Palm Springs: The Festival That Sonny Bono Birthed

Issue 1 FEA Playbook Palm Springs 1995 - H 2013
Courtesy of Palm Springs Film Festival

Issue 1 FEA Playbook Palm Springs 1995 - H 2013

The town's then-mayor brought dollars and tourism to the desert as now, this year, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks will stop by, international movies are lauded and its must-stop place on the road to Oscar is all but a given.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Hoping to make then-fading Palm Springs hip again, Sonny Bono, the city's mayor, launched the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 1989 -- and, says festival director Darryl Macdonald: "It took off like a rocket. The first year there wasn't much industry attendance at all, but by the second year it was extremely strong." Now, as the event, which runs Jan. 3 to 13, celebrates its 25th anniversary, it's not only an established stop on the festival circuit but also one of the desert city's biggest attractions. More than 130,000 attended the 2013 edition, with more than 70 percent coming from outside the Coachella Valley. And while the city contributes $350,000 to the event's $4 million budget, organizers estimate it receives publicity worth $30 million to $35 million.

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A lot of that buzz comes from attention surrounding the celebrity-filled awards gala that will take place during the festival's first weekend. Occurring while Academy members are filling out Oscar nomination ballots, the ceremony has become a high-profile reminder list for some of the season's biggest awards hopefuls -- including Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, who top this year's lineup.

But Palm Springs also quietly has carved a niche as a showcase for foreign films. Realizing early on that the fest would compete with mid-January's American-independent-focused Sundance Film Festival, organizers decided to create an alternate identity for Palm Springs by surveying international cinema. This year, the festival will present 45 of the 76 films submitted for consideration for the foreign-language Academy Award, including the nine that made the shortlist. "We used to try to show every single one," says artistic director Helen du Toit, but now that the tally has grown, "we've had to curate the program, and this year I think we have one of our strongest selections in years."

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Additionally, this year's fest will devote a special section to Canadian cinema, offering both English- and French-language films. "We were really struck by all the exceptional new talent as well as the sheer quantity of really good films," says Macdonald of the program, which includes Craig Goodwill's musical fantasy Patch Town, based on his short film that played during the 2012 Palm Springs International ShortFest, an event presented by the Palm Springs International Film Society.

To celebrate the festival's 25th anniversary, there's also a program of award-winning films that have played Palm Springs in years past -- from Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others.