Newport International Film Festival opens Wednesday with вЂIn the Loop'
Late last October the Newport International Film Festival was on the ropes and needed a $100,000 infusion to stay alive.
At that time Alan Weiss, chairman of the film festival board, announced that the 2008 festival ended with $60,000 in debt and that it would take $40,000 more to get the 2009 festival up and running. Weiss threatened to pull the plug if they couldn't raise $100,000 to cover the debts by the next board meeting on Nov. 11.
On Wednesday the Newport International Film Festival will open its 12th season. During its five-day run there will be some 90 films screened in three locations, a free outdoor screening in Ballard Park, visits by filmmakers and unprecedented showings of classic films taken from the vault of New York's Museum of Modern Art especially for the occasion. There is a new executive director, a new artistic director and a new film programmer. And Alan Weiss is all smiles.
So what happened?
Reached by phone on the Acela Express just as it was about to descend into a tunnel near New York's Penn Station, Weiss said that thanks to news reports of the festival's possible demise last fall in The Providence Journal and elsewhere, the board raised $50,000. Then an anonymous donor came along and kicked in $90,000 more. I also threw three people off the board who didn't want to contribute, and with that we went from famine to feast. Now we're one of the few arts organizations that are doing well.
The festival's new executive director, Jennifer Maizel, grew up in East Greenwich and for several years had worked as managing director of the 10-day Sarasota Film Festival, which has a full-time staff of eight and attracts 45,000 filmgoers. At the five-day Newport festival she is, in effect, the only full-time paid staffer.
Previously Maizel, a graduate of Brandeis University, had used her art history major to work at Sotheby's auction house in New York for five years, before broadening her horizons by moving into the talent relations department of the Showtime cable TV network. Part of the job entailed submitting Showtime productions to film festivals and accompanying the stars to them to promote the films, so she became familiar with the operations of big festivals such as Sundance and Toronto, as well as smaller ones such as Newport and the Hamptons.
From there it was a jump to Sarasota, where she was responsible for organizing extravaganza parties for up to 1,500 people and helping to maintain interest in the Sarasota festival throughout the year with monthly film programs.
Carrying folders and fielding a cell phone call on her way into an interview at an East Greenwich bakery, Maizel looks as though she could be a movie star herself. She was hired in Newport at the end of the last festival, just after 2008 executive director Louisa Percudani left for a festival job in Sonoma, Calif.
My first question when I took the job was: What happened to the original vision of the festival?, she said. Originally they had wanted it to be an outlet for independent films. But that changed over time because of the number of people who became involved and took it in new directions. At one point, she said, there was an emphasis on trying to get world premieres for Newport. That kind of thinking has gone out the window.
We don't care if a film has been screened before at another festival. While we want to bring new and exciting things here, it doesn't have to be a deal breaker.
She brought in Tom Hall, a film programmer she had worked with for years in Sarasota, as artistic director. Over the phone, Hall said he is still the director of programming for the Sarasota festival, which runs from late March into early April. But because Newport comes later, he can use his experience to do both festivals and in a few instances cross pollinate Newport with films that have been shown in Florida. He meets with Holly Herrick, Newport's film programmer, and Andrea Van Buren, who handles its children's programming, to talk about submissions. Our year begins in September in Toronto and we've been watching hundreds and hundreds of movies since.
He said they've chosen 40 feature films from the 700 or so that they watched. He added that he has received advice from past programmers at Newport, just as Maizel said she has gotten enormous help from past executive directors going all the way back to Christine Schomer and Nancy Donahoe, who co-founded it back in 1998.
This year there will be competitions between five narrative and five documentary films for a best-of-the-fest award as well as the archival films from MOMA, which include On the Waterfront, Little Fugitive, Taxi Driver, the 1927 silent East Side, West Side and the first film directed by Orson Welles, the 1934 short Hearts of Age. Maizel said MOMA is bringing in special projection equipment for the screenings and they're taking special care to show them as they should be seen. It's not just вЂput on a DVD and we're done.' All the MOMA films will be 35-mm prints and are being taken out of the archives especially for us. This is something that is not usual.
Unlike other years, when the festival ran six days, opening on a Tuesday night with a gala premiere, this year there will be five days of screenings, beginning on Wednesday. But because films will be shown on Wednesday during the day before the opening night film at the Jane Pickens, Maizel said it's virtually the same number of films.
Wednesday night's opening film will be In the Loop, which Hall described as a foul-mouthed, dark, populist comedy shot like The Office as a faux documentary about British and American governments planning a war. James Gandolfini, of The Sopranos, and Steve Coogan, of Night at the Museum, star. Films also will be screened at two of the three Opera House auditoriums as well as at the new DiStefano Hall, a restored carriage house at Salve Regina University that seats 149.
Other films to watch for, said Hall, are the June 7 closing night film Tabarly, a documentary about French yachtsman Eric Tabarly, with footage of him arriving in Newport after winning the Original Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race in 1976, and Moon. The latter is a 2001: A Space Odyssey-style drama that Hall describes as mind-bending science-fiction and was directed by Duncan Jones, son of singer David Bowie.
There also will be free panel discussions with the filmmakers Friday through June 7 at 11 a.m. at Empire Tea & Coffee at 22 Broadway and a free outdoor screening of a classic movie at Ballard Park near Rogers High School beginning at 8 p.m. June 5.
Tickets for most films are $10: $20 for the opening and closing night films. Money-saving ticket packages are available. There are special prices for the galas. Tickets may be purchased at Empire Tea & Coffee, 22 Broadway, Newport, and at newportfilmfestival.com where you . an also find a complete screening schedule and descriptions of the films.
By Michael Janusonis
Journal Arts Writer