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My Sarasota Film Festival Diary

My Sarasota Film Festival Diary

The old adage is true; There is truly no rest for the wicked. After the curtain came down on this year’s Sarasota Film Festival, I immediately began the process of wrapping things up here in Sarasota before I head back home to Brooklyn. The little details all pile up, and after a few days of exhausted e-mailing and plowing through the remaining work, I finally feel a sense of closure. It was truly a great year, and I am really proud of the festival. I think a little summary of my experiences is in order.


Programming is an interesting process; You literally spend months buried in piles of films, e-mails and negotiation trying as hard as you can to bring in as many movies as you can that represent the best of what you have seen. But you do so in a sort of vacuum; While Holly and I have developed what I consider to be one of the most positive and fruitful collaborative environments of my professional life, we both tend to respond to similar films. As we agree and sometimes disagree, a program is slowly assembled. But as for the physical reality of showing films to audiences and inviting artists to present their work? During the process of programming, it seems like a mirage; Always in the distance, hovering, but never attained.

But then, holy shit, the festival dates actually arrive and what seemed almost theoretical becomes a physical reality; Prints arrive, projectors and decks start being installed, the staff swells to four times its original size, the office begins to pulsate with energy and suddenly, it’s Opening Night and all systems are GO! This year, we installed a Hi-Def system into our 1700 seat theater and showed David Sington’s In The Shadow Of The Moon to two (yes, two) rapturous standing ovations. David and Apollo astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell (the 6th man to walk on the moon) awed the crowd with their Q&A (which I had the honor of moderating) and the screening and 2000 guest after-party were a huge success.

But going in, I had a sales job on my hands; Sarasota had never opened with a documentary before and I think there were some concerns that the community might not be ready for the experience. All doubts were cast aside as person after person came up to Holly and me and expressed their love of the film. Mark Urman from THINKFilm was here (it’s their film) and I think the evening reinforced what he already knew; If THINK handles this movie properly, we could be talking big numbers and Oscar contention. I wasn’t prepared for the rapture the movie inspired, but Sarasota flipped for In The Shadow Of The Moon and the screening was the start of an amazing ten days.

Despite claims to the contrary, Sarasota is by no means an overwhelmingly conservative community; The reality is that the political and economic diversity of the area provides the main thrust for the program. If you look at electoral politics, the malfunction of electronic voting machines threw an already hotly contested congressional race into question; Political diversity is in sharp focus here, and we work hard to bring films to the festival that challenge preconceptions of all stripes. Which is why it is such a treat to see people of all persuasions heading out to the festival in order to see films they would otherwise never have a chance to see. I often talk to other programmers and film types who don’t get it; Why bother programming a festival in Florida? My answer is always the same; The rewards of exposing this audience to great films that showcase ideas and opinions that would never otherwise be received, and to have them enjoy the experience and celebrate the artists themselves? That is the type of work I can get behind. Programming in other, less diverse locales seems a much easier task.

That said, this year’s festival was everything we could have hoped for in terms of reception from the audience. All of the films were very well received and I think the artists were a little surprised by how well their films played here. Our festival’s motto is “Sun. Cinema. Celebration.” and it is not a joke; Not only were the films taken seriously, but they were truly celebrated. Literally. A representative sampling of the opinions of our filmmakers and guests can be found in the following locations:

James Israel

Mike Brune

David Lowery

Michael Tully

AJ Schnack

Doug Block

Mark Rabinowitz

That is the exact thing we always hoped for; To have our artists taking full-advantage of the festival to promote their work, have fun, make connections and think good thoughts of the Sarasota Film Festival. I am most proud of this overwhelmingly positive set of feedback, because I know it is authentic and because our mission as a festival has been fulfilled by the knowledge that we’re accomplished what we set out to do; Celebrate the art of film.

Personal Highlights

Looking back on the ten-day event, some moments truly stand out for me…

Opening Night
As I mentioned, the Opening Night Film and Party were a wild success, but the experience of having such an overwhelmingly positive response to the evening was a true highlight; I literally did not hear a single negative word.

Ben Niles
When Ben Niles accepted the Best Documentary Feature Jury prize at our little ol’ award ceremony, I was thrilled for him. We had worked diligently to bring the film to the festival, and things were touch and go for a minute there. Ben is an old friend from my programming days at Nantucket, and it was exciting to see the jury respond to his film the same way I did. I think our Best Documentary Competition was an exceptional group of films and any one of them would have deserved the prize. But there was something special in the moment for me; Ben came up to me after the ceremony and told me a little secret. He’d never won anything in his life. Ever. So, a nice reversal of fortune for a lovely film. If someone doesn’t pick up Note By Note, it would be a huge loss. The audience here went wild for this film.

Steve Buscemi
Steve Buscemi came to Sarasota with Paris, Je T’aime and picked up our World Cinema award, but he also agreed to participate in an hour-long conversation in front of a live audience. When the moderator had to cancel at the last minute, yours truly stepped in and had a really great talk with Steve. He was as gracious as you might imagine, told engaging stories about his own career, did a terrific Quentin Tarantino impression and really carried the show. I met Steve in Nantucket a few years back (we programmed Lonesome Jim and he brought his lovely family to the island), so we had some rapport I think. Either way, he was a really great professional, the time flew by and I think everyone had a great time that evening. Park Slope represent!

Sophie Fiennes
Every once in a while, you meet an artist with whom you really connect, and this year, I was fortunate enough to sit next to Sophie Fiennes at the Filmmaker’s Tribute Dinner. We talked non-stop for three hours about everything from her film and working Slavoj Zizek and her upcoming projects to literature, philosophy, cinema and travel; It was a wonderful conversation. By the end of the night, I had convinced her to come to Closing Night karaoke, where she regaled us with her finest Bowie covers. I feel like I made a new friend, and she is one of the most interesting, lovely people I have ever met. Speaking of…

We had some serious karaoke nights, from The Blood Car battle on the first Sunday to Chad Lowe and Sophie Fiennes shaking it on the dance floor on the closing Sunday. Those vague references aside, let’s just say that what happens at karaoke stays at karaoke.

Foreign Film: Challenges In The American Marketplace
This panel, which I was fortunate enough to moderate, was a loose and relaxed conversation about a business in the midst of radical change. Its been a cause celebre on this blog, and the whole I reason I scheduled this panel was to be able to have a conversation about the changes for foriegn film here in the U.S. Jonathan Sehring (IFC Films) Josh Braun (submarine), Jon Gerrans (Strand Releasing) and Paul Hudson (Outsider Pictures) each brought a unique perspective to the problems facing foreign films and while I can’t say that I agreed with all of them (Jonathan Sehring in particular, whose own strategy of Day-and-Date as IFC Center for theaterical/DVD/VOD on First Take/Cable TV on IFC is a position that is well-served by Cablevision’s NYC footprint. However, his network’s desire to expand their relevancy to Cable and Satellite TV providers does leave, I think, theater-going Americans outside of NYC in rather dire straits, depsite their ever-reducing numbers), the conversation was a lot of fun and I can truly say I understand the position from which everyone on the panel was coming. I encourage all festivals to work on a panel like this; Highly informative and a conversation well worth having.

Of Montreal
First, a huge THANK YOU to Mike Tully, who put us in touch with the band; Of Montreal KILLED at the festival. I also have to give a huge thanks to the band for playing my favorite song (‘The Past Is A Grotesque Animal’), and I must say that the encore covers of The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ and Bowie’s ‘Suffragette City’ were life-altering. Since words can’t truly describe it, how about alittle bit of the YouTube?

Of Montreal, Live at The Sarasota Film Festival

After Hours
Parties on the beach, swimming in pools, hotel rooms, late nights. I felt like we were all a part of a wonderful community of artists and it was terrific fun having everyone here.

I don’t want to over-do things, but I’ll be posting some photos of the event asap, and then more SFF when we get the ball rolling in September. In the meantime, a huge thank you to everyone involved; Staff, guests, Board, artists, patrons, everyone. It was a wonderful ten days and I can’t wait for next year.

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