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Miami festival’s global stature grows

Event increases ties to Hollywood, Latin culture

The Miami Intl. Film Fest was still young when producer Sam L. Grogg premiered his movie “Patti Rocks” there.

Headquartered at a hotel in what was then a somewhat sketchy downtown area, the nascent sprocket opera “hadn’t yet found purchase within the Miami culture and Miami community,” remembers Grogg, now dean of the School of Communication at the U. of Miami, who returns in 2008 with another film, “One Water,” to find a different situation entirely.

Now, in its 25th year, the festival has grown into a significant event with ties not only to Miami but also Hollywood, Latin America and the international film sphere.

This year’s outing, which runs through March 9, will feature 10 world premieres and several American debuts from among its 163 features, docs and short films, not to mention a series of industry panels and red-carpet events.

“I think its vision is to be the Toronto of the southern hemisphere,” Grogg says. “We call ourselves the U.S.A., but we are much more a gateway to a whole other part of the world.”

That’s a goal shared by Patrick de Bokay, who helms this year’s fest after taking over as director last March. Hailing from a background in film marketing, the Paris-born exec says his job “is to use the 25th anniversary as a reason to go to the next step — and the next step is to establish ourselves as the first big festival of the year on U.S. soil.”

During its first quarter century, MIFF introduced such directors as Pedro Almodovar and Regis Wargnier to American audiences. But the event has also had a rocky history. After serving 18 years as its director, Nat Chediak left in 2001 over creative differences with Florida Intl. U., which acquired the fest in 1999.

Web columnist David Poland, who originally hails from Miami, stepped in for a year, working with FIU to expand the festival’s scope. But the community rejected many of the changes, and attendance dropped precipitously.

Recovery began with former Sundance co-director Nicole Guillemet, who is credited with growing the festival, emphasizing its Latin American connection and overcoming the setback of FIU’s exit one year after she came aboard. Under Guillemet’s tenure, the fest moved to Miami Dade College, which contributes about $100,000 toward the festival’s approximately $2.5 million budget.

MIFF is the only major film festival hosted by an educational institution, de Bokay points out. “Most festivals are parts of culture and tourism,” he explains. “This allows us to create programs all year long.”

It also enables MIFF to carry on its tradition of honoring the city’s cultural diversity by focusing on Hispanic cinema, extending Guillemet’s Encuentros program and reserving one of three $25,000 prizes for an Ibero-American feature.

Tonight, the event opens with “La misma luna” (Under the Same Moon), a Mexican film conceived through MIFF’s Abroad Program, and culminates March 8 with Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore’s “La sconosciuta” (The Unknown Woman), which was shortlisted in the foreign-language Oscar category this year.

As the fest moves forward, de Bokay’s challenge will be to maintain the balance between hosting a premiere industry event and serving the residents of Miami-Dade County.

“A movie is a great experience, and the whole point of a festival is to be entertaining and global and fun — and that’s what we’re really trying to do,” he says.

When: Thursday – March 9

Where: Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, Colony Theater, Tower Theater and others in the Miami area

Web: miamifilmfestival.com