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Oscar, Schmoscar: Three Things The Palm Springs International Film Festival Can Do To Remain Relevant

Oscar, Schmoscar: Three Things The Palm Springs International Film Festival Can Do To Remain Relevant

Saturday night was the self-congratulatory free-for-all otherwise known as the Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards and damn if they didn’t deserve it. Now in its 24th year, both the festival and the gala have all the earmarks of maturity and success — and there was nothing self evident about either achievement. 

As Mary Bono Mack pointed out from the stage of the Palm Springs Convention Center to the audience of some 2,000 — a mix of sequin-clad locals and soberly dressed film-industry folk ranging from Warner Bros. president Jeff Robinov (supporting “Argo,” which received an award for its cast) to Adopt Films’ Jeff Lipsky (supporting his whopping five foreign-langage films programmed at the festival) — the festival and the gala as “first-class extravaganza” were the vision of her late husband, Sonny Bono (Saturday night also marked the 15th anniversary of his death). 

Now the gala is an established Oscar bellwether (and one that also earned $1.8 million for the Palm Springs Film Society) while the festival is the public’s opportunity to gorge on foreign-language films making their last push for Oscar nominations. And with honorees who included Bradley Cooper, Sally Field and Helen Mirren (not to mention Tom Hanks inducting Robert Zemeckis), the event has hit its mark.

And yet. If this were PSIFF: The Movie, we’d be at the perfect setup for the crisis in the first act. The inciting incident, of course, is the Academy’s decision to move up its ballot deadlines (and subsequent nomination announcement, which went from January 24 to January 10). It’s an understandable strategy, but it’s also one that has the potential to throw the event’s raison d’être into disarray. 

However, as the festival approaches its quarter-century anniversary, it also has the opportunity to not only maintain but also improve its position, in just a few moves — some easier than others, but all with the power to effect real change.

* Change the date (or don’t). This one is the most obvious, of course. And the festival is currently planning to keep its dates. However, if PSIFF moved its dates to early December (one possibility that has been a topic of discussion), that would allows it to maintain its post as the season’s earliest Oscar showcase. 

Of course, it’s not that simple: early December would mean people have to travel the weekend after Thanksgiving, which could be an unappealing prospect. And then there’s possibility that it’s just a little too early — not only is December a busy month for Oscar releases, but it could be nauseating to think about conflating high-stakes Oscar buzz with the frenzy of the holiday season.

However, maybe they shouldn’t overworry the dates. While they gave the festival the infrastructure it needed to thrive, slavishly following Academy deadlines could be a mistake. There’s other audiences to consider — and it’s also possible that after nearly 25 years, PSIFF has achieved the gravity it needs to stand without the benefit of the Oscar ballot deadline. 

* Change the outreach. Much has been made of the fact that PSIFF theater lobbies contain more than the average number of canes, walkers and wheelchairs. That’s a testament to the core audience, which is also the core audience for foreign-language films on the whole — not to mention much of Palm Springs itself. With its long history as a retirement community, it’s perhaps the most elegant alignment of target audience and indie film on the festival circuit.

However, drill down into the PSIFF programming and you’ll also see what’s one of the circuit’s most exciting film collections. From “Tabu” to “Hannah Arendt” to “Amour,” “Sister,” “Barbara” and “Our Homeland,” who else can afford to focus almost entirely on foreign films? And yes, most were seen elsewhere first — but really, how does that matter? Foreign films receive such limited distribution in the U.S. that “first!” bragging rights are rendered largely irrelevant on a practical level. In fact, it could even be argued that there’s greater benefit in not being first — being able to draft off the marketing energies expended by the festivals or releases that precede it. 

So — it’s also possible that PSIFF is missing an opportunity. Palm Springs is already a beloved home for the gay community; with the right marketing, it could also attract an even wider swath of young and hip Los Angeles film fans who might well also enjoy gorging on its well-curated foreign films. Of course, there’s the orgy of spas and mid-century modern architecture, but it’s possible to make it accessible for those on lower budget — perhaps work with Cinefamily to charter a cinephile party bus or carpool, with group rates at one of the cheap and plentiful motels? 

* Change that thingie on the table. The PSIFF awards gala is a case study in how to do so many things right. It’s a formal dinner backed by the deepest-pocketed sponsors (Cartier, Mercedes-Benz) and, even more importantly, passionate and committed local backers who don’t hesitate to embrace the gala invitation’s black-tie suggestion or to open their own pockets. As a result, a significant portion of the evening’s programming was devoted to emcee Mary Hart and PSIFF vice chairman Harold Matzner offering thanks to a seemingly endless list of supporters. Dull? Sure; but absolutely vital in terms of making this crowd know their money was appreciated.

So then, what to make of the crystal flower thing, with its disconcerting flashing orange eye, that was placed at the top of each diner’s place setting? There was a clip at the bottom that suggested it might have a purpose (emergency light? world’s heaviest hair ornament?), but there also appeared to be no way to make it stop the endless Morse-code blinking. 

I don’t have the answer, but I do have a suggestion: Whatever it is, that thing couldn’t be cheap. Palm Springs deserves the support; put the money toward creating a cool souvenir that attendees aren’t scared to take home with them. 

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