Greenwich International Film Festival promotes philanthropy and social change


The newly minted Greenwich International Film Festival (GIFF) just wrapped its second session, running June 9-12, in the gorgeous, iconic southeastern Connecticut town long distinguished as a Greater New York area bedroom community with a large contingent of the wealthy, powerful and celebrated (often the same). In matters both deeply serious and cinematically rewarding, this new kid on the festival block, sharing its enviable resources of beauty and wellbeing, demonstrated that it has “legs.”

Considering the world we live in today, GIFF proved to be not just appropriate in its broad mission of philanthropy and promotion of change for the better by raising awareness. With the Orlando massacre occurring early Sunday, the festival was also tragically timely, especially as screenings of Kim Snyder’s moving and angering doc Newtown, with its emphasis on a country’s inability to enact greater firearms restrictions, eerily occurred just prior to and after the historic slaughter.

Also highlighting human-rights issues this year, the lineup of close to 40 long-forms—both narrative fiction and docs—were an example of impressive curation. To mention just a few (about half the films were caught), a number dealt with world problems like climate change (The Anthropologist, which focused on victims worldwide dependent on the land but threatened by global warming), extreme violence (Anne Fontaine’s French post-war drama The Innocents and the aforementioned Newtown), and race and prejudice (the endearing interracial drama Little Boxes).

Other films addressed the world’s less fortunate, whether the poor or dislocated (The Tenth Man, After Spring), those in recovery (Germans and Jews, a doc about the apparent rapprochement of the two sides in today’s Berlin) and the disabled. Regarding this latter, two features managed a coup, both delivering solid, politically correct comedies featuring the severely disabled. My Blind Brother delighted with a blind protagonist, and at the center of the especially witty The Fundamentals of Caring is a young protagonist dealing with a form of muscular dystrophy. Both are strong, audience-worthy film entertainments with plenty of laughs and surprises.

If GIFF’s themes this year reverberated “grim” and the dark Orlando cloud that blew in didn’t help, the slate of films, including many plucked from previous top fests plus some premieres, was anything but grim, as good work can alleviate challenging subject matter, if not messages, by adding other values.

GIFF had the requisite big sponsors and partners, awards, short-films lineup, post-screening Q&As, panels, sidebars, workshops and fundraising dinners and parties that delivered good times and urgent calls for much-needed social, political and environmental change.

Importantly, boldface names like Trudie Styler, Kathie Lee Gifford, John Turturro, Kristin Davis and Abigail Breslin showed up to help raise money and awareness for critical issues like the abuse of women, the lack of educational opportunities for girls, the need to help the mentally challenged, and the urgency of saving the Amazon rainforest, which apparently is responsible for, if memory serves, a fifth of the world’s water supply.

As it should be, films were the heart, soul and pulse of the event, and even broadly targeted adventures like Australia’s wonderful Sam Neill-starrer Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Disney’s The Jungle Book smash showed up for festival close-ups.

GIFF put on a good show, many shows in fact, most at the local three-screen Bow Tie Cinemas, with others scattered at other fine local venues at private schools or Greenwich’s huge new state-of-the-art performance space at its high school.

But GIFF also got down to business, real business—the business—by delivering an informative and lively interview with preternaturally active director and actor John Turturro, who as actor has worked with directors as diverse as Woody Allen, Francesco Rosi, Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers and many more top-tier filmmakers. He discussed both significant moments in his acting and directing career, and how important his “delayed” embrace of vintage foreign and indie classics was to his art and craft.

One of the best, most candid, informative and appropriately funny festival panels that this writer has ever encountered in many years of fest reporting was the Mike Fleming-moderated GIFF panel “The Big Business of Comedy,” which brought out some of the most successful producers, writers and enablers of top Hollywood comedies. These big guns shooting off their mouths, often with surprising candor, included New Line Cinema president of production Richard Brener, Chris Bender, Stuart Cornfeld, producer/manager Peter Principato and actor/writer/producer Will Arnett. Their features include genre giants like Sex and the City, Wedding Crashers, American Pie, Tropic Thunder, The Hangover, Zoolander and the upcoming Central Intelligence.

The panelists, sounding like a bunch of gossipy industry insiders hanging together at L.A.’s Farmer’s Market or Nate’s Deli, lobbed anecdotes, insights and blasts. The gems included how Paramount execs made the Zoolander shoot miserable, how mega-franchise The Hangover slipped from New Line into Warner Bros.’ hands and made its producer/director Todd Phillips many hundreds of millions, and how the pressures of being “politically correct” have affected comedy writing. Additionally, the panel discussed why they like movie feedback testing (the top box indicating rating and bottom box assessing an ending are most telling, unlike test screenings for classic hits like GoodFellas, which can test inaccurately because of rejection of the gore), but they blasted series-TV feedback methodology (participants get sloppy in turning those dials). They concurred that improvised (in the moment) dialogue during the shoot can sometimes best the written word and discussed how film comedy cyclically emerges from a lull every few years to deliver surprises like a Wedding Crashers or Deadpool.

In carving out its niche in an overpopulated film festival world, GIFF describes its mission as “providing filmmakers with an effective platform to showcase their work with the goal of finding financing and distribution. Additionally, GIFF harnesses the power of film to serve the greater good by highlighting an important cause each year.”

But where might be the opportunities to further the fest's growth and appeal? GIFF chairman of the board Wendy Stapleton Reyes, who co-founded and runs the event with co-founder colleagues Carina Crain and Colleen deVeer, responded, ”We will continue to show films with a strong focus on social impact and hope to continue to connect investors with the talented filmmakers who create powerful films from projects they are passionate about. These films inspire millions of people who have the opportunity to watch them and take action in whatever way they can. Films have the ability to start movements, and movements can effect tremendous change in our country and our world to make it a better, safer place for all. If we [GIFF] can act as a catalyst in that process, then we have done our jobs well.”

The emergence and success of GIFF also prompted thoughts about how so many festivals can thrive in a world traditionally governed by the laws of supply and demand. Maybe a path to an answer is to ask what crime investigators ask: Cui bono?” (the Latin phrase meaning "To whose profit?”). Audiences certainly benefit, as do the festivals (largely nonprofits) and certainly filmmakers who, in spite of proliferating small-screen outlets, will forever crave big screens and big theatre audiences. But what’s in it for participating theatres hosting these festivals?

First, a little background: Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so did theatres abhor the vacuum left as quality, mostly foreign and other auteur-driven films that thrived from the late ’50s onward lost their luster a few decades later. Mostly domestic independent films took their place when specialized distributors like Miramax and so many others beginning in the mid to late ’80s brought them to prominence. But in this cruel dog-eat-dog world (or film-eat-film), these pictures were slowly displaced in theatres when Hollywood began saturating screens with their big-budget event films.

This seismic shift from small to big (and many might say from quality to lesser mass entertainment product) coincided with a countrywide sprouting of film festivals (call them cinematic kudzu) to fill the vacuum with the quality films they showcase.

GIFF has both a benefactor and beneficiary in the privately owned Bow Tie Cinemas, whose three-screen Greenwich complex hosts the festival. (Bow Tie, founded in 1900 and now operating in six states at about 55 locations with approximately 400 screens, is North America’s oldest chain and hosts a number of other fests including Tribeca’s and smaller events like one in West Hartford, CT.)

Helping in this Cui bono?” pursuit of what’s in it for theatres, beyond the obvious seats-filled bonus and prestige of association with the event, Bow Tie chief operating officer Joe Masher notes that “festivals like GIFF allow us to bring in new audiences to our spaces and serve what are already our widely diverse customers and go beyond. We make money on the rental fees we charge and we gain publicity [for the affiliation]. But the sweet spot for us is our ability to present a wide body of independent and often commercial films before they hit theatrical or VOD. We help with the marketing and we get the opportunity to show off our theatres, which we often remodel. We even tailor our ‘gourmet’ concessions for our festival audiences.”

Masher, a big fan of the Greenwich event, adds, “For us, another great thing is that we’ve become such an important part of the festival because they began with us at day one.”

And judging from what was just experienced, there will be many years ahead for this stylish, well-run and curated event that knows how to channel its financial resources and good taste into good causes and good flicks.

(Festival photos: Noam Galai/Getty Images)