Today is the start of the two-week Philadelphia Film Festival, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. And longtime Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Steven Rea used an interview with the festival’s 30-year-old director, Michael Lerman, to analyze a process universal to any festival: Namely, how are you supposed to assemble the damn thing?
It’s a nice piece. And Rea makes it all the nicer for his generosity: He’s allowed indieWIRE to republish the article in full. — indieWIRE Editors
How do you do a film festival?
That’s a tough enough question for the serious festgoer: tickets, schedules, where did I put that program guide, will there be time to eat?
But what if you’re actually putting the festival together? And say it’s the 20th anniversary, and there are 145 films or so, and two weeks to squeeze them into, with 35,000 movie zealots expected to attend.
Those are a few of the issues facing Michael Lerman, artistic director of the Philadelphia Film Festival. PFF20 opens Thursday with a star-studded premiere of the Sundance grand-jury prizewinner Like Crazy, and then kicks into high gear Friday with a slate to satisfy every taste.
And Lerman, along with his programming cohorts Tom Quinn, Ryan Werner and Jesse Trussel — with input from Andrew Greenblatt, the fest’s executive director — has been obsessing over opening and closing nights, gala screenings, docs, indies, Irish films and Israeli films, films from Japan and India, from Turkey and Hong Kong, from masters and newcomers.
He has been doing that pretty much since last year’s PFF wrapped.
Lerman, 30, is a Philadelphian, born at University of Pennsylvania Hospital, raised in Lower Merion. He now lives in New York, where he’s the head of acquisitions for the Film Sales Co. He also helps program Fantastic Fest, the Austin, Texas, screen orgy devoted to genre fare (sci-fi, horror, gore).
Actually, to say he lives in New York isn’t quite right. He keeps stuff there and drops in when he’s not camped out at a festival, looking for titles to buy for his day job, or to program for Philly.
There’s the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. There’s Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Tribeca. He attends the American Film Institute fest in L.A.; Silverdocs in Silver Springs, Md.; South By Southwest in Austin.
“And then I just watch stuff constantly,” he says. “Constantly. I watch like 2,000 movies a year.”
Think about that. It averages out to more than five films daily.
“I keep spreadsheets for festivals,” says Lerman, “and then, when it’s time to start programming, I look through them and think, ‘OK, what did I like? What did I think will work for us? What did other people like? What did Tom and Ryan like? . . . What did Jesse like?
“I go through and see what people are talking about, and then I start making a list – and when you do 140 films, 145 films, it’s hard, because that’s . . . a lot to book. It’s a lot to keep track of. . . .
“But the great thing about when you start is, you just go, ‘OK, I like this. I like this.’ You start throwing things in there. . . . ‘Will this work? Let’s go do it.’ ”
But then, as the weeks and days creep toward mid-October, Lerman realizes it’s time to consider the mix, the balance.
“One morning, I woke up and I was like, ‘Oh . . . we don’t have anything South Asian, we don’t have anything from Africa!”
Lerman, who began working for the Philadelphia Film Festival when it was overseen by Ray Murray and the TLA Entertainment group, says he doesn’t have to tailor the program for Philadelphians, per se. Yes, there are locally connected titles (this year: docs about Albert Barnes, Joe Frazier, Chuck Wepner, a.k.a. the “real Rocky,” and other Philly-centric pics).
But “there are very few types of movies where I would think, ‘Oh no, they won’t like that in Philly,’ ” he says. “You can only do so much of certain things, so if you were going to do a movie like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, where it’s incredibly slow and meditative, it’s got to be the best slow-and-meditative one out there.
“But if it’s the best one, they’ll be there. . . . And they’ll be there for the sickest genre movies, and the sweetest love stories. . . .”
Lerman says the trick is “to figure out what you want, go after it and then make it all fit together. You know — manage the package.”
And he says that he and Greenblatt and the Philadelphia Film Society team – the nonprofit that presents the festival – are amping things up “from what we did last year.” (2010 opened with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.)
So the pressure is on. But Lerman says they’re ready.
“I looked at the program this morning, and rarely am I happy with anything I do, but I was incredibly happy with the program. That was a weird feeling for me.”