Film fest's Rivers angling to put Maui on world map

Haleakala, Maui’s famous volcano, may be long dormant, but there’s a new force of nature at work on the landscape of the Valley Isle.

Barry Rivers, charismatic director of the island’s 5-year-old film festival, has been doing everything short of spewing lava and smoke to build the event so it’s big enough to matter on the movie industry’s map of the world.

“I see this as an event that will have as its core support group an A-list industry and film aficionado base, not dissimilar to Telluride. I’ve looked at them as a model for a long time,” Rivers says. He may be getting a little ahead of himself, but as he’s quick to point out, “they’ve been at it for 25 years. We’re just heading for five.”

On top of that, he adds, the founders of the Telluride fest “had the luxury of building it up in a world with significantly fewer film festivals than we have these days.”

The tension between what Rivers envisions and what he’s so far been able to achieve comes to the fore quickly when he speaks of the festival. Ten days before opening, he still hadn’t secured an honoree for his prestigious Silversword award (past winners include Clint Eastwood and Anthony Hopkins).

“This has been a very challenging year when it comes to getting commitments from stars,” he admits. A-listers require private jets, and Rivers doesn’t have one. His bid to lure Tom Hanks and book DreamWorks’ “The Terminal” for opening night stalled.

It’s all the more frustrating given that the young filmathon, which unfolds June 16-20, looks poised for its most high-profile edition. Among other new events, CNN will be on the scene, broadcasting dozens of live and taped segments.

Bill Maher, Woody Harrelson, Angela Bassett, indie mogul Ted Hope and Oscar winner Adrien Brody — a loyalist making his third visit — are among the celebrity guests and awardees who’ll attend. And the film program, Rivers maintains, is the strongest yet. It’s also the biggest, with 65 films, including 50 features, over four days.

Coming a month after Cannes, and facing intense calendar competition from events like the simultaneous Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Rivers’ show is light on premieres but strong on substance.

Small but smart choices range from political docs such as “The Control Room,” “Parallel Lines,” “Go Further” and “The Yes Men” to current indie buzz-getters like “Open Water,” “Garden State,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Saved!” and “Maria Full of Grace.” A surprise screening of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the Palme D’Or winner, is also rumored.

“We got pretty much every film we wanted,” Rivers reports. “We try to walk the walk of our mission statement, which is to showcase new stories for a new century — films that are about something. There were bigger films we could get, but they didn’t work for us.”

For the industryites and filmmakers the festival hopes to lure, however, it would be possible to come away dazzled while fitting in only two or three pics.

That’s because, even while contending with the limitations of a small-market fest set on a “dot in the middle of the ocean,” Rivers is adept at capitalizing on its strengths.

His master stroke is the Celestial Cinema, a state-of-the-art outdoor venue set on a golf course above the ocean. But equally impressive are the receptions and parties, often catered by four-star hotel chefs in spectacular settings.

The Wailea resort area where the fest is centered, site of the Four Seasons Maui and Fairmont Kea Lani (locale of the opening-night reception), has long been an industry fave destination. This year, Rivers has added more distractions — an opening-night live comedy event and a closing-night audience awards party.

“I’ve been focusing on how to draw the industry and the high-rollers,” he admits.

As part of his overall plan for cultivating studio ties, Rivers launched an annual screening series in the two-week break between Christmas and New Year’s, aimed at Oscar voters vacationing on Maui. Studios ship prints of award contenders to the plush new Castle Theater; Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members attend screenings for free (while others pay), and an alliance is born.

With his weekly Starlight Cafe series, Rivers stokes the fires year-round, screening new specialty films each week to stimulate a loyal and audience for indies.

He makes the festival rounds, grabbing visibility at Sundance by staging hula events in the snow and hosting a cafe called the Coconut Wireless (Hawaii slang for “word of mouth”). He’s got any number of promotions going, with such partners as Landmark Theaters and L.A. pubcaster KCET, which are pushing group-travel jaunts to the festival.

This year, longtime partner Tommy Bahama stepped up its contribution to become the fest’s presenting sponsor. But another key supporter, American Express, went the opposite way, departing to invest more heavily in New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Still, the island fest has grown on virtually every front.

“We’re getting so much more responsiveness and so much more respect,” Rivers says. “We’re very much trying to take that next giant leap.”

Tim Ryan in Honolulu contributed to this report.

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