Pioneertown Film Festival founder Julian T. Pinder. Credit: Didier Chevalier

In 1946, actor Dick Curtis founded Pioneertown to function as a living Western movie set. Classic shows and movies like The Cisco Kid, Winning of the West, The Valiant Hombre and many others were filmed there.

Today, Pioneertown remains an attraction, with the famed Pappy and Harriet’s drawing huge names in entertainment along with a surplus of fans and tourists—and the town still functions as a Western movie set.

Enter the inaugural Pioneertown Film Festival, which will take place from Friday, May 27, through Sunday, May 29. Screenings of new additions to the Western genre, showings of classic movies beautifully restored by Paramount, anniversary screenings, talks, live music and more are all set for this unique festival.

“I moved here because I really love the town. I love the area,” said Julian Pinder, founder of the Pioneertown Film Festival. “With the influx of more and more people coming in and hearing about the town, celebrating the history of the town and the history of the films that had been made there, and what Pioneertown was and why it exists at all, was kind of the main thrust. On top of that, (it’s a way to) welcome new folks who are coming to town and show everyone a good time in a way that honors the town, as opposed to just coming in and partying for a night and taking off. This is much more of a deep dive into the history and the culture of the region and what came before.

Pinder, being a filmmaker himself (Netflix’s Fire Chasers; Jesus Town, USA; Population Zero) said he did not want to put on just another film festival.

“So many festivals have popped up in recent years … and that’s great; I love that,” Pinder said. “I’m not knocking that at all, but this is much more centered around the theme of the town and the history of the town. Being a Western-focused film festival, and focusing on what this place is, and why it was even built, is kind of the main thrust.

“The buildings and the town being as they are makes it easy to immerse ourselves in that world—but there’s a bit of irony in that there’s really no infrastructure. That’s what our biggest challenge is. … The sort of rough-and-tumble side of Pioneertown is fantastic, but it also means that we have to create world-class theaters, with Dolby sound and crispy 4k projection and all the stuff that you expect in a world-class film festival—and we’ve got to do that in a building that’s an enormous barn that used to be a soundstage. The challenges are pretty objectively prohibitive, but that’s what we’ve been working on all these years, is to get over all that stuff and figure out how to keep the vibe and the feel and the look while still offering our audience a world-class film-festival experience.”

The festival Pinder envisioned faced another challenge: Westerns aren’t made that often these days.

“This was actually an interesting, long, in-depth philosophical discussion—with a little bit of whiskey involved,” Pinder said. “Todd Luoto, who’s our head programmer and one of the pivotal and driving forces in this festival, (and I) sat down with the rest of the team and had a discussion about how to do this. We didn’t even know, in the beginning, if it was possible to do a Western-focused film festival, because we didn’t know if there were even enough Westerns being made. We kind of took a leap into the deep end and said, ‘Well, screw it; let’s see if we can do it,’ and fast forward to two or three years later, and here we are with a program that I’m really proud of.

“I’m really proud of what Todd has done. He’s put a lot of work into this—talking to distributors, (and having) meetings with studios, independent film companies, filmmakers, and researching all around the globe to see who was making a Western in different countries. It was a really long and in-depth process that you don’t really think of when you just sort of look at a program. But in the end, we came up with this program that, I think, strikes a balance between celebrating the classic Western, and also kind of showcasing contemporary Westerns.”

One of the festival’s showcase screenings will be The Last Manhunt, a new take on the Western genre directed by Christian Camargo that was produced and co-written by Jason Momoa, who also acts in the film. This type of movie was exactly the type of thing Pinder sought.

“What we didn’t want was some kind-of hokey, sort-of cartoon-shoot-’em-up-style Western festival, where we only had a bunch of big Western fans coming out to see a bunch of classics that they’ve already seen before,” Pinder said. “Our goal from the beginning was to really become a high-profile film festival—a very small one, but a high profile one on the world stage, like Telluride or Sundance, but for Westerns. I say that a bit tongue in cheek, but that is, in some respects, the lofty goal that we have. The balance we struck speaks to the great work that Todd’s done. People who are coming who don’t even like Westerns are still going to have a really great experience because of the newer films that have been programmed, which include quite a number of world premieres that were shot in the area.”

Another interesting facet of the Pioneertown Film Festival is the “Restored Paramount Treasures,” with screenings of restored versions of older movies.

“Our goal from the beginning was to really become a high-profile film festival—a very small one, but a high profile one on the world stage, like Telluride or Sundance, but for Westerns. I say that a bit tongue in cheek, but that is, in some respects, the lofty goal that we have.” Pioneertown film Festival founder Julian pinder

“These are films that Paramount has just finished the restoration project process on, which is a super amazing, in-depth process,” Pinder said. “The paramount archive and restoration department is actually going to be at the festival to present these films, and give talks on how that restoration process takes place—the history of it, the culture of it, and the technical process. It’s really intriguing, so even the classic Westerns we’re showing have a sort of contemporary and current narrative thread to them.”

Of course, no film festival would be complete without special anniversary screenings and talks with accomplished directors and writers.

“Robert Kurtzman, the creator and co-writer of From Dusk Till Dawn, who worked with Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, is coming out to showcase an anniversary screening of From Dusk Till Dawn, and talk about that whole production,” said Pinder. “Phil Nibbelink, the director of the legendary classic animation western Fievel Goes West, is coming out to present that anniversary screening and give a talk about that. We’ve got Adam Piron, the director of the Sundance Indigenous Institute, coming out to do an amazing talk and showcase of Dead Man. You can see that this program was very intentionally curated, to find that balance of celebrating the past, and trying to figure out where it’s going and what it is nowadays.”

Pinder said he and his team think the Western genre may be due for a comeback.

“I was very much influenced by the spaghetti Westerns, and Sergio Leone, and some of the more interesting classic Westerns like The Big Country—ones that kind of flipped the genre on their head were always really interesting to me,” Pinder said. “Revisiting those classics with Todd, and also looking at these new films that we’ve been screening, it’s been really interesting. … It’s a little bit of a weird, sort-of philosophical, nerdy, bullshit answer, but I feel the political and social divide, and this kind of crisis of identity that we’re having on a national and global scale, feeds into people wanting the comfort of a more traditional and simplistic narrative style. … There’s a way of looking at the very distinct morality of good and bad, and the Western story kind of boils down to that—and it’s a sort of romantic version of the past and a hopeful vision of the future. I think that people are going back to really wanting to see that kind of story in that kind of film, and I think that’s why we’re seeing a huge resurgence in people getting back to the country-ranch lifestyle.”

The Pioneertown Film Festival will take place Friday, May 27, through Sunday, May 29. Festial passes start at $298. For passes or more information, visit pioneertownfilmfest.com.

Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...

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