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How the Palm Springs Film Festival Overcame a Rocky Start

In January, the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival will celebrate its 30th birthday. It’s a celebration that came very close to never happening.

Founded by then-mayor of Palm Springs Sonny Bono in 1989, the festival was launched the following year to boost post-holiday business and help put the desert enclave on the map as a tourism destination year-round. Bono persuaded a few of his Hollywood friends to drive a hundred-plus miles to the desert with their films in order to receive free press shortly before the Academy Awards ceremony.

With the help of American Airlines, Wells Fargo Bank and key members of the local community including businessman Harold Matzner, the inaugural Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival kicked off in January 1990.

“Sonny had a loyal cadre of people who helped him bring the festival to life,” says Matzner, who also remembers Bono’s naysayers, including Jerry Weintraub. “Jerry thought Sonny was foolish to start the festival because he thought Palm Springs was too far from Hollywood.”

Despite Weintraub’s doubts, that first fest drew more than 17,000 filmgoers in the course of its five-day run. (Weintraub later publicly apologized for his erroneous prediction.) In 1992, Jimmy Stewart received an award, followed by Frank Sinatra and Marcello Mastroianni in 1993, and these tributes helped to put the festival on the map. By its fifth year, 1994, the fest had grown to an audience of 42,000 attendees and extended to 11 days.

Popular on Variety

But in the late ’90s, after Bono’s death, the Palm Springs festival was in trouble. Film fests including Sundance and Toronto overshadowed PSIFF. In addition, PSIFF finances were in disarray. Six weeks prior the 12th edition, the executive director quit and declared that the annual opening-night awards gala was off.

That’s when Matzner stepped in and saved the yearly event by putting “a lot” of money into PSIFF and persuading Sean Connery to attend.

“I picked Sean up on an island in the Caribbean with my plane,” Matzner says. “But I didn’t realize how tall he was and the bathroom on that plane was small, so he kind of got stuck in there. By the time we arrived in Palm Springs, he was really annoyed.”

Fortunately Connery’s irritation dissipated and his presence as the fest’s lifetime achievement honoree drew record crowds. At the time, officials estimated the turnout at the Palm Springs convention center ballroom at 1,200, the largest in the event’s history.

Since taking the reins of the organization, Matzner, now PSIFF board chairman, has made the festival into a global destination for some 135,000 attendees who come for the star-studded opening-night awards gala and to view its buzzy lineup of features and documentaries poised for Oscar contention.

In the past five years, 46 out of the gala’s 54 honorees have gone on to receive Academy Award nominations, including last year’s recipients Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”), Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) and “The Shape of Water.”

“Our timing is perfect,” says Matzner, referring to this year’s fest run dates, Jan. 3-14. “Oscar nomination voting starts the Monday (Jan. 7) after the festival begins and ends the same day the festival ends.”

Bradley Cooper, on set for “A Star Is Born,” will receive the Director of the Year award at the Palm Springs Film Festival gala.
Courtesy of Warner Bros

This year’s black-tie awards gala, which 2,500 paying guests will attend Jan. 3, features honorees that represent potential top contenders in varying Oscar categories, including Bradley Cooper (“A Star Is Born”), Glenn Close (“The Wife”), Alfonso Cuarón “(Roma”) and Melissa McCarthy (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”).

“Since Sean Connery came in 2001, ever single honoree has attended,” Matzner says. “I will forever be grateful to him.”

Beyond the gala, the festival will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a retrospective spotlighting 30 films that have screened during previous editions. The retrospective will help push the PSIFF lineup from last year’s 180 films to an expected 220 films.

In addition to the retrospective, PSIFF will celebrate year 30 by focusing on cinema from three countries as opposed to one, which has been the norm in the past. Films from France, Mexico and India will each have their own section.

“It’s been a strong year from both France and India,” says fest artistic director Michael Lerman. “And with Mexico it has obviously been a big year with ‘Roma.’”

There will also be two new sections — LGBTQ and Jewish Cinema — featured in this year’s lineup.

“There has always been a heavy focus on both [categories],” says Lerman, who is entering his third year as PSIFF artistic director. “We decided to section them off on their own because of the heavy interest and we thought it will help guide the viewers of our program.”

The fest’s strong focus on foreign films will continue. It boasts an impressive track record in terms of predicting what foreign-language films will go on to win the Oscar. Earlier this year, Daniela Vega took home the Palm Springs festival award for lead actress in a foreign-language film for her role in Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman.” In March, the film garnered the Oscar for foreign-language film. “A Fantastic Woman” was one of 45 of the 92 official foreign-language Oscar submissions featured in 2018’s PSIFF lineup. A number of those films screened in the Awards Buzz program, which, as it will be in 2019, is dedicated to showcasing as many films submitted for the foreign-language film Oscar as possible.

Two films that were submitted for foreign-language Oscar consideration this year are Benjamin Gilmour’s “Jirga” (Australia) and Pietra Brettkelly’s “Yellow Is Forbidden” (New Zealand). Both movies are part of the PSIFF lineup.

“Jirga” follows a former Australian soldier who returns to Afghanistan to make amends, three years after accidentally killing a civilian in a raid, while “Yellow Is Forbidden” is a portrait of Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei.

By taking their films to PSIFF, both Gilmour and Brettkelly are hoping to reach not only Oscar voters, but also an overall American audience.

“Palm Springs is the most important and prestigious U.S. festival for foreign-language films,” says Gilmour. “The Oscar race for us is really a race for the widest possible audience. Afghans risked their lives for this film. We risked our lives. We shot in Taliban hideouts and a few miles from ISIS positions. We are hoping the jeopardy pays off. And the payoff will be an audience surprised and moved by our story.”

Brettkelly, who previously attended PSIFF with her film “A Flickering Truth” (2015), adds that she is looking forward to what she describes as the “scary, encouraging, keen and tremendously committed” Palm Springs audiences.

“I have never, until PSIFF, experienced an entire audience staying for the Q&A,” the helmer adds. “Not one walkout or quick trip to the loo.”

A number of films will make their world premiere at the fest. They include Nick Frangione’s “Buck Run,” about 15-year-old outsider Shaw Templeton and his estranged father, William.

“I can’t imagine a better place to debut my film,” Frangione says. “It is so close to the industry epicenter, so I’ll get a chance to [screen] my movie among colleagues and idols and legends. It’s an experience I haven’t had as of yet, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

Honorees

Glenn Close
Icon Award
As the supportive yet secretive spouse of an acclaimed writer in Bjorn Runge’s “The Wife.” the six-time Oscar nominee proves, once again, that there is no role that she can’t play.

Bradley Cooper
Director of the Year Award
Cooper also stars in his remake of “A Star Is Born,” which has racked up more than $362 million worldwide at the box office and has already garnered the National Board of Review director kudo. Not bad for a first-time helmer.

Alfonso Cuaron
Sonny Bono Visionary Award
Cuaron wore many hats — writer and director among them — on “Roma,” his most personal film to date and a true labor of love about his childhood in Mexico City.

“Green Book”
Vanguard Award
“Green Book,” Peter Farrelly’s unlikely road movie about a classical musician (Mahershala Ali) and driver (Viggo Mortensen) touring the South in 1962, has been picking up kudos since its debute at this year’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

Regina King
Chairman’s Award
King is earning rave reviews for her role as the unwaveringly supportive mother, Sharon, in Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ latest film, an adaptation of author James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Spike Lee
Career Achievement Award
For more than three decades, Lee has been creating extraordinary work, and with “BlacKkKlansman,” he drew a clear line between a story about racial unease in the early early ’70s to today in one of the first movies to take the Trump administration head-on.

Rami Malek
Breakthrough Performance Award
The fake front teeth and the re-creation of the Freddie Mercury’s famous overbite helped, but it was Malek’s ability to truly inhabit the rocker in “Bohemian Rhapsody” that made his performance extraordinary as opposed to an imitation.

Melissa McCarthy
Spotlight Award
Departing from the usual comic roles she plays, McCarthy plays author/cat lady Lee Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” McCarthy gravitated toward the role out of curiosity. “I fell in love with Lee so quickly within the script,” she told Variety. “It made me stop and realize, ‘I’m not sure why I love her.’ And that’s a very interesting thing.”

Tipsheet
What: Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival
When: Jan. 3-14
Where: Palm Springs, Calif.
Web: psfilmfest.org

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