If you hopped on the Jitney the past few days, you would have thought it was the height of summer. Despite the chilly mid-October temperatures, film lovers galore headed out east for the 27th annual Hamptons International Film Festival, held in the swanky New York community of the Hamptons.
With 25,000 attendees this year, the festival showcased perhaps its greatest slate of films yet from “Just Mercy,” which kicked off the fest’s opening night, to Martin Scorsese’s Netflix crime film “The Irishman” to Matt Damon and Christian Bale’s “Ford v. Ferrari” and a slew of other festival favorites like “Jojo Rabbit,” “Marriage Story” and “The Report.”
The Hamptons International Film Festival follows a long festival season from Toronto to Venice to Telluride and Sundance at the beginning of the year, which is where HIFF’s key players start their search for programming and people start to send in films from around the world.
“We really work throughout the summer with a great committee of people, who watch the films with us to pick the ones that we think are the best,” HIFF’s artistic director, David Nugent, tells Variety about the process of selecting films that will be featured during the five-day festival. “The only downside is that we spend a lot of our summer inside watching movies, while other people are taking a break,” he adds with a laugh.
This year, the festival featured seven world premieres, though the organization’s main motive is not to be a huge premiere-oriented festival. Rather, it prides itself on being a predicting force in awards season, as proven by past years.
“Great films come through here, and we’re the only festival in the world, for nine years running now, who screen the eventual best picture winner,” says Nugent. “It’s been really exciting for us to have that distinction. I think we’ve really helped build buzz for a lot of films.”
Nugent, who has been with the festival since 2007, programmed “Slumdog Millionaire” in his first year. “That was a film that very few people have heard of and it was not on a lot of people’s radar. It went onto win best picture,” he says.
In recent years, HIFF held the U.S. premieres of “I, Tonya” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which both preformed well at the Academy Awards. “Still Alice” was screened at the festival, which earned Julianne Moore the best actress Oscar, and “Black Swan,” which was nominated for best picture and saw Natalie Portman win for best actress, had its east coast premiere in the Hamptons years ago.
“We’re one of the first stops after Telluride or Venice, and we’re a very different audience,” Nugent says. “I think a lot of studios, filmmakers, distributors and producers to see how their films play out here and it’s very informative for them to see how it’s going to do because the makeup of our audience is representational of what a lot of award season hopefuls are looking at. There are a lot of tastemakers and influencers and media elite, so I think for people who are looking to position their films in that race, this is a very informative place to be.”
This year brought out media elite including George Stephanopoulos, Ali Wentworth, Jane Rosenthal, Bob Balaban, Christine Baranski, Noah Baumbach, Candice Bergen, Alex Gibney, Brooke Shields and Alec Baldwin, who serves as the festival’s co-chairman.
Baldwin, who moderated a conversation with Brian De Palma on Saturday night, has been involved with the festival for years. He first joined the advisory board and then the board, before becoming co-chairman. “He’s a real film lover and he gets involved in so many ways,” Nugent says. “He’s just a film lover who is really woven into the fabric of the community out here.”
Other conversations included a sit-down with Alfre Woodard, who stars in “Clemency,” which screened at HIFF. Breakthrough artists honored at the fest were Aldis Hodge, Camila Morrone and “The Farewell” director Lulu Wang.
The Saturday centerpiece screening of “Ford v. Ferrari” brought out a jam-packed full house, exemplifying how much of a hot spot the festival has become in the Hamptons. Guests were lined up down the block for an hour before doors opened for the screening and conversation with actor Tracy Letts. Producer Jenno Topping — who was born and raised in the Hamptons — proudly introduced the film at Guild Hall in East Hampton, saying, “I grew up coming to this theater, and I’m so proud of what the festival has become.”
Ahead of the festival, the Hamptons International Film Festival re-launched HamptonsFilm, which is now the parent company of the annual fest. While the festival serves as the largest event of the year, the growing organization now programs year-round with an annual Screenwriters Lab in April, the seasonal SummerDocs series and free outdoor screenings, plus yearly HIFF Jr. education initiatives, featuring film camps in the summer, after school programs, plus mentorships and scholarships.
“We have a very unique and influential audience out here that come to see the films,” Nugent says, reflecting on the annual festival. “Everyone from Howard Stern and Martha Stewart and vice president Biden and Madonna have been here. For east coast buzz and excitement, this is a great place to be.”