When he founded the California Film Institute in 1977, Mark Fishkin didn’t know much about running a film festival. Not many people did — there were few major film festivals in the United States at the time, and it would be decades before there emerged anything like today’s bustling international festival circuit. Fishkin had recently moved to California from the small town of Ouray, Colo., about an hour’s drive to Telluride the long way around Mt. Sneffels. He’d visited once or twice while the festival was on, by chance, and had seen how they did things out there and it inspired him, when he founded a festival of his own, to do things a little differently.
The first Mill Valley Film Festival took place Aug. 11-13, 1978, and was intended, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle from that summer, to “honor successful filmmakers living or working out of Marin County,” with tributes to legends of the area such as James Broughton and John Korty. “It was three days long and was primarily focused on the great talent in the Bay Area,” remembers Fishkin. He laughs, and clarifies. “But being a Gemini, I never do anything completely 100% focused.”
More than 40 years later, the Mill Valley Film Festival remains one of America’s longest-running and most prestigious regional fests. It continues to be renowned for its diverse contemporary programming and thoughtful, affectionate tributes to luminaries from across cinema history, including Jeanne Moreau, Nicholas Ray, Catherine Hardwicke, Les Blank and Barbet Schroeder. This year, the 42nd edition is set to honor Alfre Woodard, documentarian Michael Apted and actress Barbara Rush.
Since the beginning, MVFF has taken an innovative approach to programming, capitalizing, Fishkin says, on “the excitement of everything going on in cinema at that time,” during what he calls “the Raging Bulls era.” Mill Valley was one of the first festivals to include video art in its programming; early editions had exhibits of artistic photography and blocks of short films with intriguing themes. “It sounds a bit cliche, but it was about the celebration of the art of film,” he says. “I was pretty much making it up as I went along!”
This attitude is apparent in the current edition’s programming. In addition to much anticipated screenings of big awards-season titles such as “Just Mercy,” “Ford v Ferrari,” and “Motherless Brooklyn,” this year’s festival will also include on-stage conversations with Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, special premieres of “Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo” and “The Great 14th: Tenzin Gyatso” and new restorations of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Thousand Pieces of Gold.”
On Oct. 13, Mill Valley will also showcase Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch with intimate discussions involving some of the most talented and buzzed-about scripters working in Hollywood.
There are sidebars highlighting new films by up-and-coming Swedish directors (“Amateurs,” “And Then We Danced”), gay filmmakers (“Synonyms,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) and political cinema (“Bacurau,” “A Hidden Life”). There is even an educational program called CFI Education that offers curated matinee screenings of films for students from local Bay Area schools.
In recent years, Mill Valley has developed a reputation for being on the forefront of the fight for gender equity in film.
Its efforts to combat the historical disparity between male and female filmmakers on the festival stage have earned MVFF a reputation as a trailblazer in the field, and with Mind the Gap, its gender equity initiative, the festival is on track to program 50% female directors across all of its sections by 2020.
Since the program officially launched in 2015, the fest has already made industry-defying strides: The 2019 slate is made up of 48% female directors, a far cry from such festivals as Venice (whose 2019 main slate was 25% female-directed) and even equality-championing TIFF (36%).
In addition to special programming, Mind the Gap involves the awarding of three prizes that recognize “those persons whose work and leadership inspires the movement towards greater equity in film.” This year’s awards include Visionary Leader of the Year to Anna Serner, CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, who will offer a keynote presentation at the festival; Trailblazer of the Century, Betty Reid Soskin; and Actor of the Year, Laura Dern, who stars in MVFF program standout “Marriage Story,” directed by Noah Baumbach. Dern will present an on-stage talk during the festival about her career and body of work.
Mind the Gap’s awards and programming are a remarkable achievement and help cement MVFF’s status as one of the country’s most forward-thinking film festivals. Where many of its contemporaries are struggling with issues of representation and equity, Mill Valley is in many respects leading the way forward.
“It was a natural thing, and it has been magnificent,” Fishkin says of Mind the Gap. Originally conceived by MVFF program director Zoe Elton, Mind the Gap has been a runaway success, anticipating broader changes in the film industry before they became staple talking points. “We were very much ahead of the curve with this. It was ahead of the #MeToo movement. And the seeds were there for a long time — all these ideas, they’ve been important to the festival from its inception.”
Fishkin says he used to “naively believe that a movie could change the world.” He still believes “in the power of film,” and feels the social impact of an initiative such as Mind the Gap is incalculable.
Alberto Barbera, director of the Venice film festival, came under fire earlier this year when he dismissed the idea of programming quotas such as Mind the Gap as “offensive.”
Fishkin is keenly aware of these arguments. He’s heard them too — from people concerned that a quota system has somehow compromised the integrity of the MVFF schedule: “People want to know: Are you forsaking a major film to do this? No. We don’t have to. We are able to reach 50% and have all fabulous films. We can do all that and present the best possible festival we can.”
While Fishkin says he “understands the reservations” of festivals such as Venice, a 50-50 slate can be done: “You just have to be dedicated. You have to put in the effort to look for great films that are made by women and make it happen.”
The fact that Mill Valley can continue to be so open to change should make clear how far behind other festivals are. But Fishkin believes making such an effort isn’t complicated.
“I understand people who say it can’t be done. They’re sincere in believing it wouldn’t be possible” he says. “But we have proven that it is.”