Local cinephiles strolling Main Street in Ventura can’t help but spy one of the eight banners adorning downtown establishments, heralding the advent of the Ventura Film Festival and likely causing many of them to ask, “Again? Already? Say what?”

No, they aren’t seeing double; and yes, it’s the Ventura Film Festival, at least another Ventura Film Festival. That redux has been the source of ongoing controversy, confusion on the part of the public and would-be sponsors, and chagrin for the respective events’ founders for the better part of the last year.

The controversy, which centers around who has the right to the name “Ventura Film Festival,” began late last year when a group headed by local filmmaker Lorenzo DeStefano announced its intention to stage the event. DeStefano’s fest, which debuted in late March, was widely hailed a success.

In the same time frame, a Ventura film festival was an event that had fired the imagination of Ventura IT specialist Jordan Older and his associates for several years. While Older filed fictitious business names in 2005 for the Ventura County Film Festival and Ventura Film Festival Association and mounted an introductory Web page, he never managed to stage the festival before now. More to the point, he didn’t file a trademark application for another three years, on Dec. 7, 2008 — not incidentally, the same day as the DeStefano group’s well-publicized Ventura Film Festival launch party. Asked by volunteer and local actor/director Frank Malle if this year’s event would be the group’s inaugural festival, Older replied that they weren’t sure whether they’d call it that. Queried if the group had hosted events in the past, Older replied, “We’ve had events, we just didn’t invite the public.”

This sort of uncertainty has fueled the confusion, and while executives of both festivals express a wish to simply celebrate film and support good causes (DeStefano’s group is a nonprofit venture, and Older pledges that his will become so at some point), both acknowledge that the controversy clouds the issues they’ve pledged to support, and neither wishes to diffuse its message by focusing on strife. The problem, DeStefano, notes, is that said confusion “dilutes the community’s limited pool of volunteers, donors, sponsors and supporters — it splits the town, when the very idea behind the festival is meant to unite us.”

“I don’t think it’s that important,” Older states about the controversy. “I’m not going to make any accusations about people stealing something — I’m not a lawyer; I’m not taking anyone to court.” Nevertheless, Older sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter to DeStefano’s group on Feb. 6, and readily attests to his grievance.

“How would you feel if someone stole something that belonged to you?” he asks.

Asked to outline the case for his ownership of the name, Older notes, “You’d have to talk to my lawyers about that; they handle all the business aspects.” Yet when asked for the name of his attorney for follow-up, Older demurs.

Legal counsel for DeStefano’s group did go on record, noting that Older “has no enforceable right to the name, possessing only a trademark application and a URL,” concluding that “the possession of a domain name that lies dormant for years does not provide evidence of use.” As the thorny issue festers, there is perhaps at least the potential for a productive resolution at some point. “We’d be happy to invite Mr. Older to explore opportunities for moving forward productively, in synthesis rather than rivalry,” says DeStefano.

As Older’s festival closes in on its launch date, it has settled into a promotional ethic that seems to stem from the idea that bigger is better: “Success is all in how you define it,” Older notes. “We’re already a success. We’re already one of the biggest volunteer organizations in Ventura County. We’ve got the name, we’ve already got the biggest banner in the county.” Asked if he can verify those facts (the volunteer status comes from the cumulative tally of everyone who has ever attended a meeting), he laughs with good humor. How does he know they have the biggest banner? “We don’t know,” he laughs, “but it sounds good.”

The group plans an ambitious agenda for any festival, and with only days to go, is keeping mum about the lineup and screening schedule, beyond the trailers available on its Web site, www.venturafilmfestival.org. Queried about details regarding the schedule, the nonprofit structure, or the nonspecificity of plans to donate proceeds to environmental charities, Older sums up the ethic behind his effort succinctly: “We’re not worried about the little things like that; we want to focus on the big important things, like support the environment and have a good time.”

While these are worthy goals for any festival, in the end — with the challenge of 100-plus films to screen in five venues over a busy holiday weekend — it’s in those very details that this Ventura Film Festival will demonstrate, for better or worse, what’s truly in a name.   

The Ventura Film Festival will be held from Monday, June 29, through Sunday, July 5, at various venues in downtown Ventura, including the Ventura Theater and the E.P. Foster Library’s Topping Room. For ticket information, film trailers and other details, please visit www.venturafilmfestival.org.