In March 2019, Kerwin Frost hosted a film festival at a “secret shitty underground theatre in soho.” It ran three days, screened seventeen films, and featured Q & A’s with the Safdie Bros. and Cole Bennett. There were no debuts, no critics in the audience. It was just a guy watching his favorite movies with some friends and some fans.
Kerwin Frost of June 2021, when he hosted his second festival, was a different eponym/host/interviewer. His star had grown. His talk show, Kerwin Frost Talks, was swinging through a successful second season; he had a partnership with Adidas; he had recently hosted a telethon.
This time the festival was not held in a dilapidated and soon-to-be-demo’d New York location. This time it was on Hollywood Boulevard, in the TCL Chinese Theaters. This time guests had to cross the Walk of Fame to reach more auditoriums showing more movies with more notable guests.
Upon scanning in my ticket at a tent in front of TCL’s ornate and spired façade, a black suited usher funneled me down a red carpet, along cartoon paparazzi printouts towards wide stairs. Up two flights, through glass doors and metal detectors, past sundry black & white prints of iconic cinematic happenings was the theatre lobby. Ahead, typically exorbitant concessions. Left, KFT merch. Beside the theatre doors were complimentary popcorn and Jarritos soda.
I first attended the Friday 11am showing of The People’s Designer and the subsequent Jeremy Scott Q & A. I had my pick of seats. “Why the hell is everyone so calm?” someone rows behind me whisperingly asked.
A few minutes past 11 Kerwin entered, greeted us, and gazed wide-eyed up into the theatre lights, wordless, eventually apologizing and announcing, “I have a lot of anxiety.” Lights dimmed, and an advertisement for Kerwin’s new Adidas Superstar revamp, the “Superchunk,” played.
After the film, which is a mediocre specimen of the documentary form, boxy orange furnishings were hauled to the stage by red-vested crew, and Kerwin entered with Jeremy. Again, Kerwin was charmingly mute. On camera, it looks put on. In person, less so. If he was overwhelmed, he wasn’t alone. Among the audience there was a buzzing disbelief; Jeremy Scott, in the flesh, close enough to hear you sneeze.
Jeremy answered questions thoughtfully and freely in that ungaurded mode Kerwin brings out of his guests. Afterwards, the two mingled in the lobby, taking time to individually greet most of the eager guests who bottle-necked there after the Q & A. Kerwin was eventually whisked off by manager/partner Erin Yogasundram who, it was clear, was the event’s logistical glue.
After the documentary, I would go on to sit in on four more showings. On Saturday: The Brak Show (followed by a Q & A with the voice of Brak himself, Andy Merrill), Walk Hard (a John C. Reilly Q & A followed), and Bloodsport (which was hilariously and engagingly live-commentated by a mic’d up Nasty Neckface). On Sunday, I attended a showing of the Pursuit of Happiness and the attendant Jaden Smith Q & A. Notable showings I missed were the Friday evening showings of I Think You Should Leave (sold out) and Queen & Slim, which also sold well and featured surprise guest Lena Waithe.
A Kerwin Frost Film Festival isn’t like other film festivals. It (mostly) doesn’t feature new content or creators promoting it. If there was a discernible theme it escaped me. There are VIP guests, but the line between them and normal audience members is faint - they enter through the same lobby. It draws a crowd of culture heads, not cinephiles. The through line is Kerwin himself, making the event as eclectic, frenetic, and delightfully encyclopedic as he is.
Like many aspects of the growing Kerwin Frost media ecosystem, spectators enter a contract of trust. You don’t listen to Kerwin Frost Radio because you expect him to play music you like; you do it because you expect him to play music he likes, and you assume his taste to be broader and more informed than your own. The KFFF, like a Kerwin DJ set or interview, is a chance for growth and exposure.
My personal cannon overlaps minimally with Kerwin’s, making me a prime tutee. I hadn’t seen The Brak Show, Walk Hard, or Bloodsport. In the absence of the KFFF, it’s likely I never would have. Certainly not on the big screen.
Revisiting these films outside of the promotional cycle offers a calming neutrality. One isn't primed by media takes or pressured to craft their own. In the case of a film like Walk Hard which, in the words of John C. Reilly in the Q & A, “took a shit” at the box office, this is a chance to revise how we judge success. What was a failure budget-wise looked pretty good that Saturday night, in a packed auditorium, the audience clapping to credits.
For Bloodsport, Nasty Neckface’s color-commentary enhanced the film itself. Truly, Neckface is an expert. He knew every beat before it happened. Seeing the movie for the first time, I found his commentary elucidating. (He began his commentary with: “Bloodsport was made in, uhh, I have no idea but it’s a really good movie and I have good shit to say about it.”) It was the most novel experience I’ve had in a movie theater and, as far as I know, has no equivalent at Cannes or Sundance.
Another magnetic quality of Kerwin’s endeavors, KFFF included, is their authenticity—the only reason Kerwin does anything is because he wants to. That’s simple, but rare. It's also, I’d argue, palpable. People sense it, and they adore it.
The KFFF being brilliant, fun, or uniquely Kerwin doesn’t mean it was built to sell out. Apart from venue size, promotion gaps, and the covid problem, Kerwin’s audience doesn’t always overlap with the audiences of his guests.
Kerwin’s multivariate interests might bite him in this regard. He genuinely wants to talk to Andy Merill—but does his audience? Do the Andy Merill heads of the world know who Kerwin Frost is? I’m going to guess the answer, on the mean, is no. Some sparsely attended showings likely owed to this disconnect.
But to judge the success of a festival like Kerwin’s on ticket sales is boring and lazy. I met a kid who had driven a thousand plus miles to LA, and getting to ask Jeremy Scott a question and follow up in the lobby was a dream. Leaving the theatre one evening, I overheard a group of attendees excitedly note they were close enough to smell John C. Reily’s cologne, which, allegedly, was the same as their uncle's.
At one point Kerwin pointed to the VIP section: “That’s where all the famous people are.” He called on Mac Demarco. “Where’s Mac?” Mac did not rise, and actually sunk perceptibly in his seat. These are not things that happen at other film festivals.
We live in a moment of fluid rules. At the KFFF, we can have it all. Outlandish outfits. Iconic venues. Guests from everywhere, merch and walking K.F. mascots.
But growing celebrity endangers rulelessness.
“You can’t have a hit movie and a cult film,” said John C. Reilly during his Q & A. Kerwin, once cult, is on the edge of becoming pop, and doesn’t want to let either go. It’s admirable. But people are fickle, and fame is quick and liquid. Many purchased tickets to see Kerwin or his friends rather than the guests he booked, and attended the event to watch the stars mill in a lobby more than the movie showing inside.
Must Kerwin fold to the conventions of popularity? Surrender the magic he curates better than anyone? His increasingly mainstream endeavors suggest the answer is probably no. But I don’t know. What I do know is that when, during his Q & A, Jaden asked the crowd: “Do y’all think this is cool? What Kerwin’s doing?” our response was a loud affirmation. And that's the point. Right?