Palm Springs fest CEO is sprung

Event's p'grammers to comb Croisette for post candidates

Mitch Levine is leaving the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival, nine months after he joined as its CEO and executive director.

Levine was responsible for both the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival, which unspooled in January, and its sister fest, the Palm Springs Intl. Short Film Festival, which will run Sept. 16-22 this year.

Rhea Lewis-Woodson is joining the Palm Springs fests as director of operations. She was previously managing director at the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival. She takes her new post June 1.

Earl Greenburg, who serves as executive vice chairman and chairman-elect of the festival board, is heading an intensive search for a new executive director. He hopes to hire someone by July 1.

“I want someone who will be here as long as I am (heading the board), which is three years,” Greenburg told Daily Variety.

Asked if the new exec director will be required to live in Palm Springs full-time, Greenburg said, “Absolutely.”

Greenburg, who becomes chairman in March, replaces Harold Matzner.

A former network exec and producer of both TV series and infomercials, Greenburg is a former president of HSN Entertainment, a division of the Home Shopping Network. He currently heads direct marketing agency Transactional Marketing Partners.

The festival hired Levine last August, the result of a headhunting firm’s two-month search.

Greenburg joined the board shortly after the festival employed Levine, a stage and film director who had served as production director of both the AFI Intl. Film Fest and the IFP/West Los Angeles Film Fest.

“In many ways he was a strange hire, but the board wanted someone with an artistic bent,” Greenburg said. “He wasn’t a businessman or operations guy.”

According to Greenburg, the festival faced a number of operating snafus in its January outing. Nonetheless, the fest performed well, with 80,000 attendees and $600,000 in ticket sales.

Greenburg said he didn’t blame Levine for the problems — an employee charged with handling operating issues had been ill for months before the fest’s start — but it was clear changes needed to be made.

“We gave him a wonderful severance package,” Greenburg said. “He was a great spokesman for the film festival. We like him as a person; we like his artistic bent.”

Greenberg added that he hoped to find a way to keep Levine within the festival’s infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Palm Springs fest programmers are preparing to comb the Croisette in search of executive director candidates and programmers as well as films.

“I’ve already interviewed seven of the directors from the top 25 film festivals.” Greenburg said.

If Greenburg finds the right man or woman, it would give the Palm Springs festivals some much-needed stability.

Before Levine, the job belonged to Denis Pregnolato. A festival co-founder with Sonny Bono in 1989, Pregnolato rejoined the fest in December 2001.

Pregnolato replaced longtime exec director Craig Prater, who with festival board chairman Fred Linch had resigned just eight weeks before the start of the 2001 Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival.

Palm Springs boasts advantages in both its programming and geography. It’s known as the only place where Academy members can see all of the foreign-language films submitted for Oscar consideration in one fell swoop. The city of Palm Springs appreciates the glitz; Hollywood enjoys the desert respite within easy reach.

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