the talent,” said Jason Opat, a local filmmaker. “Hopefully that talent will stay here and continue working here, because there is a demand.”

Then and now

Films have been made in Wichita for decades – remember “King Kung Fu,” from 1976? – but in decades past, producing a movie was extremely cost-prohibitive.

Equipment was expensive, editing was similarly laborious, and then finding an outlet for screening a film was difficult.

Now, films are shot on anything from expensive studio cameras to iPhones.

“It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes now,” said Jake Fisher, a local cinematographer. “You think, 20 years ago, if you were going to buy any camera that was even going to come close to prosumer grade, you’re talking tens of thousands of dollars, easily. All that has led to where it’s a lot easier to make films on a much lower-end scale, and they look a lot better too.”

This renaissance in independent filmmaking has allowed unique stories to be told, filmmakers say.

“The DSLR Revolution” is a term for the last decade or so, wherein shooting films on DSLRs and similar lower-cost cameras has become cheaper and easier.

“Hollywood is running out of original ideas, and the market’s shifting toward Netflix picking up good original content that wouldn’t have been picked up otherwise,” said local filmmaker Naythan Smith. “We have this middle class of cinema that’s happening right around the time we’re getting that democratization of tools.

“People are recognizing there’s great content outside of what Hollywood is producing. I think there’s a larger audience for independent cinema in that sense.”


But what does that mean for Wichita?

The city – and state – offers unique topography for cinematographers, and it’s also advantageous from a paperwork perspective.

In Kansas, filmmakers don’t need permits to shoot in public spaces, and filmmakers say local businesses are often willing to collaborate with filmmakers.

“With the lack of needing a film permit and kind of the desert of funding, it does create an interesting creative opportunity for us to kind of do things that are outside of the box, because once you attach money to something like that, it does limit what you can do creatively,” Smith said. “I think that it’s unfortunate from a financial aspect, but from a creative aspect, we are in a great spot.”

I think that it’s unfortunate from a financial aspect, but from a creative aspect, we are in a great spot.

Naythan Smith, local filmmaker

Where’s the money?

There is little to no money in purely independent Wichita filmmaking – most hobbyist filmmakers pay for their passion projects out of pocket, filming on weekends and working around work schedules.

But in Wichita, there are also people like Opat and his production company, IMG. Opat, who moved back to his hometown in 1993 after working in the film industries in Los Angeles and Seattle, still works with major Los Angeles film companies – but from Wichita.

IMG produces 3-D models and other production work for major Hollywood studios and commercial sets.

And Opat, who occasionally makes films of his own, has witnessed the steady rise of Wichita filmmaking over the past decade or so.

“Wichita wasn’t always noticed for filmmaking as much as Lawrence, because they had a filmmaking school, and Kansas City, because of their market size,” said Opat, who also works at Wichita’s Mindfire Academy. “Wichita has now really become competitive in that space. I’m seeing films going to Sundance (Film Festival) from here. I’m seeing feature films being made. It definitely has exploded, and the work and quality of the films is really good. … They’re getting picked up; they’re going to Netflix.”

Fisher, a cinematographer who by day works for Sullivan Higdon & Sink, said many Wichita filmmakers make nothing from their movies. Many are funded through Kickstarter campaigns and other online fundraisers.

“I don’t know how feasible it would be to shoot feature-length films here and make money,” said Fisher, who won first place at last year’s Down to the Wire. “I wouldn’t even know where to start. We don’t have just a bunch of producers around here trying to make money. … If I could change something in this market, it would be the ability of people to actually make money making films.”

How Tallgrass fits in

The Tallgrass Film Festival was founded in 2003, the brainchild of Timothy Gruver.

The idea of Tallgrass – that scrappy, independent passion project – blossoming into a year-round full-time job for multiple people 14 years later was unthought of, say longtime Tallgrass employees like Meadow-Conner.

Over the years, Tallgrass has served as a place where Wichita’s myriad filmmakers can come together, meet and enjoy independent film together.

Its reputation has grown over the years as well, attracting celebrities like Heather Morris to its screenings and often making Moviemaker Magazine’s list of “film festivals worth the entry fee.” A new film festival sprung up a few years ago in Mulvane, as well – the Doc Sunback Film Festival, which is increasing in popularity.

The advent of YouTube and Vimeo has created a plethora of distribution opportunities online, but nothing quite compares to in-person screenings on a big screen, filmmakers say.

“Anytime a film company’s going to film something, they don’t want to just keep it for themselves – you want to share it and have an effect on people,” said Ginger Bynorth, a Wichita filmmaker who also runs the Film Wichita organization. “All these avenues we have help make that snowball effect larger and larger, because people are able to show their work. People still love independent film.”

The success of Tallgrass is indicative of the strength of Wichita’s filmmaking scene in general, Tallgrass officials say.

Many Tallgrass films end up on Netflix or other streaming services now, according to Tallgrass officials.

And that strength is perhaps best measured by the youngest members of the scene – the ones coming of age in it.

In recent years, Tallgrass has poured a lot of its efforts into young filmmaker education programs, according to Meadow-Conner.

“The education has become really important to us in fostering the local filmmaking community, and not just young people,” Meadow-Conner said. “Young people, we definitely want to support them to give them a platform to jump off into the world, but also amateur filmmakers, people like Ginger (Bynorth).

“What’s great about things like Down to the Wire is you see a young filmmaker become Facebook friends with a seasoned filmmaker and that seasoned filmmaker then supports that young one’s Kickstarter campaign. People are really rooting for each other.”

Opat said programs at Butler Community College, Wichita State University and Bethany College at Mindfire are producing high-quality filmmakers, animators, video game designers and other relevant positions that could be a further boon to Wichita’s filmmaking scene.

“Those programs are all growing, and it’s indicative of the market, the demand and of a generation that’s understanding content creation,” he said.

Where do we go from here?

Networking is no longer the challenge – local filmmaking groups like Wichita’s Independent Film Professionals and Female Filmmakers of Wichita meet regularly.

Chris Robertson, who leads monthly filmmaker meet-ups at Peerless, is even organizing a test run for Down to the Wire later this spring – a first.

One of the biggest challenges local filmmakers face is finding exposure for their work outside the once-a-year film festivals. Visual artists have Final Friday, musicians have gigs, but it can sometimes be an effort for filmmakers to host screenings.

And in the modern era, where the average person’s attention span is miniscule, watching anything from a five-minute short to a feature-length film from a local filmmaker they may or may not have heard of is a significant time investment.

“People who are already involved in the filmmaking community are involved, we’re all very active, and there’s a good amount of people that are pushing that forward,” Fisher said. “If you go outside of that group, people are like, ‘What? There’s a film festival? There’s a film race? What’s that?’… This is a really cool thing that Wichita has that a lot of people don’t know about, and I don’t know why that is.”

So what can be done?

Does Wichita need more events like Tallgrass or Doc Sunback, that turn watching movies by independent filmmakers into social events?

Or is it more complicated than that?

Whatever it is, there’s reason to hope in the future of Wichita’s filmmaking scene, its members say.

“Back in the ’90s, Kevin Smith was making films for shoestring budgets, doing things nobody was doing … and Kevin Smith put New Jersey on the map,” Naythan Smith said. “It’s entirely feasible that we have a Wichita filmmaker that makes this amazing film for next to no budget that puts us on the map. There’s no reason why that couldn’t happen. It’s more and more likely every day that passes.

“That window of opportunity is just growing.”

What could be done to improve filmmaking in Wichita

▪ Bring back incentives for Kansas filmmaking.

It’s not a decision that would directly affect most independent filmmakers in Kansas, but it’s one filmmakers are talking about. Kansas offers no tax breaks, rebates or tangible incentives to film production companies wanting to shoot here. Other states, or sometimes cities, do offer these incentives – and Kansas did in the past.

▪ Provide more outlets for films to be shown, and promote those outlets.

Wichita currently has Tallgrass Film Festival, Down to the Wire and the Doc Sunback Film Festival as its major festivals, as well as occasional one-off screenings of independent films. But a new event to be held at CityArts on Final Friday, Feb. 24, is a step in the right direction, filmmakers say.

The Webfest is a screening event that showcases the best local content currently on streaming services like Vimeo and YouTube.