In year 11, fest seeks place at big table

HAMPTONS FEST 411
When: Today through Sunday
Where: East Hampton
Why: To celebrate American indie and international film.
Bragging points: 82 preems (features and shorts), including 24 world, seven North American
Size: 153 films; 72 feature-length (docs and narrative)
VIP: Joan Allen, Golden Starfish honoree for acting
Web site: www.hamptonsfilmfest.org; tickets (866) 468-7619

Summer in the Hamptons may mean fun, sun and bumping into the Hilton sisters, but this fall’s Hamptons Intl. Film Festival is about getting down to business.

The eastern Long Island event, held Oct. 22-26 in the ritzy beach community, has reached a turning point with its 11th edition: Organizers hope to make the leap from regional showcase to international industry destination.

“The first several years we concentrated on establishing stability and raising money so we could give something back to the independent filmmaker,” says Denise Kasell, now entering her sixth year as executive director. Having accomplished this goal, the fest will dole out nearly $250,000 in cash and services to award winners.

“The next phase,” continues Kasell, “is to get as much industry attention for these filmmakers as possible.”

As part of that goal, the festival has launched the Intl. Forum, a meeting place for foreign promotional orgs and U.S. industryites. With partners such as the German Film Export Union, Unifrance and the Ontario Canada Desk, the forum will provide a place for global sales agents to peddle their projects in the U.S. market.

It also will host industry-only breakfasts and cocktail hours, and one-on-one private mentoring sessions between filmmakers and industry professionals, the result of an outreach program to determine what attendees wanted most.

“You’re going to see an increased focus on foreign films, because that’s what our audiences want,” says programming director Rajendra Roy, who joined the Hamptons team last year.

“And if we can develop a niche for that on the East Coast during the fall awards season, that would be great.”

In the past four years, the HIFF Audience Award has gone to a foreign-lingo film; recent winners include Oscar honoree “Nowhere in Africa” and “Italian for Beginners.” The festival’s 4-year-old Conflict & Resolution sidebar, targeting films from political hotspots, has enjoyed solid audiences and boosted the international flavor of the overall event.

This year’s HIFF will feature a record 24 world premieres, and organizers are betting on a good number of acquisition discoveries in 2003.

“Our program is small enough so we can have an all-quality and all-premiere festival,” Roy says. “I select my competition films with the idea that they’re all distributable.”

However, past years’ award winners, from Vanessa Parise’s “Kiss the Bride” (2002) to Joseph M. Castelo’s “American Saint” (2001) to Dani Minnick’s “Falling Like This” (2000), all left Long Island without distribution deals.

Even so, New Line exec Michael Lynne, a five-year veteran of the HIFF board of directors, believes the festival has been able to identify filmmakers bubbling under the surface. Lynne also attests to the festival’s ability to become a launch pad for fall releases. New Line holiday comedy “Elf” will unreel at the fest.

“It’s a stepped word-of-mouth screening,” Lynne says. “Since the film will be released in early November, it’s perfect timing.”

The accelerated Academy Awards calendar, along with the pending demise of screeners, also could work to increase the fest’s industry profile.

“The distributors are very explicit,” Kasell says. “They’re saying we’re going to do this as an Oscar campaign.”

For example, Miramax pushed back its release date of “The Human Stain” — Hampton’s closing-night film — to Oct. 31 in order to better position actors Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins for an Academy run.

According to Roy, “That has everything to do with good buzz on the performances, the festival position in the fall, and the Academy voters that are out here.”

Sony Picture Classics’ co-prexy Michael Barker, who is bringing to the Hamptons such Oscar hopefuls as “Monsieur Ibrahim,” “Fog of War” and “The Triplettes of Belleville,” admits, “If the screenings give the films enough profile to attract Academy members, then it’s a plus.”

While the rich and powerful may frequent East Hampton, that doesn’t mean turning the HIFF into an industry event will be easy.

Cowboy Pictures’ John Vanco, who acquired the Oscar-nominated docu “Promises” out of Hamptons 2002, acknowledges the festival is “getting stronger every year, with Raj on the creative side and Denise on the business side. But having the festival migrate into an industry focus is really difficult, because they are unlikely to attract hot acquisitions titles with any regularity.”

While Vanco welcomes the Intl. Forum, he warns, “The co-production organization of Latvia is not as exciting as Miramax acquisition execs.”

Still, insiders say that Hamptons has reached a critical point in its evolution. Mark Rabinowitz, newly hired as an industry liaison for HIFF, says, “For the first five years of the festival, it had six executive directors, so it was like spinning your tires in the mud. Now, Denise has given the festival some traction.”

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