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Meet the Palm Springs International Film Festival Programmers (In Their Own Words)

Meet the Palm Springs International Film Festival Programmers (In Their Own Words)

Palm Springs in January; not a bad place to be for a film festival under nearly any scenario, but luckily for filmmakers and audiences alike, the annual Palm Springs International Film Festival isn’t just any festival. One of the largest U.S. events to kick off the new year, PSIFF regularly attracts huge crowds to its screenings, panels and special events. Sometimes event to a fault. Queues can be very long and parking at venues can go quickly. But by any measure, it’s worth it.

Nowhere else can you get such a comprehensive lineup of Best Foreign Language Oscar contenders from the previous year, and the event’s desert, sunshine, pools, golf courses, laid back vibe and proximity to Los Angeles is a natural draw for Hollywood (and non-Hollywood) brass.

Indiewire’s other Festival Programmer Profiles:

Sundance Film Festival
SXSW Film Festival

Tribeca Film Festival
Los Angeles Film Festival
San Francisco International Film Festival
Woodstock Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival
Slamdance Film Festival

Darryl Macdonald, Director, Palm Springs International Film Festival (and Director, Palm Springs International ShortFest)

Macdonald’s extensive festival background: Darryl Macdonald is the Director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival and the Palm Springs International ShortFest and Short Film Market. He is the co-founder of The Seattle International Film Festival, and was its Executive and Artistic Director from 1975 – 2003.  

He served as the first Artistic Director of the Palm Springs Film Festival (1989 -1993) and the Hamptons Film Festival (1993 -1996) and was the Programming Director of the Vancouver International Film Festival (1988 -1992). He has also served as the Director of the Goodwill Games Film Festival, the Women in Cinema Festival and the Washington State Centennial Film Festival.

He has served on the Award Juries of several international film festivals and the Independent Spirit Awards. He has written articles on film and filmmaking for Variety Books, Reel News and the Hollywood Reporter, among other publications. He currently serves on the Advisory Council for the Documentary Channel, the International Film Festival Summit and is a Board member of the Seattle International Film Festival. Macdonald has been named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Republic of France for his contributions to French Cinema, presented with a Distinguished Citizen Award by the Mayor of Seattle and Event Producer of the Year Award from the N.E.P.A.

On bringing an extensive lineup of international cinema to a large audience… We present one of the most comprehensive and extensive overviews for filmgoers in the US of what is going on in international cinema to an audience of 130,000 that quite literally comes from across the country (70% of our audience is from outside of the Coachella Valley) each year to participate. We’re also one of the few festivals in the world that combine a truly diverse line up of new international films alongside the presence of major Hollywood starpower and creative talent.  But I think our chief importance is as a festival that can truly effect the fortunes of a foreign language film in this country, both in terms of official recognition (such as the case with “Departures,” which emerged from obscurity in its US debut at the festival in 2008, and went on to win the Oscar) and word of mouth across the country, given that our audience are avid filmgoers who come from literally all over the country.

Thoughts on integrating new media and festivals as a launchpad… I think that the natural evolution of film festivals will involve the integration of new media and technology with traditional forms of presentation and audience involvement. Regardless of the ways in which presentation and audience engagement evolve – whether online or with the ‘bums in seats’ model – festivals will continue to be a key breeding ground for newly emerging talent and a launch pad for unheralded new films.

Practical advice for filmmakers… Same as for any other major festival: do not expect early answers – the vast majority of our selection decisions come after we’ve seen the bulk of the submissions, rather than as soon as we see a film.  Oh, and one other thing: make films that matter.

Palm Springs as a film destination… The city has been incredibly supportive of the festival in terms of providing opportunities for our filmmakers and audiences to have a great experience when they come here. Local hotels provide a large number of free rooms for our filmmaking guests and special low rates for attendees; local restaurants host Festival parties and provide speedy service and special deals for filmgoers; and the city is a major sponsor of the entire event. Then, too, our 70 degree average January temperatures and wealth of recreational activities – golf, tennis, hiking, horseback riding, spas, etc. augment the cultural opportunities that the Festival itself provides.

Some recent PSIFF and non-PSIFF favorites… Among my personal favorite PSIFF films the last couple of years have been “Of Gods and Men,” “The First Grader,” “Dossier K,” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (which won our Audience Award at the 2010 Festival). Other favorites include “The Artist,” “The Social Network,” “A Prophet,” “Il Divo” and “The Tree of Life.”

Helen du Toit, Artistic Director

A background of festivals and indie film production… For two decades I have led a hybrid life between festivals and indie film production. As a producer, my festival work keeps me up-to-date on the international market, and as a programmer I’m more aware of the needs of attending filmmakers and industry.

After graduating from University with a BFA, I spent 4 years in Europe, then in 1990 I moved to Vancouver to work at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). There I met Krzysztof Kieślowski and saw “The Decalogue” over 5 days along with over 1,000 people, which opened my eyes to the power of cinema to transcend distance and cultural differences – and to connect us.

VIFF launched me on an international film festival circuit to the Palm Springs, Seattle, Edinburgh and Toronto International Film Festivals. Starting in hospitality, I moved on to publicity, marketing then programming.

In the ’90s I also started working in film production – in art departments, then as PM on the TV series “ReBoot.” I produced several short films before producing my first feature, “Treed Murray” by Bill Phillips, which was nominated for 5 Genies and named one of the top ten films at TIFF in 2001.

Since then I’ve alternated between festivals and film development and production. In addition to heading up programming in Palm Springs, I’ve served for the last 3 years as Creative Director for VIFF’s Film & TV Forum.

I’m very proud to have been involved in producing two wonderful films that premiered at TIFF this September: “Edwin Boyd” by Nathan Morlando, which won Best First Canadian Feature Award; and Mark Cousins’ extraordinary 15-hour documentary “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” filmed over 5 years on 6 continents, covering 12 decades of cinema history. I am currently developing a number of feature films; one of my favorites is based on John Berger’s novel “To the Wedding.”
PSIFF as a destination for “Art House” aficionados… We are a destination festival for Art House film fans from throughout North America. Although the population of Palm Springs is only 45,000, we have over 130,000 admissions with 65% of our attendees coming from elsewhere in North America. We are also a gateway to the US market for top foreign language films, showcasing the largest selection of foreign language Oscar submissions in our “Awards Buzz” section. Our proximity to LA makes for a strong and ever-growing industry attendance: Academy Members have free access to screenings, and publicists use PSIFF as a strategic part of their Oscar campaigns. In addition, our Black Tie Gala launches the Awards season and has proven to be an accurate harbinger of award winners.
Growing audiences and festival challenges… PSIFF has rebuilt a loyal audience steadily since Board Chairman Harold Matzner brought back Darryl Macdonald as Festival Director in 2004, and our audience continues to grow about 7% every year. While we do fine tune programming and operations based on audience feedback, it’s clear from surveys that the audience returns every year to see the best of world cinema, so that will always be our primary focus.

In terms of how festivals are changing generally, dwindling sponsor dollars have seen some fold and others become more competitive. Some of the smaller ones that mainly service a local community are now pushing for premieres. Unfortunately that does a disservice to the filmmakers who only have one premiere on offer but want their films to be seen as widely as possible.
Practical submission advice… You’re taking your audience on a journey, and to do that you’ll have to take full advantage of the visual medium—but remember that sound can bring a whole new layer of meaning and nuance. Use music judiciously as it can make or break all you’ve accomplished. Less is often more – not only in terms of length, but also in terms of information. And if you can make us cry or laugh… chances are you’re in.

Get feedback from objective sources (not family and friends) throughout post-production. Are you saying what you want to say, clearly and concisely?
Industry focus at ‘Variety Top Ten Directors to Watch’ event… Every year three US distributors adjudicate our “New Voices New Visions” competition, presenting 10 emerging international filmmakers whose films do not yet have US distribution. I also actively champion individual films with various distributors who would make a good match.

Last year, Variety moved its Top Ten Directors to Watch brunch and awards ceremony and its Indie Impact Award event to Palm Springs International Film Festival, scheduled the day after the Black Tie Awards Gala. Attended by studio heads, key media, industry and celebrities, it was a huge hit and is now the event to attend before people return to LA.

A new initiative last year was to host a Director’s Retreat. Over two days, 18 international filmmakers shared their experiences, discussed issues important to them, and came away with great new connections and friendships. Bringing filmmakers and audiences together for lively Q&As is of utmost importance to us. As a result, we host guests for 50% of the films we present in Palm Springs.  Everything is casual and easily accessible in Palm Springs so filmmakers tend to have a relaxed and enjoyable experience. Plus the weather is spectacular here in January, so film guests are always eager to attend.
Favorite PSIFF and non-PSIFF films of the past couple of years… “Hunger,” Mona Apache’s “The Hedgehog,” Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre,” “Fish Tank,” “Le Quatre Volte,” “In the Garden of Sounds,” “The Life of Fish.”

Alissa Simon, Senior Programmer

Alissa Simon’s film background… I have a M.A in Film History and Criticism and an M.A. in Arts Administration. My first job was as programmer for the Film Department of the Walker Art Center. From there I went to George Eastman House and then spent 12 years as the Associate Director of Programming at the Film Center of the Art Institute of Chicago.

An “essential stop” for Oscar season… Palm Springs is the first festival of the calendar year. As a big international festival presenting dozens of North American and U.S. premieres, we set the programming agenda for the numerous small festivals whose programmers come to us for “shopping” year after year. We also show most of the long list of films submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Foreign Language “Oscar” consideration, making our festival the unique venue for seeing most of these titles outside of the Academy. A screening in Palm Springs is now considered an essential stop in “Oscar” season promotion.

Because the dates of Palm Springs fortuitously coincide with “Oscar” and Golden Globe campaigns, it makes our festival highly attractive to top domestic and international talent across the industry. Moreover, our Black Tie Gala benefit often feels like a dress rehearsal for the “Oscars” and Golden Globes, with hundreds of stars in town.

A balancing act… Like the best festivals these days, Palm Springs offers programs for the ticket buying public, filmmakers, film industry and the media. We are constantly trying to balance, refine and improve our offerings to these three sometimes separate audiences and bring them together whenever possible.

We have a year round program that develops regional audiences through outreach screenings for high schools, elder hostels and Palm Springs Film Society members.

Practical submission advice and more… Obviously we are looking for exceptional, high quality films, but more than most other festivals, I think our programmers keep an eye out for strong, upbeat films that will appeal to our core audience of older viewers.

We offer panels, workshops and seminars with top talent open to our audiences and the visiting filmmakers. Last year we instituted a filmmakers retreat which we will repeat this year for select invited directors.

Favorite PSIFF and non-PSIFF films of the past couple of years… Favorite PSIFF films from last year: “Hello! How Are You?” from Romania, “Sound of Noise” from Sweden and “Oxygen” from Belgium, “12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary.”
Non-PSIFF (and maybe they will turn up in 2012)… “A Separation” from Iran, “Rose” from Poland, “Come As You Are” from Belgium, “The House” from Slovakia and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” from the US.

Carl Spence, Lead Programmer

Carl Spence’s curatorial and exhibition roots… I began my film curatorial and exhibition career while a university undergrad, hired to help revive the campus film series and live concert programming where I booked everything from Alomodar’s “Law of Desire” and Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa to Ellen Degeneres, Lou Reid and Phish.  I spent a short stint studying film at NYU Tisch School for the Arts, but the bulk of my film studies and discovery came from the University of Washington’s art, comparative literature, theater and Japanese studies departments.

Running the UW’s Arts and Entertainment allowed me to program classics and art house essentials that I hadn’t seen on the big screen in 35mm.  Fresh out of college with a not so helpful degree in theater, I worked as an assistant in publicity and promotions for the local agency representing Disney, MGM and other film studios (now mostly out of business) until Darryl Macdonald hired me to work the Seattle International Film Festival in 1994 on a 3-month contract. Miraculously, I managed to stay for 7 years moving up as a programmer and then associate director.

In 2001 I was hired as Director of Programming at the San Francisco International Film Festival.  Only two years later, Darryl and I were hired to join the Palm Springs International Film Festival as Executive Director and Director of Programming respectively. As Darryl left Seattle to be in Palm Springs full-time, I was also hired to be the Director of Programming in Seattle. As Seattle grew its year-round exhibition programming initiatives to build a new film center and open cinemas I have continued to be involved in Palm Springs as the lead programmer.

Considering PSIFF’s place in the festival circuit… Palm Springs has always stood out as one of the only events of its kind, outside of the Academy, that the film industry and the general public alike have the opportunity to see the majority of the films submitted as the official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language film to the Academy Awards. However, this is only about 25% of the program. The strength of the festival lies with its extraordinary range of international programming of new discoveries and talent selections spanning the continents. We’ve also been able to feature unheralded and overlooked gems from within our own borders.

With its proximity to Los Angeles and the Palm Springs reputation as the playground of Hollywood and the industry are both distinctions that shouldn’t be overlooked. While it might be hard to get the right people to a screening in Los Angeles, the relaxed atmosphere in Palm Springs away from the hustle of the office and big city grind provides the perfect setting. What may seem like work in Los Angeles is perceived as an opportunity in the desert. Wouldn’t it be preferable for someone to see your film after an amazing hike in the desert canyons, sightseeing from the top of the mountain, or even a refreshing swim?

A challenge that is also festivals’ greatest opportunity potential… The biggest challenge facing festivals is also our greatest opportunity. As distribution opportunities and windows change for filmmakers we must adapt to maintain our relevance. With so many ways to see films and so many choices PSIFF remains to be about providing community and human interaction between the audience and the filmmakers and just as important between filmmakers themselves. It is about building audiences, providing a platform, validation and creating buzz. Without us, our audiences would have no idea how to find the majority of these films or even which ones to choose.

Practical submission advice… The films speak for themselves. The process of creating a program for a festival is also subjective and based on many different factors. It is also a collective process amongst a group of curators. Often, we have to make choices between one film or another. I guess what I’m saying is that if your film isn’t selected, please do not take it personally. And a few pointers – shorter is almost always better. Story is most important and when you can combine great storytelling with flawless execution you can’t go wrong. At the same time production values do not equate perfection or brilliance. The story will still be the most important factor!

Palm Springs is “beautiful…” Palm Springs is a beautiful, magical place. The setting is unlike any other. The quality of the light against the backdrop of the mountains at the edge of the desert, the gushing sound of the underground natural springs which (if you go on a hike), the quality of the air. And the audiences – I’ve never seen audiences so willing to try something new. Where else in the US could you have 300 people fighting to get into a 9:00 a.m. screening on Monday morning to see a little known film from Turkey?

Some festival favorites and beyond… A few that come to mind….I’m going back a bit but showing the US premiere of the entire “Infernal Affairs” trilogy (the original films that inspired the Oscar winning remake “The Departed”),  Jean-Marc Vallée’s “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” “Paper Birds” from Emilio Aragon, Iciar Bollain’s “Even the Rain,” Mona Achache’s “Hedgehog,” Michel Hazanivicious’ “The Artist” (and his earlier brilliant OSS 117 films), Wim Wender’s “Pina,” Agnieska Holland’s “In Darkness,” “Le Havre” by Aki Kaurismaki and “The Kid With the Bike” from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.  I also just saw Martin Scorsese’s brilliant “Hugo.” Loved it.

Ken Jacobson, Programming/Education Outreach Coordinator

Calling in sick to see “Blue Velvet…” Like everyone, I have my share of formative filmgoing experiences: Calling in sick to see “Blue Velvet” on opening day at the Harvard Square Theater, experiencing the re-release of “Vertigo” on the big screen, listening to Emile de Antonio talk after a screening of his films.  My film education goes back to an internship on the second “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series and then film school at the Stanford MA Program in Documentary Film.  I also taught high school for eight years, so I try to be particularly sensitive to what makes a film work for high school age audiences.  At PSIFF, I oversee the documentary submissions, coordinate the doc lineup and program our Student Screening Day for high school and college students.

Pointing back and looking forward… Falling where it does in the calendar, the PSIFF is in a unique position both to look back at the year that was and point the way toward new work that will make its mark for the coming year.  With a high percentage of audience members from out of the area, we offer filmmakers and distributors a very representative and democratic response to their work.

Moving toward ‘interactive…’ I see PSIFF and other festivals continuing to do more to create unique and interactive festival experiences — involving in-person, Skype, or on-line guest appearances — be they events curated by programmers or initiated by audiences using social media tools.

5 points of practical submission advice… 1) Make absolutely sure that you know what core idea your film is about before you start and be attentive to that idea in every scene, 2) Cultivate and incorporate the good critical assessments of others throughout the process, 3) Surprise the viewer, 4) Build toward an emotional climax, 5) Try to have a sense of humor; it may save you.

“Exhilarating” Mt. San Jacinto… Nothing beats the exhilarating sight of Mt. San Jacinto after you’ve emerged from a particularly engrossing afternoon PSIFF screening and suddenly look up at this massive rock bathed in pink light.  The natural setting of the city and the cozy yet cosmopolitan feel of the Festival are a unique experience for both filmmakers and audiences.

PSIFF and non-PSIFF faves… Two of my favorite recent PSIFF films are the documentaries “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” and “Louder Than a Bomb” because of the thunderous audience applause that erupted when the films’ subjects walked up the aisle after both screenings.  I thought 1,000 teenagers were going to rush the stage after the “Bomb” screening!  Non-PSIFF: I think Oscar has gotten it right the last three years in the feature doc category:  “Man on Wire,” “The Cove,” and “Inside Job,” were my favorites, too.

Hebe Tabachnik, Iberoamerican Programmer

An international beginning… With a Greek first name, Russian last name and a Latin American spirit, I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina where I graduated with degrees in directing and screenwriting. After moving to the U.S. in 1999 I developed an undefeatable new passion: advocating for the best cinema in the Spanish and Portuguese languages.

For over ten years I have been a film curator and have participated as juror, project evaluator and panelist at film festivals in the U.S., Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Spain, and China. I am the Iberoamerican Programmer for Palms Springs International Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF), and a short film programmer for LAFF. I was also a short film programmer for the Sundance Film Festival and guest programmer at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. I am a member of the Board of Directors of Dance Camera West (DCW) and also serve on the selection committees of DCW and the International Documentary Association (IDA) Awards.

PSIFF as an “ideal place in the festival calendar…” Long before moving to the US, there were just a few film festivals I would follow on the news and Palm Springs was one of them. It has a long and established tradition of offering a selection of new and uncompromising works by young talent, together with jewels seen throughout the year at major national and international film festivals. Palm Springs enjoys an ideal place in the festival calendar right after the holidays, and the convenience of being just a few hours from Los Angeles.

I found over the years that many people choose Palm Springs because it provides an ideal atmosphere for more personal encounters. Industry professionals, film distributors, members of the press, and enthusiastic audiences have plenty of opportunities to talk with filmmakers one-on-one, and filmmakers get to witness first-hand the reaction of the audience to their films. It is indeed a festival for cinema lovers.

Selecting work that reflects “social and artistic expression…” In the last few years, with the proliferation of festivals around the world and at the same time the development of new means to deliver content to the audience, the key question has been the relevance and future of film festivals. I believe we have made sure Palm Springs remains relevant by selecting films that reflect the richness of social and artistic expression in the world. Never before have we been so connected and yet so isolated in our own screen-sized worlds, so it becomes crucial to create an environment that encourages a dialog among all participants of this celebration of cinema.

It is not enough to show great films and talent if the festival doesn’t provide the conditions to build a community, to shorten the distances, to inspire people’s imagination. I think Palm Springs does exactly that. And of course, to elevate the whole experience, we offer the thrilling glamour of the festival’s world-famous Black Tie Gala and its glittering red carpet events.  

Practical advice… My advice is for anyone submitting to festivals: keep your expectations realistic and don’t get discouraged if your film is not selected. Palm Springs is a very competitive festival so it is important to submit work you are 100 % happy about. There is little or no room for second chances. And if one of your films gets selected you should come prepared to some of the toughest Q&As on the festival circuit. The Palm Springs audience is passionate and pays close attention to the films, which in turn inspires challenging questions.

You should come prepared because there will be many industry professionals and film critics sitting in the audience, so a seemingly quiet screening may become key in the life of your film and your career. You should come with time to enjoy the city and its surroundings. There is something magical when the mountains turn orange at the crack of dawn or when you walk one of the Indian trails and learn about the history of the city. You should come with new projects in mind because there may be financiers willing to listen to exciting ideas sitting right next to you at the most unexpected events.

…And more on Palm Springs… I realize that I have been answering this question all along. The city of Palm Springs and the festival are so intertwined that it is almost impossible to talk about one without the other. Palm Springs leaves a long-lasting impression on its visitors—filmmakers, audience, and industry professionals alike. Which explains why every year so many people make the city and its annual international festival their preferred destination.

Favorites… I will group them in two big regions: Iberoamerica and the rest of the world. In the first group one of my all time favorites: “Black Bread” by Agusti Villaronga (Spain). We had the North American Premiere last year at PSIFF; it went on to win nine Goya Awards and it is the first Catalan film ever selected to represent Spain at the Oscars.

Also, in no particular order, “Nostalgia for the Light” by Patricio Guzman (Chile), “Puzzle” by Natalia Smirnoff (Argentina), “Southern District” by Juan Carlos Valdivia (Bolivia), “The Tiniest Place” by Tatiana Huezo (Mexico), “Las Acacias” by Pablo Georgelli (Argentina), “The Student” by Santiago Mitre (Argentina), “All Your Dead Ones” by Carlos Moreno (Colombia), “Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within” by José Padilha (Brazil), “Tony Manero” by Pablo Larrain (Chile) and “The Double Steps” by Isaki Lacuesta (Spain), just to mention a few.

From different parts of the world in the last couple of years: “Tyrannosaur” by Paddy Considine, “Pina” by Win Wenders, “Senna” by Asif Kapadia, “Farewell” by Ditteke Mensink, “How to Die in Oregon” by Peter Richardson, “Codependent Lesbian Alien Seeks Same” by Madeleine Olnek, “The Guard” by John Michael McDonagh, “Tomboy” by Benedicte Couvreur and “Incendies” by Denis Villeneuve, among many others.

Therese Hayes, programmer

France, Asia, London, USA and more… I grew up in France with an interest in Asia which was further developed while I studied English in London.  At the University of Washington in Seattle, I studied Far Eastern Civilization with a strong emphasis on art and culture.  In the last thirty years, I not only started to travel to various countries but started to collect Indian art, especially antique miniature paintings.  I have been a consultant for various film festivals in India and continue to curate the Bollywood & Beyond Film festival in Stuttgart, Germany.  I have produced several concerts of Classical Indian music.  I am also on the board of Film Trust India

Some quick tidbits… I see PSIFF having a very special importance due to the fact that it is the platform for a number of films submitted to the Oscars. The January placement is advantageous, being after the major Eastern festivals and before the European majors.

A good film festival needs to go beyond entertainment and needs to create a discourse between the filmmaker and the audience. As a programmer, I try to find often obscure films that can educate as well as touch human emotions.  Changes are taking place at festivals around the world, often dictated by economics. I also see more emphasis on bringing academic seminars.

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