Seattle’s cultural scene may still linger in the shadow of grunge rock, but it’s also a moviegoing town, and hosts one of the biggest film festivals in the country. Now, the person responsible for that celebrated gathering has decided to move on.
Longtime Seattle International Film Festival head Carl Spence is leaving the festival after more than 20 years. He is transitioning out of his role as Chief Curator and Festival Director today and will continue to serve in an advisory capacity at SIFF through spring 2017. During his time at SIFF, Spence led the launch of its year-round film center, SIFF Cinema, in addition to the programming and operations of two other theaters, the SIFF Uptown and the Egyptian.
“I like creating things,” Spence told IndieWire in a phone conversation last week. “I think I’ve created something here, and now it’s time to create something new.”
Director of programming Beth Barrett will be stepping into the role of Artistic Director. The SIFF board, which oversees three theaters in the Seattle area in addition to the June festival, has been conducting a search for a new executive director over the past year. A rep for the festival said that job was expected to be filled soon.
Spence will next be starting a film consulting business called CCS Arts, focused on film and the arts. He tracked the decision to leave the festival to last year, after he took a sabbatical from his other programming role as Artistic Director for the Palm Springs International Film Festival and found himself working through a family vacation. During that time, he was still responsible for the three theaters that SIFF operates year-round in addition to planning the festival, which runs 25 days. “It wasn’t really a sabbatical,” Spence said. He did not return to Palm Springs.
Spence’s husband, Nathan Carson, holds an executive position at Nordstrom, which Spence hoped would free him up to spend more time with their two children, who are five and eight. “They really need my attention,” Spence said. “They get frustrated when I’m on my computer, on my phone and watching movies they can’t see.”
Spence first joined SIFF on a three-month contract in 1994, shortly after graduating from the University of Washington with a theater degree. As a student, he organized 35mm screenings at the university’s Husky Union Building, including double bills of movies that surprised audiences (his favorite pairing was “Beauty and the Beast” with “Naked Lunch”). He also programmed concerts featuring performers ranging from Phish to Ellen Degeneres.
At SIFF, Spence was quickly hired to run the office year-round and continued to develop his role as a leading programmer, using some of the resources he had gathered as a freelance studio publicist to bring more films to the festival. Those connections resulted in his ability to program “Braveheart” as the SIFF opening night film in 1995, which wound up being the film’s world premiere. “That solidified my programming chops,” Spence said. Other programming highlights he cited included a secret screening of “Fight Club” with Edward Norton, the U.S. premiere of Michel Hazanavicius’ “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” and 2012 opening night selection “Much Ado About Nothing,” which brought Joss Whedon to the festival.
In 2007, Spence began to oversee plans to turn SIFF into a year-round organization, and said that since the fall of 2012, the organization hasn’t faced any cash flow issues. “That didn’t used to be the case,” he explained. “The strategy has been to make a stronger foundation for the festival and to take back the art house indie scene that had been neglected, to sort of revive it.” Although not every new release programmed at SIFF’s three theaters is a hit, it has a diverse list of successes.
In recent years, these include 2013’s “Snowpiercer,” which grossed $100,000 at the Uptown. The Egyptian Theater, which SIFF took over in 2014, presented more of a challenge right out of the gate. But Spence said that the theater started gaining momentum when he managed to program “Interstellar” and “The Imitation Game.” Later, he spent months working with director Brett Morgan to convince HBO that it should release his documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” in Seattle. It eventually grossed $65,000 at the Egyptian last year over the course of 10 days.
“I’ve worked hard to make sure this organization is set up for success and will be around for some time,” Spence said, noting a recent NEA grant to SIFF that was the largest given to any arts organization in the state, and the decision by the city of Seattle to double its funding for SIFF. “A lot of what we’re doing in Seattle could be touted for the rest of the world,” Spence said. “We’re bringing back the desire to watch movies here.”
Looking back on his relationship to SIFF — where he recalled seeing “Reservoir Dogs” and “Zentropa” as a college student — Spence admitted that the monthlong festival took a lot out of him. “Doing a 25-day festival is like doing a marathon,” he said. “Maybe that will be revisited, but that’s not up to me.” Meanwhile, he’s still programming the Orcas Island Film Festival, which starts this week on the San Juan island where Spence keeps a vacation home. (The festival is already a client of his new venture, CCS Arts.)
Pressed to consider what he might do next, he expressed a desire to broaden his agenda. “SIFF is the most powerful place for film in Seattle, so maybe I can use that knowledge to help further other organizations with the power of film to transform life,” he said. But for now, his agenda was simple. “I’m looking forward to having more free time to see the movies I want to see,” he said. “Plus, I can binge-watch.”