Industry Gives Hollywood Film Festival Free Pass

by Anne Thompson
October 19, 2009 12:31 PM
7 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
I am surprised by the film industry and the media's continued willingness to give a free pass to entrepreneur Carlos de Abreu's Hollywood Film Festival, a cannily constructed facade which honors stars, filmmakers and craftspeople and lines the pockets of de Abreu.

He's created an awards show timed perfectly at the height of the awards season, which he presents inside the context of a film festival. While it is not considered to be a bonafide quality film fest curated by top programmers, like Telluride, Sundance or New York, and its premieres are often less than stellar, Hollywood players participate because it supports the award cause. It gives vying award season contenders yet another opportunity to grab attention. If de Abreu gives an award, why wouldn't any self-respecting self-promoting player show up for their five minutes of PR? This years award-winners include Hilary Swank (Amelia), Robert DeNiro (Everybody's Fine) Julianne Moore (A Single Man), Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) and Relativity mogul Ryan Kavanaugh.

Here's some background.

[Photo: courtesy Getty Images]

Having served as a second lieutenant in the Air Force in Mozambique before being forced out of the country in 1975 by the communist regime, de Abreu came to Hollywood after he got tired of being a marketing director for the jeweler Cartier. He studied screenwriting at UCLA extension. He got a foothold in the film industry by putting on conferences every two months to let screenwriters pitch Hollywood buyers. He started giving out the Hollywood Screenplay Discovery Awards, and co-wrote with Howard Smith a book for Random House called Opening the Door to Hollywood. He sent scripts to agencies, and in 1996 Ted Kotcheff optioned two of the winners' screenplays.

De Abreu got involved with the internet in 1994, started a website, and collected over 3000 domain names, all related to Hollywood, including the Hollywood Film Festival, which he launched in 1996. Married to TV actress Janice Pennington (The Price is Right), de Abreu worked his way up the Hollywood social ladder, throwing dinner parties and becoming friendly with the likes of Kotcheff, Mark Rydell, Sherry Lansing and Mike Medavoy (a Hollywood Film Award winner for the flop All the King's Men).

While de Abreu took advantage of his social contacts with agents and studio heads when he mounted the festival, it wasn't taken seriously until he hired the powerhouse PR firm PMKHBH (now he hires different agencies every year) and in 2002 brought on their client, respected producer Paula Wagner, a former CAA agent, as his co-chair. Her producing partner Tom Cruise then attended the screening of their presentation Narc. After Cruise, many more stars such as Harrison Ford followed him down the red carpet, either as presenters or award winners. They include Clint Eastood, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie, Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Ron Howard, George Lucas, Diane Keaton, John Travolta, Goldie Hawn, Naomi Watts, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Aniston, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Nic Cage and Benicio del Toro.

De Abreu moved the festival from October to August and back to October again to best capitalize on the awards season. He recognized that if you give someone who is campaigning for an Oscar an award, they will come. That was all he had to do.

The actual programming of some 80 films tends to be light also-rans left over from other fests. The screenings serve as a backdrop for the big awards night (this year, October 26) when everyone walks the red carpet to accept their prize. De Abreu admits that he can do whatever he pleases, with no oversight.

There is no organization, no philanthropic goal behind the Hollywood Film Festival, beyond de Abreu's stated hope that he is bridging the gap between established Hollywood and emerging talent. This festival is a business enterprise, selling tickets, VIP passes, sponsorships (this year, Starz) and studio tables. How much money does it make? De Abreu tells no one.

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7 Comments

  • Jane Kosek | October 21, 2009 9:18 AMReply

    We have a film in the HFF this year and it's a very good film with a great cast. We'd love for you to see it. Won't you come out for the premiere? Not Since You, October 25 at 5pm. We'd love to see you there! We are certain you will enjoy it.

  • jeff | October 21, 2009 8:32 AMReply

    I absolutely agree with Sar that sponsors and advertisers are an integral part of our industry and should be lauded for their support. And to that point celebrity is also an integral component of the inner-workings of the machine that helps promote movies and recognize the sponsors that support up and coming films and filmmakers. HFF has the right pieces of the puzzle, there just needs to be a slight shift of priorities and they should do it while they are ahead. Put the honorees on a jury - recognizing the festival participants and invest the sponsor money in marketing the festival to the public and industry.

  • sar | October 21, 2009 8:13 AMReply

    tribeca looks sometime like an extended Amex commercial, Taget, Skyy Vodka and others sponsor many festivals in order to push their products and services to the "cool" crowd. lots of this money goes to pay people who make their living year round from arranging festivals, special screenings, branding of new product, premiere parties, etc. Hollywood and indiwood are filled with PR hype; where there is money there are people making a living off it, regardless if they are technically a 501 or merely a private person. the AMPAS should not be tarnished for making making money from the Oscars; why should Hollywood FF be put down for staging an awards gala at the right time of year?

  • Jeff | October 21, 2009 8:07 AMReply

    another fine film is playing on Saturday night at 11pm - PUNCHING THE CLOWN. Sarah Silverman calls it the best film about comedy ever and Moby awarded it "best use of music" at the Gen Art fest last Spring. Unfortunately the festival does a horrible job promoting the films - focusing seemingly on the awards only. attempts to contact the festival to inquire about marketing partnerships and industry passes went unanswered - and it was very difficult to figure out who to contact in the first place.

  • Brian | October 21, 2009 4:08 AMReply

    Wow, sounds like a real Hollywood success story to me. He sure found his niche. Certainly beats flying in the Mozambique Air Force, doesn't it? (Who even knew they HAD an air force?) The most impressive part of it is that he married Janice Pennington! (Although calling her a "TV actress" is a bit of a stretch, don't ya think?)

  • Donald Finn | October 20, 2009 7:08 AMReply

    I hear this is the last AFI festival. C'mon -- they're giving tickets away for free! How can they be making money.

  • bill | October 20, 2009 5:56 AMReply

    Which of the other high profile film festivals are for-profit businesses?

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