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Oscar Season’s Secret Weapon: How the Hamptons International Film Festival Has Influenced Fall Movies For 25 Years

The influential East Hampton gathering has found its footing over the years by giving the industry a unique opportunity at the height of awards season.

“Slumdog Millionaire”

At the first edition of the Hamptons International Film Festival in 1993, the programmers landed an event that instantly made it stand out: a conversation between Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. “That helped show the community we were for real,” artistic director David Nugent said in an interview. Twenty-five years later, nobody’s doubting HIFF’s bonafides.

Over the decades, the festival has settled into its early October weekend slot, traditionally overlapping with the New York Film Festival. That gives the exclusive Suffolk County gathering an edge during the awards season, which launches in the cozy mountains of Telluride and takes flight in Toronto. But HIFF provides the first opportunity for many Oscar hopefuls to reach Academy members and other influencers away from the mayhem of a crowded, industry-oriented festival scene.

“A lot of studios have seen the opportunity here,” said HIFF executive director Anne Chaisson, but it certainly hasn’t hurt grow the festival’s profile as well. As the fall season has become an increasingly competitive landscape, many movies are fighting to stand out, and HIFF has found its groove by offering one last tight-knit hurrah at the end of the year.

The latest lineup features a range of buzzy awards season fare, including Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” and Tonya Harding biopic “I, Tonya,” which serves as the closing selection. (Universal will also reintroduce early 2017 release “Get Out” with a discussion about the film.)

Notably, both “The Shape of Water” and “I, Tonya” are not playing the New York Film Festival, another HIFF feature through the years: Films that were either passed over by NYFF or not completed in time get one last shot for a prominent New York slot before the end of the year. In 2010, HIFF screened “Black Swan,” which didn’t make the NYFF cut; in 2014, it showed “Still Alice.” Both movies went on to score Oscars for their leading actresses.

“When you’re opening a movie in the fall and you’re not at NYFF, it’s great to have some sort of platform in the New York area,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who brought “Still Alice” to the festival. “They’re serious, educated people and I think the films play very well there.” This year, SPC’s non-NYFF titles screening in the Hamptons include “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” with stars Annette Bening and Jamie Bell on hand, in addition to Michael Haneke foreign language submission “Happy End.” Other non-NYFF titles among the festival’s higher profile offerings include the Winston Churchill biopic “Darkest Hour” and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri,” which recently snagged the coveted audience prize at TIFF.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Fox Searchlight

That film is currently a leading awards contender from Fox Searchlight, which has seen great success with HIFF over the years, starting with its screening of Telluride entry “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2008. Since then, nine of the 10 eventual best picture winners have screened at the festival.

Chaisson estimated that hundreds of Academy voters live in the greater East Hampton area, but Barker said they weren’t the only part of the crowd that matters. “You never know how many members actually go to screenings,” he said. “It’s easy to say that they live there, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the members are always there.” Instead, he singled out a broader set of influencers who live in the famously upper class region. “The number one aspect of the festival is the influencers there in everything from art to fashion to sports,” he said, citing festival goers such as Calvin Klein and Cindy Sherman who are regularly spotted in the crowds. “You reach a lot of people that way, and you can’t underestimate the influence from other fields to help spread the word.”

While one might describe HIFF as the East Coast counterpart to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, another high-end beach community packed with well-heeled Academy voters, that festival mounts a series of gala awards tributes and panels over two weekends in late January and early February, hoping they match up with Oscar nominations (this year’s arrive on January 23, 2018). The much earlier HIFF — like L.A.’s November AFI FEST — showcases a much broader field of possibilities. “[SBIFF] do a great job, but we play a different role,” said Nugent. Like Telluride, HIFF is compact, cramming a superbly curated lineup into just five days.

HIFF’s competition is not only the mighty NYFF,  but overlapping major festivals in London, Vancouver and Chicago. “It’s a scheduling nightmare,” said Chasson. “We all just have to talk to each other and figure out how to make it work.”

And the HIFF isn’t solely an Oscar buzz factory. The festival has hosted a screenwriting lab, a film club, a summer documentary program and a student short film showcase since its early days. In its first year, one student short film screened at the festival carried the provocative title, “I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meathook, and Now I Have a Three Picture Deal at Disney.” It was directed by a rising talent named Ben Affleck. The next year, the festival’s audience prize went to Bob Balaban for his sleeper hit “The Last Good Time.” He’s now an longtime member of the festival’s board, which is chaired by Alec Baldwin.

Yet despite such names being closely associated with American cinema, HIFF’s program has been associated with a hefty programming of foreign cinema, and not only Oscar contenders. Nugent credited his predecessor, current MOMA film chief Rajendra Roy, with tapping his overseas connections to bring a more international flair to the lineup. Audiences have taken note. “It’s not unusual to get calls from our patrons who say, ‘I want you to tell me the five most obscure films that you have,’” said Nugent. “They’re looking for things they may or may not see the rest of the year.”

While the festival celebrates this year’s milestone, it has plenty of room to grow. Five years into the job, Chasson said that she hopes to find a year-round headquarters — possibly even a theater — for her four-person team of full-timers, to bolster the nonprofit’s programming activities through the year. “We would like a home,” she said. “We’d like to be able to have more control over showcasing everything we want. It’s hard for us to get dates to do what we want.”

Fortunately, HIFF doesn’t have to worry about getting access to supportive members of its community with deep pockets. Chasson doesn’t dance around that reality. “Festivals have different personalities because of the people who live there,” she said. “None of us could survive without people who choose to support the arts and culture in this area.”

The 25th edition of the Hamptons International Film Festival runs October 5 – 9.

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