California fests play musical chairs

Palm Springs, Santa Barbara looking for leaders

Three executive directors in the past two years?

Both Palm Springs and Santa Barbara — two well-established film fests in two of Southern California’s most attractive resort towns — are having a tough time settling on leadership.

They are not alone. There has been a high turnover of fest toppers around the world in recent years.

Though film fest professionals are loathe to suggest there could be too many events on the calendar, the revolving door at these dreamy-sounding jobs illustrates the challenges of the crowded festival environment.

“It’s critical for a festival to have an identity,” says Jon Fitzgerald, Santa Barbara’s most recent departure. “With so many festivals out there, it’s important to set yourself apart.”

Fitzgerald ankled the seaside berth in May after one year, behind Renee Missell, who preceded him.

Palm Springs has developed a strong niche — it’s considered one of the premiere North American showcases for world cinema — but behind-the-scenes conflicts and financial pressures have left its top job open.

“There seems to be some uncertainty in the board about the path they want to take,” says Mitch Levine, who quit the desert oasis in May, just nine months after signing on.

“It’s a very political and politicized environment. The board decided they wanted a more celebrity driven event, and a more managerial-style director. It was hard for me to understand, based on the success that we had.”

Looking for A-list

Craig Prater, Palm Springs’ longest-lasting topper (1993-2000), made similar observations. “The board wasn’t interested in a respected international film program nearly so much as in having major A-list celebrities and galas to fete them,” Prater says.

Palm Springs’ board leadership insists its intentions are quite the opposite, and that a quest for sound fiscal leadership, more than any other factor, has created the turnover.

“Three years ago, we were essentially bankrupt. Last year, we doubled our box office to 77,000 admissions while putting most of our marketing emphasis on the quality of our films,” says former board chairman Harold Matzner.

Says Earl Greenburg, the board’s chairman elect: “One night in ten we have a gala to thank the city for its support, but we are focused on pleasing an audience of ardent filmgoers.”

The downturn in the economy contributes to tensions among fest boards and directors, who tend to share responsibility for the fiscal health of the orgs, say veterans of the scene.

From the dot-com meltdown to the corporate accounting scandal, from terrorist attacks to ailing airlines, sponsorship seekers in recent years have encountered a chain of woe, even as fests keep multiplying. “I don’t know an arts organization in the land that isn’t struggling for funding,” says Levine. “There’s been a fairly major shift in corporate giving, to focus more on basic human needs.”

“The way the airlines suffered after Sept. 11 has been a blow to all festivals,” observes Prater, explaining that airline comps are vital, not just to bring in filmmakers and guests, but to subsidize the globe-trotting of fest directors as they scope out program picks at other events.

Meanwhile, the rising media profile of star festivals like Sundance has raised expectations at the same time that more and more events are competing for celebrities, films and funding.

“The more festivals there are, the harder it is for any constituency — the board, the audience, the filmmakers, the sponsors, the distributors — to have their expectations fulfilled,” says AFI fest director Christian Gaines.

“The proliferation of film festivals means, for one thing, that distributors … must choose between hundreds of requests every month,” says Ron Henderson, Denver film festival director.

Henderson, who’s been involved with the Denver fest for 25 years, represents the counterpoint to the turnover trend — a core of solid and successful events that maintain the same leadership for dozens of years.

Toronto, Telluride and Sundance are also known for leadership stability.

Longevity can go hand in hand with success, points out Prater, who recently began a gig as head of Bangkok’s fest. “Major sponsorships are based on personal relationships that you establish over time,” he says. “The problem is that boards hire a festival director and think that in 30 days they’re going to be able to line up sponsors.”

Likewise, when it comes to landing choice films and celebrities, “those festivals with familiar faces in the programming chair are more likely to have cultivated the relationships necessary to compete,” says Henderson.

While Palm Springs is advertising the exec director post at six figures per annum, the Santa Barbara board has recently settled on an artistic director — Roger Durling, a festival board member, local resident, playwright and cafe owner. Most likely, the community is praying he’ll stick around.

Says Prater: “A festival can only go through so many upheavals before that starts to tear away at the core.”