Film lovers take a ‘back seat’

The seventh annual Backseat Film Festival showcased some of the best in offbeat cinema, including a sketch comedy group with Temple roots.

During the summer of 2002, Doug Sakmann and 12 of his peers – a group of young professionals from film production backgrounds – set out touring on a school bus.

Adam Rifkin, director of Detroit Rock City and National Lampoon’s The Stoned Age was honored at this year’s Backseat Film Festival at the Trocadero Theatre’s Movie Mondays (Courtesy John Yust).

This year, Sakmann’s production company finished the final day of its seventh annual Backseat Film Festival, a local rock ‘n’ roll film fest that showcases movies of all lengths, budgets and genres but focuses on “upbeat, unpretentious work” audiences would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

“Overall, the feel is like going to a rock concert,” Sakmann said. “Only, you’re going to a film screening instead.”

But the touring rock ‘n’ roll film festival that simply began as just “13 guys on a school bus” has steadily developed during the last seven years.

“Basically, we ended up going to 13 different markets [in 2002],” Sakmann said, “and after that tour, we decided, ‘We’re going to Philly.’”

Along with Nick Esposito and Zafer Ülkücü, Sakmann founded and helps operate Backseat Conceptions, the Philadelphia-based production company that contributes largely to the festival’s success each year. According to its Web site, Backseat Conceptions is a “multifaceted company, specializing in producing, marketing and promoting film and video projects, multimedia content and live events.”

In addition to his involvement with the production company, Sakmann is also a founding member of the Backseat Film Festival’s presenting sponsor, the Philadelphia Friends of the Projected Arts. PFPA, according to its Web site, is a registered nonprofit that supports venues like BFF, which showcases projected arts and holds events to educate Philadelphians on issues concerning the independent film community, on both local and national levels. Its main goal is to advocate film and its display.

The local sketch comedy group Secret Pants made its Backseat Film Festival debut this year. Its filmed sketches were screened during one of four “Backseat shorts blocks” and were featured before the festival’s screening of Detroit Rock City, part of the festival’s tribute to Adam Rifkin, at the Trocadero Theatre’s Movie Monday.

Member Brian Kelly said Secret Pants got its start in a Temple class for comedy writing in April 2004.
“A bunch of us got together after classes and just talked about what we all liked and became friends,” he said in an e-mail interview. “We made each other laugh and thought, ‘Hey, let’s try to make other people laugh, too.’”

And it seems as though they’ve been able to.

Although Secret Pants did not receive any awards from BFF this year, the comedy troupe has held the title for Philadelphia’s “Dirtiest Sketch Competition” for two years now – a title members are “truly proud of,” Kelly said.

The comedy troupe draws inspiration for its work from famous comedians and television shows, such as Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert and the former Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete & Pete.

“Honestly, the list could go on and on,” Kelly said. “Let’s just put it this way. We were all pretty much raised by our three parents — our moms and dads and our TVs.”

Including Secret Pants’ three short film contributions, the 2009 Backseat Film Festival featured more than 75 films in 9 days, with the bulk of the screenings shown from March 13 to 15. The festival presents more than 13 awards each year in traditional categories like Best Feature Film, Best Short Film and Best Documentary, along with some in not-so-traditional categories like Best Drinking Movie, Best Breasts and Best Zombies.

But 2009 marked more than just the completion of the festival’s seventh successful year. This year’s BFF coincided with the grand opening of 941 Theater in Northern Liberties.

“The first year, we rented it out from the owners,” Sakmann said. “We found the space in Northern Liberties, and they were impressed with the crowd we drew. They weren’t licensed, so they basically put it in our hands.”

Founded by the PFPA, 941 Theater is the first independent movie theater to open in Philadelphia in 10 years. Presenting live music events for the past 10 months, 941 Theater was home to most 2009 BFF screenings and events.

Now that the festival has ended, the theater will screen first-run independent and repertory films to audiences as large as 130 people. As a live music, theater or comedy venue, 941 allows a standing room capacity of 225.

“Three years ago, we were renting screening equipment,” Sakmann said. “This year, thanks to private donations, the festival made use of its new $10,000 high definition film projector.

“I think it’s a gradual progression,” he said. “We’ve seen the festival grow and progress every year.”

Kelly noted the importance of the PFPA’s ongoing efforts to support the community of local filmmakers, even for a comedy troupe.

“I think it’s a perfect outlet, not just to develop gaining audiences, but also to meet other filmmakers in Philadelphia,” he said. “It’s just been a great way to develop friendships and relations with other filmmakers, while hopefully entertaining audiences so they can keep having it every year.”

Chelsea Calhoun can be reached at

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