The 2009 Sarasota Film Festival wrapped up last Sunday night and now, five days since the last frame of film passed through the projector, I am finally able to take a step back and get a little perspective. The odds were completely stacked against us this year, from the economic downturn to the massive turnover in staffing at the festival itself, but in the end, people came together and worked their asses off to not only pull us through, but to put on the best festival of which I have ever been a part. Every possible thing that could have gone wrong went right, everyone repeatedly hit the mark, and our audiences left the festival energized by the films, the artists in attendance and the whole experience.
Personal highlights for me? There were some standout moments that taught me alot about programming, and first among them was meeting the team from The Messenger and setting a tone of excellence for the festival with such a powerful and provocative Opening Night Film. There is a grand tradition of keeping things light on Opening Night; the sponsors all come, everyone wants to kick it off with an optimistic tone so people are encouraged to come back and buy more tickets. This year, we learned to let the quality of the film dictate our choice, and that decision paid off.
The audience in Sarasota is older and wiser than most, and after years of programming comedies, we went for a film that delivered an emotional punch; our audience loved The Messenger and it set off a chain reaction that impacted all of the dramas the that played the festival. Films like Lemon Tree, Revanche, Julia, The Burning Plain, The Window and Summer Hours were incredibly popular and well-received by our audiences, and by mid-week, Holly Herrick (my fellow programmer) and I were already hearing a parade of compliments about the quality of the films this year.
Which is, you know, a back-handed compliment of sorts; we always feel like we’re bringing great movies to the festival, so for people to love this particular batch in this particular year, it was clear that something else was probably afoot. The community of Sarasota has faced nothing but bad news for months, from home prices crashing to Ponzi scheming to retirement accounts evaporating, and we discovered that people seemed to be using the festival as a bellwether for the state of the community. As we rolled into the second half of the festival, event tickets started selling, film screenings were crowded and we were looking good for a successful year.
And then magic happened. This year’s Tribute to Hal Ashby was probably the best piece of programming we’ve ever done and all thanks are due to Jon Voight, Burt Young, Diane Schroeder, Ronnee Sass of Warner Home Video and Leigh MacManus Ashby for their insights and terrific help in creating two incredible moments that I will never forget. First was our Friday night screening of Hal Ashby’s personal cut of Lookin’ To Get Out, which sold out and which was an unequivocal success. The audience laughed at the jokes, were moved by the dramatic moments; the entire experience was just amazing. Warners allowed us to make an HDCAM print of the restored digital master, and the result was incredible; a flawless projection on our largest screen that would knock anyone’s socks off. Jon Voight was effusive and grateful, Burt Young relished his role as the straight man in the Q&A, and we couldn’t believe our luck at how well everything had gone.
My (unattainable) Poster Problem: Pablo Ferro's collaged mock up for the poster for Hal Ashby's Lookin' To Get Out (poster courtesy of Diane Schroeder, displayed at SFF's Hal Ashby Tribute on Saturday April 4, 2009)
The next night, the entire group assembled for our salute to Hal Ashby, and after the festival’s Tribute video to Ashby had run, we assembled on the stage to discuss not only Ashby’s life and work, but to marvel at how much good a festival screening can do for the life and reputation of a film. Voight was visibly moved by the experience, Burt Young again relished his role as the straight man, and by the time Leigh MacManus spoke about how she used her father's films and Nick Dawson’s book to come to discover the man she never knew, there was not a dry eye in the house. It just could not have been a better moment; a filmmaker’s work restored to its proper place in the world, a daughter reconnecting with her lost father—I couldn’t have dreamt of a more meaningful weekend. It was a once in a lifetime experience. Local television caught some of the pre-show conversation on video, and while it is somewhat rudimentary reporting, the clip hints at the power of the evening that followed:
Have I mentioned the generosity and wit of Bill Paxton (and his unforgettable introduction of the Ashby montage)? The creative energy and presence of Christo and Jeanne-Claude? The smiles that greeted Cory McAbee when he leapt to the mic to answer questions after his screening of Stingray Sam? The debates that raged after our screenings of Samantha Buck’s amazing 21 Below? The standing ovations for Michel O. Scott and Rupert Issacson after Over The Hills And Far Away? The kindness of Stanley Tucci, Steve Buscemi and Richard Schiff as they handed out of festival’s juried and audience awards? The rousing presence of David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz and Algenis Perez Soto at our screening of Sugar? The smiles and gratitude of hundreds of audience members as they sang and danced their way out of our Closing Night Film, Every Little Step? It made all of the seemingly impossible hard work worth it.
First and forever, I owe a huge thanks to Holly Herrick, who is and will always be one of the best people I know and whose genius as a programmer is only exceeded by her passion and commitment to excellence in everything she does. I look around the world at the selfish and successful, at those who would diminish the hard work of others in order to prop themselves up, and I understand why it is so hard for so many to comprehend the reality and depth of a true collaboration, but that’s how it is with Holly and me; she is my peer, my programming partner and one of my best friends in the entire world.
I must also direct a tremendous amount of gratitude at Nick Dawson, who risked launching his book at our festival, making phone calls and sending e-mails on behalf of the festival’s Ashby Tribute in the good faith that we would live up to our word and deliver a great event. Having gotten to know Nick well these past few months, I can only dream of working with him again and I wish him the greatest success with his tremendous book, Being Hal Ashby: Life of A Hollywood Rebel. That said, he is one of the loveliest people I have come to know in the past year or so, and I can’t wait to grow as friends in the coming months.
I had one more revelatory experience at the festival this year, one that has re-shaped my thinking about a timely matter in the industry, but I will be saving that for Monday. I have to eat some crow, and I am happy to do it. More on that in the very near future.
In the meantime, while there is no rest for the wicked, I figure I've done enough where I can afford catch some sleep and let them do what they will.
My (unattainable) Poster Problem (part II): The poster for Hal Ashby's Bound For Glory from the 1977 Cannes Film Festival (poster courtesy of Diane Schroeder, displayed at SFF's Ashby Tribute on Saturday April 4, 2009)