It’s 7 p.m. on a cool Friday evening outside the Art House theater and cafe in Provincetown, MA. The line of moviegoers that had formed alongside the venue has been let in and at the theater, staffers are trying to squeeze in as many customers as the venue will allow. Back outside, John Waters is on a bike, the preferred mode at this small Cape Cod town on the very tip of this Massachusetts point.
Last weekend, a dispatch from Vegas, this weekend Cape Cod. June is almost over and in Provincetown, MA it’s what locals call “shoulder season.” Here, the annual film festival has become the unofficial kick-off to summer, giving merchants and tourists a jump on a season that used to start on the 4th of July.
“When the festival comes, we kick off the summer,” festival head Gabby Hanna told indieWIRE enthusiastically the other day, taking a brief break from working inside the fest box office to talk about the state of the festival. Never mind the wet, cool weather this year, main drag Commercial Street is bustling and there are even a few bold-faced names in town for the annual event which opened on Wednesday night with Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works.” Tonight the fest will honor Guy Maddin, Alessandro Nivola and Strand Releasing. Spotlight titles this year include Adam Salky’s “Dare,” “The Yes Men Fix The World,” and Jay DiPietro’s “Peter and Vandy.”
Now in its 11th year, the Provincetown International Film Festival is offering an ambitious 55 films over just five days – other June weekend fests offer fewer titles. Last year, PIFF presented 70 movies, but the economy has hit the event hard.
“The last couple of years have been a struggle,” executive director Hanna admitted, explaining that she had to cut the PIFF budget by one-third this year. Paid staffers had to take a pay cut and a large local venue was dropped. But chatting with her earlier this week, it’s clear that there was never any real chance that the fest might end after last year’s 10th anniversary.
“[The festival] was happening no matter what,” Hanna told indieWIRE emphatically when asked whether there was ever a thought that the event would end after last year. The ambitious ’08 fest was such a hit, welcoming guests such as Quentin Tarantino, Gael Garcia Bernal, Jane Lynch, and Gregg Araki, among others, that organizers were committed to survival despite the hurdles.
Like the others who come together to stage this annual small town event, she was determined to keep it going. Now a year-round resident of Provincetown, Hanna started coming here when she was just ten years old, re-discovering it after college. She looks at her role here as that of an art curator.
“Film is an art,” Hanna emphasized, “It’s great to be able to bring art here.” With backing from the local tourism board and key sponsor HBO, she has been able to keep the event alive here serving Cape Cod, tourists who travel in and folks from Boston (a 90 minute ferry ride away).
The Provincetown fest is a beloved event in this casual Massachusetts town. Attending for the second year in a row, I’m struck by how very intimate it is. The theaters are small (and some rather makeshift), this year none can hold more than about 120 people. There is only one party a night and everyone goes, filmmakers, guests and locals alike – a plus for any fest. The event draws a mix of industry and aficonados. Christine Vachon is here again with her family, Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans are in town to receive their tribute, IFCs Ryan Werner and distribution consultant Steven Raphael are among the other industry types. Dozens of filmmakers made the trip. And, the programming at PIFF is eclectic and solid, basically a mix of festival favorites and summer specialty titles. There is a distinct skew towards queer programming, given Provincetown’s status as a gay and lesbian mecca. Organizers talk about their programming — like their location on the tip of Cape Cod — being “on the edge.”
“My vision of this festival is that I want it to be a place where everyone feels comfortable,” Gabby Hanna offered. She and her colleagues, including artistic director Connie White, director of programming Andrew Peterson, and senior programmer Lisa Viola, among others, work hard for that goal. “I hear that we give a lot away.” Hanna admitted. The fest flew in some 50 filmmakers and guests, she said, and badge screeners are hospitably lax, letting in friends of guests when they can. “It helps Provincetown, it helps businesses, they’ll come back,” she added.
Now, to chart a course for the future of her festival, Hanna is hoping that folks will give back.
“I need an angel,” she admitted the other day during our conversation. Gaby Hanna is directing a capital campaign to buy the local Whaler’s Wharf Theater, a 70 seat venue that she feels will be ideal for offering first run indie and specialty films year round, as well as mini-festivals and other local events. She sees the move as crucial to the future of the Provincetown fest and if she can raise $500,000 she can own the theater within a year.
“Being a five-day festival, it’s very hard to raise money,” she noted, feeling like the move to a year-round organization is the key. She proclaimed, “It will help us survive.”