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The Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival has come a long way since its bow in 1990, when the awards ceremony was held in the home basement of then-mayor Sonny Bono, who conceived the event as a way to promote Palm Springs as a major world tourism destination. Its sole honoree was Lucille Ball, who, while nothing to sneeze at, was but a shadow of what the festival has shaped up to be, a 12-day star-studded spectacle and harbinger of Oscar gold.

This year’s festival, which kicks off Jan. 3 and will draw 135,000 attendees, marks its 25th anniversary in a manner that bears little resemblance to its humble beginnings, when Palm Springs was still a place where sagebrush rolled down the streets and the town, a sleepy hideaway for Rat Pack icons and snowbirds in golf shorts, turned dead after the winter holidays.

“What began as an event for the community has since turned into a national vehicle that brings Oscar contenders to the attention of the national and international public,” says festival chairman Harold Matzner, who heads the event’s annual Black Tie Awards Gala, which over the years has honored such bigscreen luminaries as Marcello Mastroianni, Frank Sinatra, Natalie Portman and Brad Pitt. This year’s honorees include Matthew McConaughey for his lead perf in “Dallas Buyers Club,” Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave,” plus director David O. Russell and the cast of “American Hustle,” including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale.

“Of the some-650 film festivals in the United States there is nothing like this,” boasts Matzner, citing the fest’s myriad soirees, hospitality suites and the 1 billion impressions of media coverage it generates. “We get more people in the seats than Sundance. It’s the first major event on the Oscar trail.”
With its eclectic palette of global cinematic fare — a showcase of some 180 foreign films from more than 70 countries, the largest selection of foreign language submissions of any festival in the country — the PSIFF has proven a launching pad for such foreign-language Academy Award winners as Gabriele Salvatores’ “Mediterraneo” and “Cinema Paradiso,” directed by Giuseppe Tornatore.

“Our audience is a savvy, sophisticated one that travels from all over the world,” says longtime festival director Darryl MacDonald. “Seventy percent of the audience comes from outside the Coachella Valley. It’s a diversified group — we’re increasingly capturing a younger demographic — and many of those attending have a broad traveling background and are interested in other cultures. The festival has become a magnet of premieres for international films.”

Where Sundance is essentially an industry trade show with a consumer vibe, Palm Springs is more of a filmmakers’ festival, with a sharp focus on the pursuit of the cinematic arts. Thanks to its Directors Retreat, currently in its fourth year, the festival doubles as a cinematic think tank, providing a select group of 20 emerging filmmakers with a behind-the-scenes opportunity to engage in a multicultural dialogue addressing the convergence of movies and society.

“We felt there was a need for filmmakers to get to know one another better and discuss their work candidly and without an audience interfering,” explains PSIFF artistic director Helen Du Toit of the day-and-a-half event, held at the idyllic Annenberg Retreat Center at Sunnylands in nearby Rancho Mirage. “We create an environment that’s safe and intimate and where everybody feels a part of it. It’s all about the creative.”

Keynote speakers are brought in to help guide the conversation. Past topics have included film financing issues and Arab-language cinema.
This year the World Bank is sponsoring a half-day program about filmmaking and climate control.

“They exchange battle stories and share their experiences and knowledge,” MacDonald says. “It’s a bonding experience. It’s a place for them to relax
and breathe.”

It was the camaraderie that “Louder Than a Bomb” helmer Jon Siskel developed with fellow filmmakers in 2011 that catapulted the Palm Springs festival experience into a class of its own.

“It was an incredible festival anyway — really unique and special,” Siskel proclaims. “But it was the directors retreat that took it to a whole other level.”