The St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) moves into its ninth season with a number of fundamental changes: a new director, a new manager in charge of acquiring films, a reorganization of staff and administrative structures. A festival that began on a meager budget of $5,000 now has a more ample $340,000 with which to work (although that figure is still paltry by film-industry standards). St. Louis is far from being a film capital, and the establishment of the festival as a vital institution -- both locally and internationally -- remains a struggle. Critics argue that the recent overhaul has retained well-meaning amateurs in important positions at the expense of professionals with insider access to the industry. Those with the festival are encouraged by the new energy and the opportunity to re-envision SLIFF for its next decade. SLIFF critics and advocates alike agree that this is a crucial year for the festival's future.
"There have been a lot of changes of changes over time, and especially over the last six months. People are wondering, 'What the hell's going on over there?'" says Chris Clark, who became SLIFF's film-program manager in June. Clark was named to the position by new executive director Shirley Marvin, who in April, three weeks after she came aboard, demanded the resignation of programmer Audrey Hutti. Since he was hired, the pace of change at SLIFF has been dramatic: A development director, Joan Pace, former executive director of SHARE Breast Cancer Education and Support Center, has been hired to increase fundraising; SLIFF's former office manager, Christine Besher, joined a six-member committee in charge of selecting films; the public-relations firm of Rogers Townsend was hired to heighten the visibility of the festival (according to the festival's own survey, only one in 10 St. Louisans even knows SLIFF exists); and a "visioning" session is planned for the organization, with professional facilitators and an open agenda, in coming weeks.
With the festival's ninth season fast approaching (Nov. 3-12), Clark admits he is making full use of the notes Hutti left behind, along with her film insider's Rolodex. "A lot of things were in process, so I'm going through her folders one by one and figuring out her filing systems. I had a very good sense of a lot of things that were in play already."
Clark says his primary job is "obtaining the product," with the actual selection of films "evolving into a little bit more of a committee approach. There was a program committee in the past, but a lot of things were funneled through Audrey. We're broadening that out a little bit." The group meets every two weeks to build their collective wish list. Some of those committee members have already been to the Sundance Film Festival, Hutti went to the festival in Cleveland, and there are plans to go to Telluride this September. Clark says they're all following the trade publications as well, checking out indieWIRE on the Web and perusing catalogs from other festivals, but, he cautions, "Just because we like something doesn't mean we get it, either."
Following that note of caution, Clark's description of his experience with "obtaining the product" doesn't inspire confidence: "I've observed the process, but I've worked in public service. I've worked in restaurants and hotels and things for most of my life. I'm used to dealing with the public and dealing with people on the phone -- not so much the negotiation part of it, but I think I can work that out."
At least he doesn't say he's a people person.
"The lack of formal educational training is shocking. I'm talking film theory, criticism and practice -- not people who've taken a video class here or have done work in video programming or broadcasting or have written a film script. These people are not professionals, and they should not be programming. I am frankly surprised that they have received as much public funding as they have, because that's usually an important criterion for funding: 'What are the professional qualifications of the staff?'"
The answer to "What the hell's going on with the film festival?" depends on whether the person speaking is still employed there. Barbara Jones, SLIFF's first programmer, supplies the above criticism, with a few more thrown in for good measure. "My opinion is that the state of the St. Louis Film Festival right now is three things: You've got a combination of lack of funds for ambitious programming; you've got a lack of staff with formal educational training in film theory and criticism; and you're getting programming by a lay committee. St. Louis has a film festival it can support and, in my opinion, what it deserves."
Jones laments that someone who boasts experience "in restaurants and hotels" has been elevated to the status of program manager. She also takes issue with film selection by committee and refers to recommendations made by consultants near the close of her tenure at SLIFF. Arts consultant Maury Warshawski, Cleveland International Film Festival director David Wittkowsky and Brussels Film Festival head Christian Thomas were hired with Missouri Arts Council and Regional Arts Commission grant money to present an overview of what SLIFF needed and what was attainable. "All three of them recommended strongly that we have an autonomous artistic director with experience in programming and formal educational training in film," says Jones. "Along with that, they strongly recommended against artistic programming by a lay committee. It's rarely done. When it's done, it's done by professionals. In any event, it's financially very attractive but generally almost uniformly results in poor product."
On the current SLIFF selection committee, two members possess undisputed "professional" status: Kathy Corley, independent filmmaker and Webster University professor of film and video; and Roberta "Bobbie" Lautenschlager, a screenwriter and producer who directs the fest's New Filmmakers Forum program. But the film backgrounds of the others are less substantial: In addition to former Redel's restaurant manager Clark and SLIFF office manager Bresher, there are SLIFF board members Janet Herrmann, who works as a bookkeeper, and Delcia Corlew, a former executive director of SLIFF who, before becoming part of the festival, ran her own modeling agency. All have worked for the fest in differing capacities (staff, volunteer, board member), but none can be described as a film professional.
RFT film critic and St. Louis Community College-Meramec professor Diane Carson has worked with the film festival in an advisory capacity for several years. She cautions against putting too much stake in expertise. Of the current selection committee, she says, overall, "Their instincts are good." She notes that festivals can be ruined by people "with great film backgrounds, because of their eccentricities and idiosyncracies." She finds Clark "extremely personable and well organized."
New executive director Marvin makes no claims to a knowledge of the film industry. Before her appointment to SLIFF, she was director of the beleaguered City Living Foundation, a nonprofit organization given more than a quarter-million dollars by the St. Louis Board of Alderman back in May 1998 to begin a campaign to encourage people to move to the city. No campaign has yet emerged. (In alluding to City Living's reputation, Marvin says, "That's why I'm not there.") Before that, she was executive director of the Jefferson County Community Partnership and Caring Communities, an organization that coordinates social-service agencies throughout the county.
As for her experience in dealing with the film industry, she frankly admits, "I don't have a lot of expertise in that area." What she does bring to the organization, she believes, is "the knowledge and insight into development with startup not-for-profits, fundraising background, ability to put a lot of things in place that new organizations need as far as personnel policies and structures, insurance plans -- the things that usually are not in place at the very beginning."
In regard to personnel policies, she defends Clark's hiring but won't discuss Hutti's forced resignation. The decision was not budgetary, she insists, not a strategic salary-trimming made in order to hire the development director. "That was already in the budget for this fiscal year."
SLIFF board chairman Larry DeVuono chooses not to discuss Hutti's resignation, either, but says he feels positive about the impact Marvin and Clark can make on the organization and is encouraged about the festival's direction. "We decided that we would get someone in who is a professional manager and whose skills were in managing and organization. We felt that we had strong competency in the film process because of the people involved in the committees and so forth. And Chris has been involved in the organization for a number of years and has had a lot of input into the film selection and film exhibition. Acquiring the films and making those communications is a relationship thing. Christine has been there for some time. With Janet Herrmann available to us and Bobbie and Delcia, I'm very comfortable and really excited with that whole team down there. We've got a great, great crew, and we're going to be able to get a lot more done on a year-round basis to have a continuous offering of product, in addition to a great festival this year. I have never felt better. It's tremendous. There's a lot of good, positive things going on."
Hutti, not surprisingly, isn't encouraged by the changes at SLIFF. Marvin, Hutti claims, "asked me in her first week what the difference between film and videotape was."
Currently the film critic for KSDK (Channel 5), Hutti says of her position with the film festival, "I was asked to resign. It wasn't my idea." Her personal assessment of her tenure is undeniably subjective: "I'm very proud of what I was able to accomplish. I will put my programming up there, say, 'Take a look at it. What do you think?'" She also offers insight into the requirements for the job: "It was building relationships with these studios. It is a very slow and difficult process of building their confidence. The pitch was that we weren't New York and LA. Our audiences, though diverse, weren't influenced by having a lot of people working in the industry. We were a testing ground.
"It was a lot of research, a lot of my experience and knowledge. It was trying to feel out the studios and the distributors -- what was it they were looking for, and what could I pitch to them that would cause them to basically change their mind? Most of the times it was a no that I turned into a yes."
Hutti doesn't disapprove of the committee approach as strongly as Jones, but she does speak to its limitations: "Believe me, when you're working with committees that aren't familiar with the process, they can come up with tremendous titles, some of which are nearly impossible to get.
"I'll give you a perfect example. We did a Sinatra salute a couple of years ago, and one of the things we wanted to get was Ocean's Eleven. Now, 'Let's get Ocean's Eleven, great.' It's a Rat Pack movie, and we had this big thing going at the Fox Theatre with a big band and a Sinatra sound-alike. The only problem is, there's no print of Ocean's Eleven available. I ended up -- this is the truth -- I ended up using Martin Scorsese's personal copy of Ocean's Eleven for no charge.
"Now, I want you to know, if you think that was easy to accomplish, easy to locate, if you think it's just picking up a phone and saying, 'Marty, it's Audrey ...'" She laughs at her own impersonation of a mogul.
Still, if Clark lacks experience, he isn't lacking in vision. He's proposed that the festival be slimmed down, with fewer films (and select films receiving additional screenings) and venues kept within the radius of the city's central corridor: the Tivoli, the Hi-Pointe, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Missouri Historical Society. The most radical element of his proposal is the exclusion of Plaza Frontenac. Last year, the festival ballooned to more than 100 films, with Frontenac and the AMC West Olive 16 extending the event into West County. Clark believes less would provide more, allowing for "a festival environment -- drive 10 minutes down Skinker and go to another film."
He's also well aware of the festival's status in the international film world. St. Louis is considered a "C market" (C-plus at best) and does not even come close to the rank of the "destination" festivals, unable to offer the Colorado Rockies in late summer (Telluride), the Utah ski slopes in winter (Sundance) or the Càte d'Azur in spring (Cannes). It's just St. Louis, all year long. But with the proper promotion, he believes, SLIFF can break through the attendance plateau (around 12,000 tickets sold each of the last three years) and offer films that won't be seen anywhere else in town. "In the past," says Clark, "it was felt that it was important to have some major studio releases. I feel it's a waste of time. Why bother? If it's a big theatrical release, it's coming here anyway. Why should we do that? Why should we waste a slot when we could get something else that may never come here, or may come here in a year, or might wind up at Webster in three years, or might be in Chicago is the closest it ever gets? We'd like to offer the public an opportunity to see these things that as a C market -- which I guess we are -- we probably won't get or may get late or have to drive 400 miles to see it."
Clark also sets as a goal greater visibility for SLIFF throughout the year. For example, a screening of this year's Sundance hit Girlfight, a feature film that focuses on women boxers as its main protagonists, will be sponsored by the festival this September, with director Karyn Kusama -- a former St. Louisan -- in attendance. "We need to bring more film and keep our name alive throughout the year."
Both Jones and Hutti agree with Clark's assessments (whether they are actually implemented depends on what comes out of that "visioning" session), but Hutti doubts that SLIFF has the people to get those quality films. "Working in the film industry and getting to know the players and the personalities that you have to deal with is a unique enterprise, believe me," she says. "I think you need to build relationships, and they trust you, you trust them. That's how it works. I don't think you can just bring skills from any old nonprofit. I don't believe that. I don't think it's like the Cancer Society. I don't think it's like other nonprofits. It's a very unique entity."
For more information, see The Big Picture.