Longtime artistic director ankles position

With the recent departure of longtime executive director Denise Kassell and artistic director Rajendra Roy, the Hamptons Intl. Film Festival is, in many ways, starting anew.

As a programmer for the Berlinale, the much-admired Roy frequently mixed with industryites worldwide and had an advanced look at international cinema coming down the pike. (In May, Roy was poached by the Museum of Modern Art to be its chief film curator.)

The festival recognizes the hit — losing its two central visionaries in the same year — but it’s also spinning the news as a positive. “Raj helped us raise the festival to a new level,” says HIFF board chairman Stuart Match Suna. “But I think transition and evolution is very healthy.”

“The foundation has been laid,” echoes Hamptons fest manager Gianna Chachere, who joined the event last year. “The departure of Denise and the change in Raj’s status (Raj remains loosely involved in an advisory capacity) has definitely been an upset for some people,” she admits. “But the festival has been going on for 15 years, and we’re not deterring too much from the vision that’s already been established.”

The festival has finalized negotiations for a new executive director, but it won’t announce the new hire until the event begins on Oct. 17. And while the search for a new artistic director is ongoing, former HIFF programming manager Josh Koury has stepped up to become festival programmer in the meantime, while David Nugent, the Newport Intl. Film Festival’s programming director, was brought on as programming consultant.

HIFF organizers realize the Hamptons has come into its own as a foreign cinema showcase — overseas productions have consistently captured the event’s top prizes; last year’s big winners included Jens Lien’s Norwegian entry “The Bothersome Man” and German director Sven Taddicken’s “Emma’s Bliss.” “We might be more respected internationally than we are locally,” Suna admits.

But the fest now wants to shift the focus back to its domestic roots. “Raj built up the international aspect,” Koury says. “But what David and I have tried to do is raise the American indie to the same caliber as the international spectrum.”

In this year’s lineup, Koury cites, specifically, the world premiere of actor Chris Eigeman’s directorial debut “Turn the River” and Will Geiger’s dark romance “Elvis and Anabelle” — both screening in the Golden Starfish Competition, whose winner is awarded a production package worth $185,000.

Nugent also brings a specific interest in documentaries, highlighting the U.S. premiere of Phil Donahue’s Iraqumentary “Body of War” and the New York premiere of “A Table in Heaven,” about haute-cuisine restaurant Le Cirque, both screening in the festival’s Spotlight section.

Nugent’s also nabbed the world premiere of Albert Maysles’s “Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway,” which will afford a special celebration to the Direct Cinema legend. Other notable American nonfiction world premieres include Matthew Galkin’s PETA expose “I am an Animal,” film critic Marshall Fine’s portrait of fellow critic Rex Reed “Do You Sleep in the Nude,” and Steven-Charles Jaffe’s “Born Dead, Still Weird,” a look into the life of cartoonist Gahan Wilson.

Festival organizers also emphasize a desire to stay true to their local audience, which “is a diverse community,” says New Line co-chair and co-CEO Michael Lynne, a board member and longtime festival supporter. “It has a high-profile media community, but there’s also an ardent local audience.”

To cater to the locals, the festival has added an additional screen in Southampton, a 30-minute drive from the event’s original hub in East Hampton.

While the expansion pushes the Hamptons fest further afield from its aspirations to be an intimate East Coast version of Telluride, fest manager Chachere says it was “required to fulfill our obligation to these communities. I always think less is more,” she adds, “until you get to the point where the demands of the audience are there.”

Other changes at the festival include new partnerships with OK Magazine, Heineken, sponsor of the fest’s new environmental center and reception tent, the Green Lounge, and Hallmark (Henry Schleiff, president and CEO of Hallmark Channel, has a house in Bridgehampton).

Despite such revisions, Hamptons supporters are generally unfazed. German Films’ Oliver Mahrdt admits it’s “strange” to work with a festival without a director, but he says German producers still want to bring their films to the Long Island festival.

“I’m sure whoever takes over will make it their own,” says Arianna Bocco, IFC Entertainment’s VP of acquisitions and productions. As for this year’s fest, Bocco will be attending the fest personally. “It’s obviously nice to get out of the city,” she admits, “but I’m going there to see movies.”

TIP SHEET

Dates: Oct. 17-21

Venues: East Hampton, Southhampton, Sag Harbor, Montauk

Prizes: $249,000 in cash and goods

Preems: 17 world; 11 U.S.; 17 East Coast; 13 Gotham

Films: 103 total

Opening night: Bob Balaban’s “Bernard and Doris”

Closing night: Kirsten Sheridan’s “August Rush”

Programming highlights: Alison Eastwood’s “Rails and Ties,” Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” Albert Maysles’ “Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway,” Paul Schrader’s “The Walker”

Narratives in competition: “Turn the River” (Chris Eigeman); “Elvis and Anabelle” (Will Geiger); “Kings” (Tom Collins); “Valerie” (Birgit Moller); “Just Buried” (Chaz Thorne)

Docus in competition: “Do You Sleep in the Nude?” (Marshall Fine); “I Am an Animal” (Matthew Galkin); “Resolved” (Greg Whiteley); “Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird” (Steven-Charles Jaffe); “Pool of Princesses” (Bettina Blumner)

Panel topics: Screenwriting, Rising Stars, Conflict & Resolution; Sloan Science & Film

Toppers: To be announced; fest manager Gianna Chachere; programmer Josh Koury 

Honorees/Conversations: Vanessa Redgrave, Sidney Lumet

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