ABERDEEN, S.D. — It's a Friday night on Main Street in the small northern South Dakota town of Aberdeen, and it's supposedly a hopping one with the marquee event of the annual South Dakota Film Festival being held at the historic Capitol Theater.
And yet, the street is nearly empty. The chirping of crickets is only occasionally disturbed by passing cars or pedestrians. Cannes or Sundance, this is not.
Some might consider it an unfortunate side effect of being, well, in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota, in a town hugged by corn fields and the closest "big cities" — Fargo, Bismarck, Sioux Falls and Pierre — each being about three hours away.
But Tom Black doesn't see it that way.
"We're not the middle of nowhere. We're the middle of everywhere," said Black, a co-producer of the South Dakota Film Festival, which this weekend is in its sixth year.
Looking at a map, he's just about right. As long as film goers don't mind that cattle outnumber local residents, Aberdeen is pretty close to being smack dab in the middle of the country.
And it's that central location that has grown the small-town festival into a filmmakers' favorite, consistently drawing hundreds of people into the quaint-but-spacious theater each of the event's four days.
It's gotten so big, in fact, that organizers said they might need to spread to other downtown locations in the next year or two.
"It's charming here. It's a great theater," said Mike Scholtz, 42, of Minnesota, whose latest documentary "Wild Bill's Run" has won awards at both the South Dakota and Seattle film festivals. The "arctic crime caper" also has been accepted into the better-known Mountain Film Festival in Canada's Banff, Alberta.
"A lot of festivals are in hotel conference rooms, or just spaces that aren't as nice for film watching. This is a really nice space for it," Scholtz said.
Indeed, the Capitol Theater is the stuff of theatres past. Inside the lobby is an ornate chandelier and restored 1920s organ. The theater itself is adorned with turn-of-the-century embellishments and balcony seating. The screen pulls down over a true stage, one that's used for live performances by the Aberdeen Community Theatre.
It's a space Penny Stolsmark of Pierpont, S.D., has known since childhood — but Friday marked the first time she and her husband have visited for the film festival.
"We had to come. We've never been to this before, but we always wanted to," Stolsmark said. "We're big moviegoers. I'm thinking if we really like it tonight, we might VIP it next year."
What drew Stolsmark to this year's festival wasn't a new film, but rather one celebrating its 20th anniversary: "Thunderheart" starring Val Kilmer and Native American actor Graham Greene. Greene is arguably best known for his role in another South Dakota-filmed movie, "Dances With Wolves," for which he was nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award.
The showing, followed by a question-and-answer period with Greene, was to be one of the festival's highlights.
Saturday is to feature a preview of upcoming films made in South Dakota, a six-minute silent flick called "Bus 1107," a horror film called "Werewolf in a Girls Sorority," and what Black describes as this year's big get: "Butter," a film starring Jennifer Garner that won't be widely released until Oct. 5.
And that's just a sampling. About 100 filmmakers entered their works; about half of those were accepted, organizers said. Many of the films have cast or crew from the Upper Great Plains.
"We'll tear about 1,000 tickets over the course of the weekend," Black said.
Scholtz, who made his first film in 1997, said Aberdeen — population 27,000 — will continue to lure him because it's a "filmmakers' festival."
"Everyone in the film community in the Midwest is aware of the festival," he said. "Average people won't have heard of it, but they have a really good reputation with filmmakers."
Black said that while the festival is heavy on Great Plains artists, it also draws filmmakers from Florida, Washington state, Washington D.C., and the rest of the country. People don't just love showing their work in South Dakota, he said, they like making it here, too.
Not only does the state offer the picturesque landscape that made "Wolves" star Kevin Costner a lifelong fan, but it's cheap for film workers, Black said. South Dakota doesn't have the income tax, union labor or hefty sales tax of some other states, he said.
"You may think Chicago isn't the middle of nowhere, but it takes a lot longer to get to Chicago for most people," Black said. "We're actually the perfect place."