East End extravaganza: Hamptons Film Fest is a community affair


What is it about film festivals, whether giants like Cannes or Toronto or the more manageable, always dependable smaller boutique operations like the just-ended Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF), that keeps them immune to the changes other entertainment and media sectors experience?

Could it be simply a matter of sticking to a model that works, as Zeitgeist Films co-president Nancy Gerstman suggested at an HIFF panel discussing New York as an indie mecca? She was explaining Zeitgeist’s 25-year survival during a period that has seen so many other specialized distributors struggle or go under.

Festivals, too, are impressively surviving the digital storm and new ones continue to pop up everywhere. But, looked at more closely (especially as many films in HIFF’s lineup were previously seen), the Hamptons Fest, now in its 21st year, is showing some digital dings.

Wrapping Oct. 14 on the East End of Long Island where some of the world’s best beaches abound, the Fest again attracted hordes of film fans, stars and directors. Attendees could choose among about 125 or so features (including many World, North American and East Coast premieres). It’s a vibrant five-day agglomeration of terrific films, packed theatres, stars and filmmakers, tributes and a ton of other events. But there were some subtle changes.

While corralling premieres was HIFF’s toughest task in early years when it was getting its sea legs as a newbie amongst events like Sundance and Telluride, the Fest now triumphs as a savvy curator. HIFF artistic director and head of programming David Nugent is faced with many more applicants today. In addition to looking for quality, his programming group is more focused now on “works that jump out more and make an impression. Because of so many more submissions, which new digital technologies have allowed, we have to work harder and also consider all the new outlets where films can play.”

As HIFF attendance again suggested, audiences struggling in the new world of so much content know the Fest will reward their love of movies. Yes, HIFF managed to introduce many premieres and “revelations,” but the Fest’s primary role these days is that of trusted aggregator.

There’s also the matter of dwindling buyers in attendance, as many on the buying side are doing more scouting by streaming rather than traveling. Sure, filmmakers like Whitney Ransick (the excellent Misfire: The Rise and Fall of The Shooting Gallery) and Steven Bernstein (the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation winner Decoding Annie Parker) with world premieres were thrilled with the interface with buyers, press and audiences. But one disgruntled producer noted, “I was expecting a couple of buyers, and they didn't show up... But in this digital age, I am grateful the movie was programmed at the festival and had thought it was the perfect launch. And I’m grateful to the sold-out audience... But my now my sales agent...is sending the film to buyers via the streaming platform Vimeo!”

Further evidence of a swing to the marketing side was the number of previously exposed high-profile, award-seeking films (12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, August: Osage County, Her, Kill Your Darlings, Blue Is the Warmest Color, etc.) in the Fest. But as HIFF evolves more as a distributors’ marketing tool than buyers’ marketplace, Hamptons audiences continue to be the winners.

The Fest is also more a community affair, as theatres are always crowded and the many post-screening Q&A sessions with filmmakers continue stronger than ever. As HIFF’s new executive director Anne Chaisson told FJI, these collective experiences bringing fans and filmmakers together are especially meaningful for the many hundreds of locals in the Hampton towns who are removed from the film industry and bigger film festivals. “It’s really about how regional festivals should serve their communities,” she said, and “creating that community experience that puts the fans face-to-face in dialogue with the directors.”

That a good number of HIFF’s higher-profile titles had already made the festival or New York screening rounds afforded more time to spend at industry-themed events like the lively “NY Indie Film: Rewind & Fast-forward” all-star panel that assessed what’s going on today and how things have evolved for the city’s vibrant production and distribution players.

The panel first shared a little New York indie history familiar to many: The indie movement got its big push in the late ’80s when Sex, Lies, and Videotape played Cannes and Miramax took it to commercial theatres. Independent distributors like Miramax were on firm footing thereafter. And the independent world got a more meaningful shot in the arm in the early ’90s when Disney bought Miramax. That period in indie lore was also known for the birth of The Shooting Gallery, which delivered several low-budget hits to the market. The company’s trajectory from cool success to crashing failure was covered in Whitney Ransick’s aforementioned doc Misfire.

A “sea change” for the indie world came in 2008 when everything “mutated,” reminded panelist John Sloss, Cinetic Media founder and FilmBuff co-founder. Panelist Joana Vicente, IFP executive cirector and head of IFP’s just-launched Made in NY Media Center in Brooklyn, added that 2008 was the year “everyone shut their doors.” Indie stalwarts like Mark Gill and Bob Berney felt the pressures in different ways and, according to Sloss, Hollywood’s specialized divisions got clobbered because “they were not moving the needle” for the studios.

Also contributing to the indie fallout, Sloss further observed, was Harvey Weinstein’s forceful and aggressive awards push for Miramax films, which expanded the world of indie films “unnaturally.”

So what about the state of things today? Vicente opined that the term “filmmaker” has become inadequate because of others who are integral to the content business. “The new Media Center casts a wider net for storytellers and content creators by bringing together not just filmmakers but techies, Madison Avenue advertisers, and the financial community who can all work together.”

As for distributors, Zeitgeit, which has remained “lean and mean,” and Sony Pictures Classics have stayed close to their original models for decades in spite of the new platforms to exploit, and, as Sloss put it, “remain at the top of their game.”

Optimism was shared regarding the current “exciting times” that provide so many new ways to make films and get them out. Yes, while “much of the fun times are gone for filmmakers,” noted Sloss, when Miramax might pay $4 million for rights, there are more revenue streams, including streaming itself.

While creative juices flow freely and filmed product mushrooms, what about making a dime amidst so much glut? (Sundance now must consider about 4,000 feature submissions a year and about 25 features are opening each Friday in New York.) After all, Ransick observed, filmmakers still covet “the big sale.”

Panelists understandably groused about the challenge to get VOD accounting numbers, whether in the transactional or subscription areas, and called for more “transparency” like that which iTunes provides in its reporting.

Back in his “What, we worry?” mode, Sloss offered, “As long as consumers continue paying and the middlemen are kept honest, there’s a way to monetize content.” He added that his office has 150 films now that are paying the back end. Asked how that works, Sloss shot back, “Call me!”

As for why New York’s indie scene is more vibrant than L.A.’s, even as indie-leaning companies like Focus and FilmDistrict shift to the West Coast, Vicente didn’t lose a beat in hailing the New York area for its sense of community and opportunities for collaboration. Also available to New York filmmakers is much local Web and TV work to carry them through lean periods. Gerstman cited the many opportunities and ease in working collaboratively also because “you don’t need a car.” Take that, L.A.!

Asked about how the profusion of nontheatrical platforms has affected their view of the theatrical window (Gerstman even noted that the education market remains very healthy), panelists admitted the digital impact on theatres but agreed that quality films must continue to live first on the big screen. And those big screens are evolving. Zeitgeist’s booker, said Gerstman, has noticed a growth of alternative theatres that constitute a “new wave” of exhibition.

Honoring an indie grown much bigger and global, HIFF and BAFTA gave Working Title Films and co-chairs Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner an appropriate big tribute, moderated by former HIFF executive director and current Museum of Modern Art chief film curator Rajendra Roy. Prior to Roy’s expert grilling, a montage of Working Title hits (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Fargo, and too many more to mention) brightened the evening, as did tribute guests and Working Title filmmakers Richard Curtis (hitting the Hamptons with Universal’s About Time) and Edgar Wright (The World’s End, Hot Fuzz).

Impressive figures were shared: Working Title, founded in 1983 when music-video production was all the rage, has produced over 100 films that have garnered hundreds of nominations and awards and notched more than $6 billion in grosses worldwide, logging $2 billion just in the U.S. But Roy, with his questions, didn’t orchestrate a mere love-fest, although affections flourished and Bevan teased that “everyone loves a Harvey Weinstein story.”

Miramax’s The Crying Game, a surprise hit for Working Title like the later Billy Elliot, was the early signal for the newly minted Working Title co-chairs that indie films made out of the U.K. could have commercial success worldwide. And early on, Working Title provided the first clues that international markets would one day outperform U.S. theatres at the box office.

The execs credited much of the longevity and stability of their company to their ongoing partnership and “fantastic relationship” with Universal, which, said Bevan, has given Working Title creative autonomy. Also valued by the co-chairs is that many of their same staff have stayed on since the early ’90s when they first took on their leadership roles.

Curtis, either as writer or director or both, owned up to the fact that every Working Title film he’s been involved with, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, has had its “crisis” for him. Important funding for Four Weddings was pulled before production, Bridget Jones’s Diary required six months to fix because it didn’t test well, early cuts of Love Actually were “a catastrophe,” and Notting Hill meant a “complicated relationship” with its director.

Bevan and Fellner underscored the all-important relationship they have with “audiences going to the cinemas.” But Fellner had some sobering words: “We live in a digital age, so the industry has to deal with the windows issue. But some people have their heads in the sand.”

Still, optimism ruled the evening, with mentions of talented new-generation actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Chloë Grace Moretz emerging and so many low-budget and tentpole films performing well. But it’s the “ones in the middle that need attention,” Curtis cautioned.

Audiences clearly have a good time at the Hamptons Fest, but how does it feel on the other side? Indie producer Dolly Hall (High Art), at HIFF with writer-director Michael Walker’s world premiere of The Maid’s Room, was impressed that the film’s shows sold out early and saw value in their “captive audiences” who stay put in seats, then join the press in getting word out.

Ransick, who was a Shooting Gallery co-founder and directed its second feature Hand Gun, had a better experience at HIFF with his world premiere. “Film festivals have and will continue to be important, as they’re key to launching a film. In the case of Misfire, the screening marked the first time I saw the film with an audience. To me the experience was akin to 'pushing the bird out of the nest to see if it could fly." Luckily, it did.

Ransick believes the fact that that there is a “fest on every corner these days” is a plus for emerging filmmakers, as it allows opportunities. “With the costs of a film having a theatrical run often prohibitive, festivals allow filmmakers a chance to show their work the way they intended—on the big screen with an audience. Festivals are a safe haven for filmmakers, as they are run by people who love movies and are attended by people who love movies. Add to that the perks a filmmaker receives from a festival (potential exposure, press, contacts) and it's a win-win situation.”

From the marketing point of view, veteran indie publicist Sharon Kahn, newly partnered in DoubleK PR and Marketing, has adjusted her strategy in accordance with a view that festival exposure is not necessarily just a marketing tool. Kahn, who represented the much-buzzed-about Sloan Prize-winner Decoding Annie Parker at HIFF, observed, “Regional festivals like HIFF have proliferated just as screens presenting specialty fare are diminishing. These festivals have become a social magnet for the specialty film audience and are now an integral part of a distribution plan, whether as the prelude to exhibition or the exhibition itself.”

Forever and everywhere, film festival conversation among civilians swirls around the films, filmmakers, stars, buyers, audiences, prizes, events, parties, etc. and even the weather! Somehow the role of commercial theatres—usually at the heart of the events—gets lost in the chatter. So from their point of view, how do theatres fit into the film festival equation?

Regal Entertainment Group marketing and communications VP Russ Nunley answered for Regal, whose East Hampton Cinema 6 and Southampton Regal Bay Cinemas provide most HIFF venues. He noted, “Regal hosts approximately 40 film festivals each year, an involvement that is part of the Regal Cinema Art initiative to show Regal’s support of “amateur and independent filmmakers” and assist “the next generation of visionaries for our industry.”

He cautions that “not every film festival request is a fit with our business. For example, if their dates are during a blockbuster season, we may not be able to accommodate a rental agreement. But for established festivals with a loyal local following and some flexibility in their scheduling, we’re interested in participating in these events which deepen moviegoers’ love and appreciation for cinema.”

HIFF fills the bill, he suggested, because “we view the local cinema as a community center. It’s a place where people gather to discover great entertainment together. The contagious laughter in a crowd or when everyone is collectively holding their breath during a scene, these shared emotional moments only heighten the enjoyment beyond anything you can find in home entertainment. The crowds who come to a film festival can be some of the most engaged and ardent film fans that you can find, and we’re happy to make them at home in our theatre.”

Integral to the many different agendas at HIFF and all festivals is the quality of the films shown. In addition to strong titles from the New York Film Festival and others that will soon be opening in theatres were a good number of discoveries.

Documentaries at HIFF have always been strong, thanks to the longstanding support from the Sloan Foundation and Fest sidebars devoted to sociopolitical issues and discussions. A number of docs were exceptional, including Israeli filmmaker Dan Shadur’s Before the Revolution, about Israel’s controversial presence in Iran before and during the country’s 1979 revolution, and Barbara Kopple’s Running from Crazy, about Mariel Hemingway’s victory in avoiding the craziness and excesses of her famously dysfunctional although famous family.

Oscar-winner Kopple credited the Fest with the "great job" it did in promoting her film. Screenings were full and audiences were "responsive, engaged and enthusiastic." She characterized the post-screening comments and questions as indicative of "how much the audience genuinely cared" about the doc's people and issues. She also indicated that HIFF asked her to be in next year's jury and she accepted.

Another revelation among docs was Berkeley journalism professor Samantha Grant’s A Fragile Trust, an intimate, well-accessed take on The New York Times’ serial plagiarizer Jayson Blair, whose “news” stories ran rampant into fiction and whose shocking breach created a great scandal that also brought down some top Times editors. Left unresolved is whether Blair, a drug addict and alcoholic, was more victim of mental illness or an example of an abject character, or maybe both. Also unresolved: Was the Times blindsided by issues (maybe pressures) of race as it continued to ignore Blair’s ongoing flagrant ineptitude and breaches? The doc will air on PBS but deserves big-screen exposure.

Shadur told FJI that his Before the Revolution, which was co-funded by ITVS and will air on PBS this summer, had a five-month run in Tel Aviv. He has also been screening it aggressively around the U.S. but is looking for commercial theatrical runs in major U.S. and European cities. Packaged with a complementary short, Before the Revolution, which runs only 60 minutes, would make a powerful theatrical package.

Ransick stands a good chance of finding a theatrical distributor for Misfire, which not only entertainingly chronicles The Shooting Gallery’s rise and fall but serves as a nostalgic look at those indie “good time” years and a cautionary tale for any executives susceptible to the kind of ego, greed and power trips that pushed the company into insane overextension and funny-money maneuvers during the late-1990s free-for-all.

On the narrative side, Liberty Media, a New York production company, debuted its first theatrical release, the fact-based Walking with the Enemy, as a world premiere. The lavishly produced World War II English-language drama about a Hungarian Jew who disguised himself as a Nazi officer and saved many Jewish lives impresses but raises the question of where it might best flourish in today’s world of many screens and fragmented audiences.

Michael Williams’ world premiere The Maid’s Room has an intriguing premise: An innocent Colombian maid must confront matters of life and death after being hired by a not-so-innocent nouveau riche power couple that weekends in East Hampton with their Princeton-bound son. The set-up provides rich opportunities for suspense and sociopolitical comment that are not always fully exploited, although the film holds interest throughout. A little more authenticity would have helped, as neither a billionaire’s bucks nor Obama nudge nor act of God would have gotten that couple’s flaky, loser kid into Princeton.

While France was impressively represented with films like Costa-Gavras’ financial thriller Capital and the sexy Blue Is the Warmest Color, both out this Friday, it disappointed with 2 Autumns, 3 Winters and, surprisingly, Agnes Jaoui’s Under the Rainbow. The grim Camille Claudel 1915, which takes place entirely in a rustic but depressing asylum, dazzles with Juliette Binoche’s committed performance as the committed early 20th-century sculptor (and former Rodin mistress) who deserves better. But so does an audience.

Shana Betz, whose autobiographical Free Ride stars Anna Paquin as a white-trash woman involved in Florida drug trafficking, was of interest because the filmmaker tells a real-life story that she should be hiding rather than broadcasting to the world in this world premiere.

Paramount Vantage’s Labor Day, another crime drama, arrived from writer-director Jason Reitman. Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet animate and deepen this unlikely 1980s love story between an escaped murderer and the single mother forced to give him shelter. Tension and tears come in equal measure.

On HIFF’s lighter side was the well-reviewed Helena Bonham Carter/Dominic West biopic Burton and Taylor, about the famous duo’s tumultuous months when they co-starred in Broadway’s Private Lives. In only a few days, the film jumped from HIFF to nice reviews and its airing on Showtime.

Also light, in that way European comedies made for locals can be, was Magnolia's Tasting Menu. A kind of "small plate" entry from Spain, the upbeat comedy follows a group of well-heeled epicures who gather at an exclusive El Bulli-like dining mecca, only to learn that rescuing people in nearby waters is even more exciting than eating radically exotic dishes.

But a few cinematic “small plates” are always welcome at a Fest like HIFF that always offers so much food for thought on its menu.