One of the absolute highlights at the just concluded Oxford Film Festival this year was Danny Glover’s appearance at the fest. And the wonderful nature of how it all played out and how he interacted with everyone (staff and film fans) personally was then underlined by the experience on the exact opposite side of the spectrum when a couple people were not able to show up, though they had previously agreed to, and it was announced, publicized, and of course – highly anticipated (as they say).
Film festivals achieve much of what makes them special by the experience of seeing, hearing, and sometimes meeting the filmmakers that attend the fests to represent their films. As I say over and over again, you can watch a film on a state-of-the-art TV at home, or your lap top, or even your phone now. But you can’t see that film in your living room and then have the filmmaker there to talk about the movie unless you are Robert Evans or Hugh Hefner or someone like that.
And that’s “just” filmmakers, some known and notable, some unknown, and fresh off the set.
And then there are the big names, the celebrities, the legends. The people who film festivals frequently wish to bring to their city and their film fest to honor and celebrate their work and the lifespan of their career or at least have them on hand to represent their appearance and impact on a new film the festival is screening. This is a MAJOR deal for a lot of regional film festivals. How often does a film fan in Dallas, or Wichita, or Memphis, or Birmingham, or Mason City, Iowa, or Oxford, Mississippi get to see someone like a Danny Glover in person? It’s frankly, not as frequent as you would assume even in New York or Los Angeles, let alone any of the other cities I just listed – so the correct answer is “not very often.”
Sure, people can go to a fan convention and spend anywhere from $30 to hundreds of dollars to get an autograph and/or a photo with actors and filmmakers. But that isn’t what we are talking about here. We are talking about film festivals – events built and sustained to celebrate film and filmmaking, to promote and discover filmmakers, to build bridges between those filmmakers and the people who truly love cinema and movies.
There are countless, COUNTLESS numbers of film festivals now, and every single one has the challenge of establishing themselves in the public’s mind, and inspiring people to leave their homes and pay money to see films that often will never see the light of screen at a multiplex. Brandon Harris said to me while we were discussing film fests while at the great Indie Memphis film festival, which he joined forces with Executive Director Ryan Watt to program last year, that “Film fests are a fragile eco-system.” And he couldn’t have been more right. They are fragile. A festival that is a giant, like the Toronto Film Festival, still has the same budgetary issues that a small fest like the one my wife Justina Walford launched last year – the Women Texas Film Festival, has – just on a different scale. TIFF had to do some cutbacks on staff last year similar to nearly every fest that I work for. TIFF!!! So no one on the film festival scene is immune. NO ONE. I have heard reports that the film organization I used to work for in New York has seen their debt balloon the past couple of years. It’s just a reality no matter who you are, what size your film festival is, or where your film festival is, or how prestigious you or anyone else may think it is.
So, unless you are a documentary-focused film festival or a VERY specific cultural or ethnic film festival with the most dedicated of audiences and membership, and patrons, you need stars to show up because the public demands that from you if you have any hopes of them getting off the sofa, putting on a clean shirt, driving to your film festival, and buying some tickets to see some films.
And getting them there happens to be something I work on year-round. So, now that the preamble is done, let’s talk about Danny Glover. The past two years I worked my ass off to get him to come – first – to the Tallgrass International Film Festival in Wichita, Kansas. We were screening the Nelms brothers charming comedy, WAFFLE STREET, which he co-starred in, so we crafted an invitation which described (beyond his appearance in the film) why the film festival thought he would be a wonderful person to present the festival’s Ad Astra Award to. The festival prides itself and brands itself as being “stubbornly independent” and celebrating indie filmmakers they believe fall in that category. And Danny has lent his talents to a ton of very cool indie films this past several years. Unfortunately, we got the word from his reps that he couldn’t make it due to work commitments. So the festival honored the eclectic director/actor Mark Webber instead that year, he was a prince, and all was good in Wichita that year.
Last year, the Dallas International Film Festival’s Artistic Director James Faust (who had long wanted to honor Glover) programmed Diego Luna’s MR. PIG, as well as Joshua Marston’s COMPLETE UNKNOWN, both of which co-stared Glover. Boom! You have to jump on that, right?! Another letter, detailing specifically why Faust thought Glover was amazing went out to his publicist with an invitation for him to come to Dallas to accept the Dallas Star award, which honors an exemplary career in film. Unfortunately, Glover had already accepted a spot on the film jury for Tribeca and because it was Danny Glover, he decided that he needed to be there for the entire film festival, therefore he was not available. TIMING! It’s all about timing!
So two strikes on Glover for me, and what happens at the Oxford Film Festival? Well, a planned march in Canton, Mississippi on behalf of mistreated and underrepresented workers at a Nissan plant there had inspired Glover to come to town to help the organizers for the march promote the event and to speak to students about it at the University of Mississippi.
So, what does that have to do with the Oxford Film Festival?
Nothing. Nothing at all. Except for the fact that Glover does support film festivals and the press we could help generate by publicizing his appearance could help his cause.
So, Danny Glover drops into our lap. We didn’t have a film of his screening. We didn’t approach his publicist to honor him with the festival’s Lisa Blount Memorial Acting Award they honor someone with each year since that already been designated for someone else for this year. No, we just happened to get really lucky with the timing and with shared goals.
We also happened to be screening Raoul Peck’s amazing documentary on James Baldwin, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO. So there seemed to be a little kismet with the nature of the politics Baldwin spoke about and what Glover was attempting to do (and frankly, what he has long been on the front lines for). So, we suggested that Glover come to the film festival, do some photos and talk to the press, and then maybe introduce the screening and do a discussion afterwards about what was said in the film dovetailing with his efforts on behalf of voter rights and workers’ rights. Sounds tidy, makes sense, right? No, instead he was just going to come and do the press, intro the film, and then get out of there.
Well, this is what happened: Glover arrives. The press is organized and coordinated with photos first and then a handful of interview crews talking about the Oxford Film Festival (including myself handling those responsibilities personally for the film fest), film festivals in general, the March on Mississippi in Canton on March 4th, voter rights and workers’ rights. Afterward, he poses with a few fans, and then, as he talks to Melanie Addington, Oxford FF’s Executive Director he is delighted to discover I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO is screening (he hadn’t got that message somehow) so he decides to both introduce the film AND STAY TO WATCH THE FILM. Turns out he had met Baldwin and had a funny anecdote about being a shy, gushing fan of Baldwin’s and got the kind of response from Baldwin we would all hope to get in that scenario. He got a huge tub of popcorn with more butter than any doctor would allow and even squeezed in one more interview with a late-arriving TV crew before we started the film for a sold out, standing room only audience (including some additional chairs to accommodate the crew traveling with Glover).
It was perfect. He was generous with his time and thoughts, he was enthusiastic about the mission of film festivals, he was flat out happy to be there.
That’s what you want and that’s what you need if you are running a film festival. That was a magic moment for A LOT of film fans thanks to the Oxford Film Festival. Last year, Heather Matarazzo won a lot of hearts and minds at Tallgrass with her unvarnished take on making movies and her fascinating career. DIFF has had great luck with honorees that weren’t simply great or legendary, but also just charming, entertaining people that really scored with the fans. Dallas Star honorees like Laura Linney, Ann-Margret, Frank Darabont, Peter Bogdanovich, and Isabella Rossellini, as well as Shining Star honorees like Gabourey Sidibe, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead won the day, so to speak with their appearances, to the extent that people still talk about seeing them and meeting them at the fest. David Lynch might have broken the record for the longest Q&A because he was enthralled with the questions he was getting from the Dallas film faithful. In Mason City last year, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss brought some classic Hollywood to town courtesy of their friend, actress/producer Tanna Frederick, and the Iowa Independent Film Festival’s filmgoers couldn’t believe their good fortune.
And then there is the other side of this equation. At Oxford FF, we had a special anniversary screening planned and announced with a very cool panel that would have had the filmmaker and star and others involved with the film participating. I mean, this was going to be like a live-action DVD Extra promising hilarity and behind-the-scenes insights beyond your wildest dreams.
And then not. The two principal pieces got directing jobs with one sequestered in Vancouver – so maybe a Skype appearance, maybe… And the other, informed us just the day prior to the event that they were too busy editing the show they had directed and could not take that one night off. And then the Skype thing wasn’t happening either. So then the cool-ass panel went away the day of the event. Just the screening.
And that sucks.
Yes, shit happens. Yes, things come up. And yes – the reality is that a lot of people in these position just really do not want to do this stuff.
But the film festival depends on it. In Dallas, as wonderful as the programming has been for a decade, there has been grousing the past couple of years of a lack of star wattage. From journalists, and from film fans. They don’t understand why all those movie stars aren’t just hopping on the DIFF shuttle from LAX to DFW. What’s so tough about it, right? Just ask George Clooney or Nicole Kidman or Matt Damon or Robert Downey Jr. and they’ll be right over. No. Not so. And you get it when people are working or they are literally out of the country during your fest, etc. And, as someone whose job it was (when I was in personal PR) to vett these asks and go back and forth with the client’s manager or agent or sometimes, the client themselves – there frequently are A LOT of asks and invites to fish through and analyze for importance, convenience, timing (how it will benefit the career), etc. A lot of organizations and events asking for an appearance here, a name lent there, something signed for a charity auction, accept this, present that, over and over and over again. And they aren’t getting paid to do this – usually. More often than not, the film festival is a not-for-profit venture. They literally don’t have $10,000-$50,000 and upwards to pay a star for their appearance.
And they shouldn’t have to.
But then again, I am a “true believer” in what film festivals do, what their mission is, how they fit into the system, and benefit filmmakers and film fans. And that is what underlines the pitch I am making to personal publicists and managers to get them to give the okay for their client to come to my film festival. I also have the benefit of having done this for awhile and having run the PR show and directed red carpets and moderated Q&As and filmmaker panels at AFI FEST and NYFF, the AFI Life Achievement Award and the Chaplin Gala, among many other fests and events. So there is a security that I can reassure personal publicists, managers, and their clients with if they make the trip to the South or the Midwest or down the coast to one of my film festivals. It will be fun, as high or low impact as the actor or filmmaker wishes, and we will be efficient with their time, generous and attentive with the hospitality, and we will put them in the most comfortable situations, respectful of that person’s work and career.
But I also have a rare benefit of experiencing all of this from multiple perspectives: the festival publicist, the client’s publicist, the journalist, and even as a filmmaker that is a guest of festival screening my film. I’ve had publicists tell me their client was “too exhausted” to do interviews with anyone other than CNN and then have that filmmaker be disappointed because more press members weren’t lined up to talk to her about her film. Last year, in a meeting with a major PR firm in L.A., I was told that unless the fest’s dates lined up perfectly with the actual release of the film that there was no way they would recommend that client going to the fest. It was just a pain-in-the-ass for the publicist. And that was a friend of mine. Cutthroat, baby.
Finally, I am well aware of the “film festivals” that abuse the “system.” They offer an award like it’s a participation medal, just to get someone to their fest. They exploit the awards season ramp up to wallpaper their event with celebs. Of course, personal publicists are frequently all over these because it’s all part of an end-of-the-year awards campaign. And whatever with integrity, if you can get a Getty images photo of your client with an award or a Page 6 or better yet, a Scott Feinberg mention of the award and the event continuing the conversation about your client’s odds for gold that year.
I get it.
That’s what someone like myself is combating. That is what I’m doing my best to rise above. I’m trying to convince the publicist that there will be value in the award and the press received due to it, that the client will enjoy their time and experience and it will reflect well on the publicist for giving the entire idea the thumbs up. And ultimately, I’m trying to convince the actor or filmmaker that this won’t be an ordeal, that it won’t be “work,” that it really will be a “reward” for the work they have done and what they represent, with a potential bonus of having a bully pulpit and a very captive audience to say their piece – whether it be about film or about the state of the world as they see it.
It can be all of those things.
But first they need to say “yes.”
And then they need to show up.
Like Danny Glover did in Oxford, Mississippi.