For the past decade, I have worked at the Sarasota Film Festival in Sarasota, FL.
This year’s festival, the 16th edition, ended in April, with a full slate of 252 films: shorts, foreign films, independent films, non-fiction films. Movies we were proud to show. The festival was my tenth as the person in charge of programming the films, my sixth with a more active role in helping shape the festival from an administrative perspective.
When I was hired in 2004, the festival was coming off of a difficult year, facing problems that stemmed from the decision to host the festival in late January, at the same time as Sundance and Slamdance, and to require World or U.S. Premieres for competition films. I was brought on based upon my work as Programmer at the Nantucket Film Festival, and asked to come in and reorganize Sarasota’s film program. The festival hired a film programming consulting company at the same time, as a hedge, just in case I was not a good hire. I did my best. We screened Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings & Queen in competition (it lost to Danny Boyle’s Millions), hosted musical performances by Bob Mould, Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, and DeVotchKa, we added films like Jem Cohen’s Chain to the program. I scrambled to try to figure out how to contextualize these personal passions, quickly learning I was in a community that seemed more than willing to embrace new things, if only given the chance.
Over the first few years, thanks to our friends in the filmmaking community and the hard work of my programming colleague Holly Herrick, who joined me as a programmer in the autumn of 2005, we began to see the seeds of something special begin to sprout at the festival. Sarasota became a place for filmmakers to meet, to become friends, and to launch collaborations that bore some pretty significant fruit. It became about community, both locally and among independent filmmakers.
There are so many of these stories to tell, but I can’t help thinking of people like Alex Karpovsky, who brought The Hole Story to Sarasota for the 2005 festival (again, my first) and Jon Hyrns, who was the subject of Dominic DeJoseph’s Johnny Berlin that same year. Alex met Jon at the festival, and the two went on to make Woodpecker together.
In 2006, Holly and I programmed a small movie set in Florida called Cocaine Angel by a first-time filmmaker named Michael Tully. We’ve shown all of his films since, because I really love his movies. Or I think of Mary Bronstein, whose amazing film Yeast screened at the festival in 2008, where she met a young, local filmmaker and actress named Amy Seimetz who was attending for the second time with her short We Saw Such Things (was it her first time? I know Amy was in Goran Duckic’s Wristcutters, which played the 2006 festival. Did she come? Her family? Time blurs experience… ), which she co-directed with James Ponsoldt. Mary, James and Amy went on to make Round Town Girls together. And then many, many other films. Amy’s Sun Don’t Shine played the festival. James returned with The Spectacular Now.
Dozens of others brought films, and wanted to come back. They have all been incredibly generous in their support of the Sarasota Film Festival. We programmed Craig Zobel’s Great World Of Sound, and got the privilege of showing Compliance. We had David Lowery and James Johnson with us to show Some Analog Lines, then The Outlaw Son, and then St. Nick. We had a ton of people join us for Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes The Stairs. Ry Russo Young came, and then brought us Orphans, then You Won’t Miss Me, and then Nobody Walks. Greta Gerwig came with Hannah. Last year, her collaboration with Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha, closed the festival at a screening for over 1100 people. I met Mickey Sumner through her work and count myself among her biggest fans. We hosted Lena Dunham and Alicia Van Couvering with Tiny Furniture. AJ Schnack brought literally all of his work to us, and we loved it, and showed as much of it as the calendar would allow.
I got to honor Robert Altman at one of the greatest award ceremonies in the history of the festival. I got to salute Werner Herzog, Liv Ullmann, and Barbara Kopple at the festival. I got to tell Mariel Hemingway how much her work in Woody Allen’s Manhattan meant to me. Jeremy Renner attended four years in a row and became one of our greatest advocates. I watched him sing an incredible version of Night Ranger’s Sister Christian at a particularly memorable karaoke night. He was followed by Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi who, working with Wren Arthur at Olive Productions, gave the festival the gift of their support. Steve, Stanley and Wren even allowed us to do a staged reading of Oren Moverman’s screenplay for Queer, which saw Patti Smith opening the event with an invocation in honor of William S. Burroughs. Later that night, Patti played a 75 minute set with Lenny Kaye, the music crackling out of a crummy PA set up on the second floor of a local tapas restaurant. Of Montreal played a show at the festival, and we set up a free “glam make-up” station. Everyone got made-up.
We were lucky and honored to host the World Premieres of films like Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, Robert Greene’s Fake It So Real, and Onur Tukel’s Richard’s Wedding. The U.S. Premieres of films like Matt Wolf’s Wild Combination, Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild And Lovely, and Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands. Filmmakers and distributors began to trust us and to see the festival as a place for ambitious, independent work. This year, Jason Momoa world premiered his film Road To Paloma with us. Now, he might be playing Aquaman in the new Superman vs. Batman movie. We closed the fest with The One I Love, all thanks to Radius-TWC believing in us. Elisabeth Moss and Charlie McDowell came to the festival with the film. It was a thrill to meet them and share their work.
Somehow, all of these things grow into other things. Filmmakers make new films, new filmmakers make first films, the community grows, the festival moves forward.
Over the course of this decade, the film industry has changed dramatically. In 2005, we supplemented our 35mm projection with DigiBeta, the highest quality digital standard at the time. Then HDCam came along. Then DCP. In 2012, we showed our last 35mm print. The number of film festivals has grown exponentially as well, with so many of my colleagues putting on great events, each with their own role in the lives of these films and filmmakers. And of course, Sarasota itself went through an enormous transformation.
In January 2008, I attended a panel at Sundance where IFC Films announced a partnership with SXSW to use that festival as a VOD launch for some select new films. I was skeptical of how day and date would work for festival screenings, but we tried an experiment, showing Matthew Newton’s Three Blind Mice at the festival after it had debuted on VOD. The audiences came en masse, and it really forced us to re-think what VOD meant for the festival’s programming model. It was a big shift.
In April 2008, we held what had to be our biggest festival ever. We honored Charlize Theron at a typically massive Tribute Dinner event during the festival, closing that year’s edition with her film Battle In Seattle, about the violent confrontation between the Seattle police and anti-globalization protesters. That spring, I learned from the organization that the Sarasota Film Festival was carrying a massive deficit. There was no guarantee of a next paycheck. Big changes were made to the organization’s structure, including our then Executive Director exiting the festival. At that time, a large portion of the festival’s cash sponsorship budget was made up of long term agreements with real estate companies and developers. They evaporated. In the autumn of 2008, as the festival looked toward its 11th edition carrying the uncertainty of a big debt, the bottom fell out of the local real estate market. Sponsorship dollars dried up. Individual giving was way down as people scrambled to protect their assets. The Board of the festival stepped in to completely overhaul the festival’s budget and expenditures and to work on a long term solution to the festival’s deficit.
In between these two events, my wife and I had our first child, a son.
Since 2008, the Sarasota Film Festival has been operating on less than half of its 2008 cash budget, and we haven’t missed a beat. That is all due to the festival’s Executive Board, especially Board President Mark Famiglio and Executive Board member Sharyn Weiner, as well as our former Managing Director Kathy Jordan, who did an incredible job of holding the festival together through these difficult changes. Without their leadership and fiscal discipline, as well as their faith in the value of the organization, I have little doubt that the 2008 festival would have been the last. This type of restructuring is never easy; I know I have made sacrifices as we worked our way toward a healthy economic situation. So has the staff. But the Board has always supported the organization by putting money in the right places; supporting filmmaker attendance, making sure our technical presentation is world class, and investing in partnerships that leverage films into the needs of the community. I have no doubt they will continue to do this important work as the festival moves forward.
If you asked people in Sarasota about the story of the past ten years of the Sarasota Film Festival, about what defined the last decade, I am not sure what they would say. I don’t think many of the names and milestones I mentioned above would come up. Maybe a few films they saw and loved? Something they hated? All of this behind the scenes work is essentially irrelevant to our community, as it should be. People just want a great festival. We did our best to make sure that happened.
But Sarasota is a unique community, with its own intrigue and culture, its own diverse opinions. I know what I’ve heard, though. I’ve heard it argued that the festival is a superfluous event that trades on “glitz” and has no substance. It’s just for rich people. It’s not elegant enough. I’ve heard that film is not on par with the “real” arts that are supported by major donors to the ballet, or the symphony, or the opera, or the numerous theater companies that dot the Sarasota landscape.
We had people who worked with us leave and take our ideas and start them up at other local institutions, raking in money. We partnered with organizations that learned from us and decided to stop partnering so they could do their own thing. We found we could not partner with other groups who didn’t seem able to map their goals to our own. Other local film festivals started up. Film programs began. Some continue. Some are gone. Sarasota was going to be the new Hollywood. We got dozens of emails a week telling us how consultants can show us the way to do things better. You stay quiet and focus on your work.
Some enjoy talking about which films we chose not to show, as if our curatorial choices were suspect. Or political. I’ve heard the festival can’t be trusted. Some like to spin the festival’s good work into a negative headline. You don’t have enough celebrities. You have too many celebrities. The parties seem scaled back. The parties are too lavish. We’ve never heard of these guests attending the festival. We’ve never heard of these films. You’re showing too many films. The program seems smaller this year. Things were better under previous management. Each year is “better” or “more substantive” than previous years. It’s a small community. That is its charm and appeal. You wish everyone knew what they had in front of them. Instead, you rinse and repeat.
Through all of it, I have never backed down from showing films I thought were important. For me, that means thematically challenging, formally ambitious, aesthetically beautiful films that challenge an intelligent audience. I’ve seen audience members seethe with rage coming out of a film they hated, only to head to the lobby and get back in line for the next film and then hate that one, too. This year, I had a scholar from overseas try to dress me down in front of a small crowd, asking me if she could join the festival’s screening committee so she could look at the criteria for selecting films. When I asked her about her interest, it turned out that she wanted to know why I programmed so many bad films that she absolutely hated. Zing! Saw twenty films, hated them all. Stray Dogs? Manakamana? These were not real movies. They did not meet the standard of true art, which was to uplift the audience. All of the films we showed were grim. Negative.
You smile. You endure it. You wonder why she didn’t get tickets to any comedies or romances. You await the arrival of the 21st century.
And yet, I know there are literally tens of thousands of people who love the festival, love the organization, and they have never hesitated to take chances, to try new things, to support the festival in the best way possible; by attending the films. By getting their friends to come with them. By spending beautiful, sunlit days inside dark movie theaters, surrounded by strangers. Each and every one of them has, at some point, said hello to me or given me a passing smile, a frown, their thoughts on the films, the festival, what we do well, what we could improve.
This is the Sarasota audience. The reason I was able to work in Sarasota for a decade was because of them.
Programming for them has been absolute heaven. Film programmers know the feeling of sharing a film they love with an audience and knowing that they are responsible for helping make a connection. I had that experience literally thousands of times, all because an audience of film-loving, generous, open-minded people decided, for their own private reasons, to support the festival. They trusted our curation. They believed in us. In me. It is like no feeling on earth. I am eternally grateful.
Outside of the festival bubble, my life has grown increasingly more complicated. During my time working in Sarasota, I got married, I had two amazing sons, and I stayed rooted in Brooklyn, my home, where my life and time have grown more and more focused. In the end, my role as a father and husband have eclipsed my ability to make trips back and forth to Florida, to pay for incredibly long hours of child care, to miss my boys’ milestones, to not be there at the end of the day for weeks and then months at a time. I turned 43. I was spending a lot of money to cover the cost of travel, for the privilege (and it was) of working a thousand and more miles away from home. Trying desperately to be a good dad and a tolerable husband. In Brooklyn, we rent a small apartment that I’ve been in for almost 12 years. I work from a small desk in my small bedroom. Outside my window, days go by. My boys want a puppy. We’re treading water. Years go by, and faster now.
Coming home to Brooklyn after this year’s festival, with a decade of hard work under my belt, it just felt like the right moment to work with Mark Famiglio to call time on my work in Sarasota. I feel like I’ve built everything I could, I’ve given my heart and soul to the festival and to the organization. The festival is in a great position for new choices, new ideas, new blood. There is an identity we’ve worked hard to build, but curation is a matter of making choices. I don’t feel anyone should feel beholden to what we’ve done in the past. I know that the organization will continue to thrive without me. No one is bigger than the festival, least of all me.
A few years back, Holly married Michael Tully, who she met at the festival. His was the one of the first films we programmed at Sarasota. We’ve been friends ever since. He even lets me write and interview filmmakers for his website once in a while. Holly left Sarasota in late 2011 to join the Austin Film Society and expand her programming work, collaborating with Richard Linklater (#Upgrade). I got to work with Caley Fagerstrom, an amazing programming coordinator who has blossomed into an incredible programmer in her own right. I was lucky to work with Magida Diouri, who has outstanding taste and is an excellent programmer. This past year, I found a way to work with Ina Pira, a fantastic programmer with whom I love working and who I know will continue to do great things.
I feel like everyone at the Sarasota Film Festival created a small place in the world to help foster all of these things in our own, small way. We annoyed people, we made people happy. We made friends, we lost a few. We showed a lot of movies. Thousands. Together, we built a reputation for The Sarasota Film Festival as a place for emerging artists to call home, for adventurous programs, for the insane cultural dissonance of our parties, for late night beaches, for fun. We sang karaoke at a motel with hourly rates. We showed people the power of the Bahi Hut Mai Tai cocktail. Sarasota meant community and defying expectations, with incredible audiences who believed in us.
I could not be more proud to see all of these artists blossoming in the world. To see the growth of the festival. To have known and worked with so many amazing colleagues. To have met so many people who love film as much as I do.
I look back on all of these things and it is beyond my wildest dreams to have been a part of it.
It has been an absolute privilege.
8 thoughts on “On Leaving Sarasota”
An Open Letter to Tom Hall
I can imagine your bittersweet feelings right now and I consider it important that you both understand and appreciate that it has been an honor to work with you as a screener for the Sarasota Film Festival. Although most of my dealings were more directly with Magida and Caley, you always made yourself available to me to discuss questions and share (not-always-asked-for) opinions. I thank you for that, and more importantly, thank you for sharing your insights, inspirations and passions for films, filmmaking and festivals.
I also empathize with some of the frustrations you alluded to in your article. – The highlights of our lives often get so plentiful that we need to swirl them in a kaleidoscope and latch on to the design of life that touches us most at the moment. Being closer to your family at this precious time seems right –- it may be a loss for those of us growing to know you but certainly is a gain for those closest to you.
I wish you the best of luck and happiness in this new phase of your life. Thank you for the privilege of knowing you. I do hope our paths will cross again.
I always trusted your judgement when it came to films. I will miss you you did wonderful things for the film festival and Sarasota
Best Wishes Tom.
Thank you for the your hard work and efforts in bringing the SFF to its current exemplary status. While I am a full time resident of Sarasota now, I am a New Yorker at heart. I’ve even been to the movies in Monclair.
Over the last four years, I’ve had Press Credentials for the SFF and have enjoyed my time at the events. The last three opening nights were the highlights – Robot & Frank, Blackfish, and last year’s Last Days in Vietnam were all marvelous films.
So I salute your past work here in Sarasota, and offer you my heartiest wishes for continued success at Montclair.
As volunteers at the SFF we always found you to be the consummate professional. You never failed to say hello and have a brief conversation with us as you went about your demanding daily
activities. We wish to thank you for your tireless efforts on behalf of the festival and the City of Sarasota. You will be missed by all who benefitted from your efforts.
On a more important note we both commend you for putting family in the forefront of your professional decisions. You will forever be thankful for each day you get to spend with your family as you pursue your new role at the MFF.
Regards and lots of good luck.
Bruce and Barbara Keltz
Tom. I don’t think you’d remember me — at the time (2004-07) I was working as a videographer for ABC7 in Sarasota. It was such a pleasure working alongside of you. I wish you all the best with your return home. Thank you for everything you’ve done for film and Sarasota.