Hamptons fest deals with identity crisis


SURVIVAL GUIDE: Keeping up in the Hamptons

When longtime Hamptons International Film Festival executive director Denise Kassel and artistic director Rajendra Roy departed within months of each other this past spring, it could have been the beginning of the end for the event, which was heading into its landmark 15th year. But festival director Gianna Chachere, programmer Josh Koury, strategic development director Anne Chaisson and programming consultant David Nugent were determined not to let the Hamptons cinema celebration die without a fight.

"I don't think anyone thought of throwing in the towel," Nugent says. "Everyone saw it as, 'We'll lick our wounds and get back to it and do the best we can.'"

So they have: This year's festival runs tomorrow through Oct. 21 and features a host of anniversary-themed celebrations, including a retrospective of locally produced poster art, an online collection of videos and green events such as sustainable living lectures and a visit from Al Gore. As for the actual film-related programming, look for the usual mix of documentary, short and narrative titles both in and out of competition and the ongoing "A Conversation With ..." series, which this year includes Vanessa Redgrave and Sidney Lumet, the latter of whom will be screening his new ThinkFilm feature "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

There should be plenty of breaking news coming out of the event, too -- namely the announcement of the festival's new executive director. Board chair and Silvercup Studios CEO Stuart Match Suna emphasizes that the mystery candidate will be "someone the industry will know and respect, who can work with the board's vision of the festival growing to an institute that's year-round."

Admittedly, the fact that the festival is even happening this year is a testament to the dedication of its leadership, but the higher-ups still face a number of serious hurdles. Historically, the Hamptons event has had a devil of a time trying to satisfy the needs of both the local community and its industry guests, and it's had even less success expanding in any real way beyond the Hamptons proper. The festival might be widely respected for its foreign film selection and admired for its idyllic location, but in its 15 iteration, HIFF is mired in a classic adolescent identity crisis.

The bottom line for Nugent? "The goal of the Hamptons is ultimately to serve the community."

That community, though, consists of two very different groups: the Hamptons residents who are both regular folks who pay to see films and the elite lot who bankroll and create them. Initially, the fest began in 1993 to boost local morale and emphasize the year-round artistic community in the area. Hoteliers also were happy, as they could expand their higher seasonal rates until the festival ended. Steven Spielberg even signed on as an honorary supervisor.

"Originally, it was conceived as something that would be quite local and would be about supporting local businesses in October," says New Line co-chair/co-CEO Michael Lynne, who was tapped to join the board 10 years ago by restaurateur Toni Ross, co-founder and chair emeritus. "Toni thought it could be more than that."

Over time, the festival grew into a launching pad for new films, a marketing opportunity for projects with distribution, and as Lynne puts it, a catalog for the community. "One of the great things for a distributor who has a film in the Hamptons is the constituency of people who go to see the films," he says. "You get real ground-level input as to how your film is performing that you sometimes don't get from more high-profile film festivals around the world, which draw more on industry."

New Line is bringing its John Cusack starrer "Martian Child" to the festival for a Spotlight Films screening; the after-party will be -- where else? -- at Nick & Toni's restaurant.

With Kassel joining HIFF in 1998 and Roy coming onboard in 2002 as director of programming, the festival began to enjoy real stability. Kassel kept the administration housekeeping in order, while Roy, who had served on the selection committee at the Berlin International Film Festival for several years, beefed up its international presence. "She was creating a backbone for the event, and then we looked to create a voice for the festival that was unique," says Roy, who is now serving as the chief curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art in addition to a role as HIFF's artistic advisor this year.

While HIFF had a great run of luck with the films like the eventual foreign language Oscar winner "Nowhere in Africa" and the sleeper boxoffice hit "Open Water," both 2003 releases in the U.S., the festival has never really been able to position itself as a functioning market. Acquisitions execs might attend, but they don't seem to be interested in doing much in the way of closing deals.

"It's always a challenge with regional film festivals to take it to the next level," says IFC vp acquisitions and production (and HIFF juror) Arianna Bocco. "Fifteen years is relatively young, and it takes time for a festival to grow. Some festivals will make it through that growing-pain period, and some won't."

Today, the festival does still retain much of its old brand specificity: It offers some of the largest prizes of any festival (see sidebar), and it wisely segregates its in-competition films (narratives, docs and Conflict & Resolution) from its spotlight films, many of which have made other stops on the festival circuit.

And its Rising Star program -- which this year spotlights Hanna Herzsprung (Wolfe Releasing's "Four Minutes"), Jess Weixler (Lionsgate's "Teeth"), Blake Lively (Goldcrest Film International's "Elvis and Anabelle") and Egbert Jan Weeber (Regent Releasing's "Vivere") -- gives programmers a chance to put their imprimatur on the Next Big Things. HIFF also remains known as a strong early-landing spot for international films to get noticed.

As for how the festival should spend its next 15 years, Roy would like to see HIFF play up its mix of audiences and its relatively easygoing atmosphere. "These key things are what will help the festival grow -- not necessarily in size but in the level of filmmaking," Roy says. "Then the audiences become more loyal and more influential in terms of year-end strategies for film companies.

"If (films sell) -- and I'm sure they will from time to time -- fabulous," he continues. "But it's more about engaging the industry in a relaxed, open setting where true tastemaker moments can happen. True discovery can happen when people are focused on the movies, rather than focused on the bottom line."

Hamptons International Film Festival
(Oct. 17-21). Events are held in East Hampton, Southampton, Sag Harbor and Montauk.

Opening night film: "Bernard and Doris" (HBO Films, directed by Hamptons perennial Bob Balaban, starring Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes); Closing night film: "August Rush" (Warner Bros., directed by Kirsten Sheridan, starring Keri Russell and Robin Williams, opens Nov. 21); The lineup: Among 103 films (50 are features), this year's slate includes 17 world premieres, 11 U.S. premieres, 17 East Coast premieres and 13 New York premieres

What's at stake:
Best narrative feature (more than $185,000 in goods and in-kind services); best documentary award ($5,000 cash); short film award ($5,000 cash); the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation feature film prize in science and technology ($25,000 cash); Kodak Award for cinematography ($6,000 in goods and in-kind services); Brizzolara Family Award for films of conflict and resolution ($5,000 in cash); Zicherman Family Foundation Award for screenwriting ($5,000 cash); best undergraduate and graduate student films (eight $1,000 cash awards); new to 2007: the Lifetime Movie Network Award for best female student filmmaker ($5,000 cash) and the ¡Sorpresa! Youth Film Competition (one-week scholarship to the New York Film Academy)

Get your hankie for: "Rails & Ties" (Warner Bros., opens Dec. 21), starring Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden, directed by Alison Eastwood. "I would consider it to be a family film about coping with unexpected tragedy," says Harden. "There's a huge need in the market for people to see these films and relate."

Strap yourself in for:
"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (ThinkFilm, opens Oct. 26), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, directed by Sidney Lumet. It's a drama about brothers pulling a heist that -- naturally -- goes wrong. Lumet will also appear in "A Conversation With ... " (Vanessa Redgrave is the other "Conversation" interviewee.)

Bring the kids to: "Martian Child" (New Line, opens Nov. 2), starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet, directed by Menno Meyjes. A family film about creating a family (even if one of the members thinks he's from outer space), "Martian," along with "Devil" (and 11 others), is a Hamptons Spotlight Film.