As the final plans are set into place for the 18th annual Palm Springs International Festival, it seemed an apt time to have a conversation with Darryl Macdonald. Having been involved as a programmer for four years and festival director for the past three editions, Macdonald was eager to reflect on his experiences to date and hopes for the future.
We sat down in a meeting room at the Festival’s office on Tahquitz Canyon.
JWR: You’ve been involved in Palm Springs one way or another since day 1. How did that evolve?
DM: When Sonny Bono came up with the idea, he consulted a few people in the business to help focus the content. Hollywood was not a big fan of festivals—films like Amazing Grace were slaughtered by the critics, which could hurt the box office. The city wanted a tourist draw—screening foreign films almost exclusively in the first year paid off and drew over 15,000. I stepped in as programming director in the second year. We moved from strength to strength and soon became known as the launch site before the nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. Now, FIPRESCI (the international federation of film critics) members attend the festival and select their winner, it’s a natural for them to come here.
JWR: We’re all amazed that there are over 1,600 film fests of all sizes and interests in North America. How does Palm Springs balance the competing needs of audience, filmmakers, industry and media?
DM: Audience is number one. There’s huge competition between American festivals. The problem can be finding enough new work to keep the media’s attention. A complete line up of premières isn’t possible due to timing and release dates in various markets. These days, we deal more often with sales agents than producers. They’re deluged with requests but tend to go where coverage is sure to be strong. This has led to the prevalence and increased costs to us of rental fees. From the industry point of view, it’s still best if potential buyers can see films in an audience situation. Festivals can create heat for the film, which can lead to a bidding war. Who can forget Sex, Lies and Videotape at Sundance in 1989? (Ed. it won that year’s Audience Award)
JWR: It takes a lot of people with a wide variety of backgrounds and skill sets to make a festival work—board, staff, volunteers and sponsors. What’s the ideal mix?
DM: In Seattle, we ran without a board for the first 19 years. We didn’t want the possibility of a board censoring what was shown. Films like Soldier of Orange, Fourth Man and Katie Tipple (all directed by Paul Verhoeven) set our bar for artistic integrity—not everyone would be comfortable with those choices. Soon we had a huge and loyal audience, only Tribeca can claim more. Inevitably, we needed to expand our resources so looked for board members who had connections and who would be “hands off” with the programming. As well, all major festivals have to deal with star power. Some board members step forward looking to meet the famous; the audience loves the red carpet and sponsors are often more likely to write the big cheque if actors they love will attend. Balancing those demands requires great skill and sensitivity. In many ways, staff are the most important human resource we have. Our programmers (headed up by Carl Spence, including Anita Monga, Alissa Simon, Marie Pierre Macia, Denis de la Roca, Therese Hayes and Angelo Acerbi) know they are trusted—I give them their heads. That’s why they were hired. We bring a plurality of vision and tastes to the selection of our films. Of course, we have an annual post-festival meltdown where we take a hard look at the program and the numbers. From there, we find the courage to chop what isn’t working and look for something we hadn’t thought of before (Ed. The ever-edgy “Supercharged Cinema”—Fridays and Saturdays @11:00 p.m.—with such presentations as Pat Holden’s The Long Weekend and Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance are examples from 2006). Obviously, we could never afford to hire 400 volunteers. But without them, the Festival wouldn’t take place. Whatever challenges they bring are dealt with—their contribution is hard to calculate in dollars. Like the rest of us, they have a passion for movies.
JWR: I know the final line-up isn’t yet complete. What are the broad strokes we can expect in 2007?
DM: This time, we’ll focus on Scandinavian cinema. It seems that every year one part of the world emerges with an incredible amount of excellent work. In Scandinavia the funders tend to spread the wealth around new artists, giving a new sensibility and sense of discovery rather than the tried and true. There’s also something bubbling up in Romania. That’s the fun and excitement of world cinema. And it can all be seen over 10 days here in the desert.
JWR: January 4th can’t come soon enough. JWR