Brains Behind Palm Springs Festival Programming Grilled

Variety asked three people involved with programming films for the Palm Springs film festival to talk about their roles at the festival, what gives them a thrill and where the next big filmmaking wave is coming from.

Michael Lerman is the artistic director, “which means I oversee all artistic decisions involved in the film festival. The bulk of the job is, of course, the program itself, but there’s also the artwork and a lot of presentational aspects.”

David Ansen is the lead programmer and he says he gets to “poke my nose into everything, from documentaries to features from all over the world.”

Lili Rodriguez is the director of programming and handles African and Middle Eastern films. I do a fair amount of promotional work for the festival, alongside artistic director Michael Lerman, and of course write my fair share of program notes. She works closely with the artistic director on the festival’s overall program “to make sure they have the films we want and everything we need to get them in front of our audience.”

Tell us three extraordinary discoveries that made your work worthwhile: Your find or someone else’s, or even a discovery for you personally.

Lerman: It’s hard to take full credit for any discovery because you’re never the first person. There’s always an agent or a producer who found a script or you saw it at another festival, but I think the thing that feels the best is when something comes to you with no pretension.

Ansen: There’s a special thrill when you start watching a film you’ve heard nothing about by a director you’ve never heard of, and you know — sometimes in the first shot! — that you’re in the presence of a real filmmaker. Last year that meant Edoardo de Angelis’s “Indivisible,” about conjoined Siamese twins in Italy. Or Asaph Polonsky’s “One Week and a Day” from Israel, one of the most neglected gems of the year, an amazing first film.”

Where is the next breakout cinema is coming from?

Lerman: I think our Focus on Argentina speaks for itself this year and that was born 100% out of just the content. We had so many good films that we wanted to show from there that we wanted to highlight that. They’ve been having great films for a long time, but this year is particular.

Ansen: This has been happening for a while now, but the Israeli cinema, which used to be a laughingstock, just goes from strength to strength. This year two of the best foreign films I’ve seen were from Israel: “One Week and a Day,” which I mentioned above, and Samuel Maoz’s devastating and original “Foxtrot.” Hollywood is starting to import their talent, the way they gobbled up the great Aussie directors in the ’70s: a case in point is Joseph Cedar’s “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” one of the smartest American indies of the year.

Rodriguez: Argentina, which is our regional focus, and Greece, are two countries consistently offering some of the most exciting contemporary films and filmmakers for me.

What have you learned about your audiences? What are they looking for? Are older viewers interested in something different from the younger ones?

Lerman: Festival audiences vary a great deal and it can take quite a long time to get to know them. This is my second year in Palm Springs, so I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface. Obviously, you spend a long time studying numbers of ticket sales and balloting results, but there’s no substitute to being in the room and feeling the energy an audience has with a film. Obviously, any audience will be looking for something that they can relate to to a certain extent and so there are stories that resonate with an older or younger audience on that front, but I think great movies can be universal and great audiences [like ours] are pretty open to most things.

Ansen: The Palm Springs audience is definitely an older one, and one that isn’t afraid of subtitles. I love their willingness to explore the vast expanse of foreign films. One thing I’ve noticed, and our filmmakers notice and appreciate, is that an older audience asks questions about the content of the movie they’ve just seen, not what was the budget and how do you find an agent. That’s refreshing. You also get a good sense of what will play well and what might get more resistance, which leads to the next question.

Rodriguez: Palm Springs is definitely diverse. There is a “type” of film that we know our audience will love, but it’s not specific to a genre. We know they appreciate strong narratives with characters that allow them to connect with emotionally. We also have more daring groups [younger and older] who are open to more narratively challenging, arthouse or genre fare, so it’s always good to include a few of those.


What is your definition of a “difficult” movie and why is it essential to showcase such films?

Lerman: I think, to me, a “difficult” film is one that really challenges you — your perception and comprehension. There are great films that piece together nice and neatly, but also scream loud and clear what they are trying to say and do. “Difficult” films often have a lot to unpack. We want films that elicit emotions and make statements and the festival will always be a mix of ones that do that instantly and others that require more viewer work to get to the message and the heart.

Ansen: There are movies that challenge the norms of filmmaking that you fall in love with and know you have to show, knowing full well that they will be love-it or hate-it films. I knew there would be some walkouts at, say, “A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Contemplating Existence,” but those who got [director Roy] Andersson’s style were transfixed. You don’t show the slow and long Romanian film ‘Sieranevada’ in a huge theater, but the cineastes are going to love it, because it’s so brilliantly observed. On the other hand, just because a movie is “difficult” doesn’t have to mean it’s good or worth showing. … I don’t want to name names but there is an anhedonic tendency among some arthouse filmmakers today, an extreme minimalism that prides itself on denying the audience any form of pleasure. Those I’ll be glad to leave off the program.

Rodriguez: There are different levels of “difficult,” but I think with context, the right program note and introduction, even a tamer audience can be open to watching more challenging material as long as they know what to expect. The key is to understand your audience.

That said, I think it’s essential to balance a program with these films — not just because I personally gravitate towards these stories — but because I think our goal as a festival isn’t just to provide momentary entertainment. Ideally, we’re also providing a space for conversation and engagement with cinema on a different level. Everyone is talking about diversity.

Is this something for you? Do you feel women are getting a fair share, for example? Is there something that you’re doing in representing the underrepresented?
Lerman: One of the key goals when putting a program together is always balance. You are looking for the best stuff, of course, but you are also looking to represent the widest cross-section of voices. I think that’s inherently baked into the design of an international film festival. Your largest audience will always be local [at least your home country, if not your home city] and the mission will always include bringing film from other cultures to your own, so you want to represent as many cultures and voices as possible. This means that most of the time I spend programming, I am cognizant of the voice that is being represented in the work, whether it be region of the world, gender, race, or socio-economic upbringing.

The trickiest thing of doing this job of programmer is that your work is always only as good as what’s available to you in terms of current cinema being made and until we balance the voices that are being provided the resources to go make movies, we won’t have balanced options for presentation. So I think it becomes our job to push against that a bit and work harder to find more representation. Do I feel women are getting a fair share? No, absolutely not. Just statistically the number of movies we are presented with made by men will be significantly higher, so it’s our job to balance it out as much as we can with all of the other considerations once it turns into a festival program.

This isn’t a new thing. They are conversations I’ve had in every programming job throughout my career. I just think that, more and more, the discussion of diversity in the production and educational realms of cinema have become much more present in the cultural zeitgeist, which is so so great and important.

Ansen: Diversity has always been something I’ve been attuned to, whether in my days at the Los Angeles Film Festival or in Palm Springs. In Palm Springs, we strive to have a rich and varied LGBTQ program, and I think it’s important to have some films with Native American content, and of course we have a very strong Latin program. Because our specialty is foreign films, diversity is in our DNA. It’s interesting how many of the best documentaries are the work of women filmmakers. There’s much more parity there than in feature filmmaking. But you do diversity no favors if the work isn’t strong: first you look for quality.

Rodriguez: Even when it’s not being talked about, I can’t imagine a situation where diversity is not important.

Will Palm Springs add TV programming or VR?
Lerman: We definitely played with TV last year and, of course, TV is close to my heart since I program it for TIFF. That said, for this audience, it needs to be the perfect fit. It can’t just be because of the trend and showcasing it on the big screen. To me, that makes sense when you are building a premiere conversation like the one we do in Toronto. Less so when you are building a film-centric year-end conversation like Palm Springs.

Rodriguez: We incorporated some television into the program last year and it was because they were really great fits for our festival. We make sure to track and have a balanced program with different perspectives and sensibilities. If we do include TV or VR in the future, it has to be the right fit.

What does “festival politics” mean to you?
Lerman: Since I do this for a living and do it for many festivals, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the eco-system works. The many stages it takes in pre-production and production to get something up on a screen and then the many stages of presenting it, from festivals and acquisitions screenings to distribution and exhibitions on a variety of platforms. When you boil it down, anything referred to as “festival politics” is some sort of disruption or shake up of this eco-system.

Rodriguez: Different things! One of the biggest questions I get asked is how we pick the films and it’s important for independent filmmakers especially to understand that festivals are institutions with internal workings specific to them and that we have to consider different things when curating a program and that sometimes, it’s more than just about the art and the films themselves.

Who are your festival programming heroes?
Lerman: I owe a great debt to Tom Quinn and Ryan Werner, who I worked with at the Woodstock Film Festival and who I basically learned everything from when I was starting out. I still learn lessons every day from Cameron Bailey, Kerri Craddock and Jane Schoettle at TIFF, who constantly amaze me with vision and work ethic and who far more generous and thoughtful with their tutelage than they ever need to be. Before moving to Field of Vision, I think Charlotte Cook in her role at Hot Docs was doing some of the most ingenuitive work out of there, and I’ve always looked up to Tom Hall of the Montclair Film Festival, who, among other things, is one of my favorite film writers. Of course, there are countless other colleagues in the industry who I admire their work and try to keep in touch with — especially anyone who is leading the charge in experiential programming [like Fantastic Fest or True/False] or raising the bar by making a statement with their curation [as I think SXSW often does].

Anson: My first exposure to the film festival world, when I was in college, was the New York Film Festival, in those days run by Richard Roud. The number of great films I saw there was astonishing. Many years later I was on the selection committee there, under the wonderful leadership of Richard Pena. These guys set the bar very high.

Rodriguez: So many but Kent Jones, Aliza Ma, Mark Peranson, and Andrea Picard to name a few.

Are there any up-and-coming festivals, international fests, that you value and go to for the experience?
Lerman: Obviously, Cannes is still very special. We live in an age of instant information, obviously, and I feel like it’s rare these days to see a movie without knowing a lot about it first. So just going to the starting line for it, whether it be in Cannes or Sundance or Berlin or our screening room in Toronto is a treat. But, past that, amidst all of the market mayhem there, Cannes manages to still keep the mystique around a lot of the premieres. All of the pomp and circumstance pays off for trying to make the film feel elevated. It’s not something I think everyone should be doing as a festival, but it works well for them.
I try to visit somewhere new every year to check out different festivals and see what’s happening in the world. Two I keep hearing about that I keep trying to get to are Borscht and Savannah, but I also love some other U.S. regional ones like Hamptons, Cleveland and Denver. I’ve also always wanted to go to Locarno.

Anson: These days the key festival for me, as a programmer, is Toronto. So much to see, you can only scratch the surface, but it’s invaluable.

Rodriguez: I like festivals that offer films I won’t be able to catch at the theater. Obviously there are so many great ones, even if I have yet to visit. Of course TIFF is great and I’m a huge fan of Locarno and Oberhausen. Really want to visit Borscht because I hear that’s an experience like none other.

What is the role of film festivals and the future of exhibition? Is there anything besides “Star Wars” that can lure younger audiences to the theater these days?

Lerman: Those are two pretty big questions, so I will try to be succinct. For the first, as platforms change and more people are consuming movies from home, film festivals are playing a bigger role is getting people to a theater to see a movie. Obviously, the big screen experience is a huge part of it, but we also are an event, an excuse for people to go out and be part of a community. Festivals are a great place for conversation and debate, as well as just seeing a comedy and laughing with a group of people.

And, yeah, younger people in a cinema is still very much an alive thing. In a year when two of the most critically acclaimed films are the timeless coming-of-age story of “Lady Bird” and the crowd-pleasing and brilliantly underhanded horror movie “Get Out,” I don’t think all hope is lost yet.

Anson: Film festivals serve many roles. Most obviously, they are bringing audiences together with movies they would otherwise never get a chance to see, and creating dialogues between filmmakers and filmgoers that can expand our understanding of both the world and the creative process. At a good film festival, a community is established, and that’s something you won’t find at your neighborhood multiplex: that “we’re all in this together” feeling. Is there anything other than “Star Wars”? If there isn’t, we’re in BIG trouble…

Rodriguez: We also show a large selection of international films that won’t be readily accessible in the States, either theatrically or digitally. If we’re headed towards a world where arthouse and international films aren’t released the way they used to be, festivals might be the only option to catch these films on a big screen.

As for young audiences — people want to be engaged regardless of age. Will the industry will be able to capitalize from this group the way it used to? I don’t know, but as long as there are compelling stories being told, there is an audience.

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