Gary Essert, founder of FilmEx, dies

Gary Essert, 54, who founded and ran both the Los Angeles International Film Exposition and the American Cinematheque, died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles of complications from AIDS.

Funeral services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Old North Church, Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills.

One of the leading forces in adventurous non-theatrical, non-commercial film exhibition in the United States for the last two decades, Essert always brought a showbiz flair to film festival and repertory programming that is rarely evident in those circles. He vastly expanded the audience for alternative film events in Los Angeles, often in the face of industry apathy and even hostility, and was actively pursuing his abiding dream of a permanent home for the American Cinematheque when he became ill.

His longtime companion and professional colleague, Gary Abrahams, died of complications from AIDS in November.

Described as “a great visionary” by American Cinematheque chairman Sydney Pollack, Essert presided over Filmex as it became the largest public film event in the world by the late 1970s, a major event on the annual Los Angeles arts calendar.

Born in Oakland in 1938, Essert served in the U.S. Navy aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ticonderoga. He then enrolled at UCLA, where he soon began programming student and professional films. He displayed some of the panache for which he was later known in preparing a special filmed lead-in for student film screenings, and by inaugurating 24-hour movie marathons that were later to become a hallmark of Filmex.

A technical expert, Essert also designed the screening facilities at UCLA, the American Film Institute and elsewhere.

From 1967-69, he designed and ran the multimedia dance and concert venue The Kaleidoscope. Over the years, heworked occasionally as a graphic designer, and in 1975 produced the documentary “The Movies” for the Motion Picture Fund and ABC.

With the help of George Cukor and others, Essert launched the first Filmex in Hollywood in 1971. Essert and his colleagues were appalled that Los Angeles, the center of the film business, was one of the few major cities in the country without a film festival. Despite minimal cooperation from the studios, a situation that generally improved over the years, Essert quickly proved that Los Angeles was ready for the sort of massive event he had envisioned.

As opposed to a rigorously selective, highbrow event such as the New York Film Festival, Filmex always took a smorgasbord approach to programming, attracting upwards of 100,000 viewers per year to screenings of several hundred films from all over the world.

Events ranged from splashy Hollywood-style premieres, which fostered Essert’s reputation for extravagance, to presentations of free screenings, children’s programs, retrospectives, panels and seminars, one or two guaranteed outrages and, invariably, the showing of dozens of films annually that would otherwise never have been seen in Los Angeles. Filmex notably attracted many viewers from the city’s numerous ethnic communities through the diversity of its programming.

Unlike most other fests, the Filmex lineup did not largely represent its director’s personal choices, but rather those of three selection committees that screened countless entries.

At its peak, Filmex took place at the two then-Plitt Century City Theaters. At other times, it spread out over multiple cinemas around the city.

Filmex’s ongoing problem was one of debt and, in 1984, Essert himself became the center of controversy regarding the festival’s financial health. After a series of board moves, Essert was squeezed out of the organization he had created, and it ceased to exist shortly thereafter, having been transformed, more or less, into an annual fest staged by the American Film Institute.

Essert soon announced the creation of the American Cinematheque, which he always intended would become the home of a year-round venue showcasing daily screenings of old and new films.

Assembling a heavyweight industry board, Essert planned to construct the facility, first at the Pan Pacific Auditorium, then as part of a new development Melvin Simon was spearheading near the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. But with these and other plans stymied by endless economic and political complications, the American Cinematheque has temporarily staged monthly weekend minifests at the Directors Guild of America.

As a fund-raising enterprise, org also put on the annual Moving Picture Ball.

Essert also organized screenings of vintage Hollywood musicals for the annual “An Old Fashioned Night At The Movies” at the Hollywood Bowl.

Without Essert’s drive and imagination to guide it, it is unclear exactly what will happen to his longtime dream, although American Cinematheque president Peter Dekom stated that he and his colleagues “are all prepared and committed to realize his vision for Los Angeles.”

He is survived by his mother.

In lieu of flowers, donations are suggested to the American Cinematheque.