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By John Wildman | April 2, 2011

As the New Directors/New Films festival churns along toward it’s concluding weekend at the Film Society’s Walter Reade and MoMA, I hopped on a plane to head down to Dallas for the opening weekend of the DALLAS International Film Festival. The fifth year of DALLAS IFF, it’s my first year not in charge of the PR operation for a film festival that ironically (given that they are the fest’s presenting sponsor this year) is easily the Cadillac of film fests in the Southwest. Of all the film festivals I have worked with, for and attended, DALLAS IFF is my favorite beyond any doubt. The festival combines programming that affects a superbly audience friendly balance of challenging, yet populist fare courtesy of James Faust and Sarah Harris, peerless personal handling of its guest filmmakers, and the most film engaged audiences in the entire country. It’s just flat out fun.

So, it was strange as I prepared my day-to-day, hour-by-hour schedule the night before to think that for the first time, it wouldn’t be my “show”. The festival was flying me in to moderate a couple filmmaker panels and do a couple more Q&As following screenings, offer a reassuring presence to new head of PR, Emily Hargrove (that she didn’t need all that much), and write about my experiences on this side of the fence over the course of the weekend.

So, here I was, preparing my schedule, when I discovered that an itinerary had already been sent to me since I was a panelist. Awesome. It was almost like I was “talent.” Almost. It was strange enough to build a schedule for myself similar to what I would do for a client back in my days doing personal PR, but to discover that it had already been done on my behalf was both amusing and unnerving.

The next day, after landing, the first order of business was to do a couple of things that have gone dormant in the three months I have officially been a resident of New York: drive a car and get some Mexican food.

I quickly settled into the riding a bicycle-ness of the drive into town and dropped my bag off and put off lunch in order to swing by the Dallas Film Society offices to say hello and let them know I arrived.

After hugs and hellos, Hargrove said she could use my opinion on something that had popped up last night. Robert Wilonsky of The Dallas Observer had written an item as a pre-cursor to opening night discussing the lineup, star power, etc. Typical stuff. However, he also delved into the financial strength of the festival and how secure it all looked (as they continued to navigate the rocky economic terrain) heading into year five. Also typical. The problem was the fact he had been sent a fundraising email that had went out a day or so before. (Which frankly, I had received too.) And he was connecting dots as to the timing of that email and the opening of the festival and “Is everything okay?”, blah, blah, blah. Now, as I mentioned, I also received that email. I also routinely receive similar emails from almost all of the film fests I have worked for. I did the PR for the LA Greek Film Festival five years ago and I still routinely get emails from them. I mean, I feel like I need to put a restraining order out on AFI for chrissakes. And I get them because I am considered a “friend” or supporter of each of those film festivals – therefore I might just occasionally send some money in.

But that kind of thing appearing in the press is scary for a film fest, because as much as they absolutely need those contributions from people to keep the lights on, they also need to project an aura of security that the show most definitely will continue to go on.

The problem was a sense of violation between the line dividing journalist and supporter of the film festival led to a misunderstanding. I’m assuming here, because I didn’t speak to him, but I believe that in Wilonsky’s case, his integrity as a journalist compelled him to not just do the story but also include that info that had been delivered to his e-mail box. Can’t blame him for that. But it highlights something else that is not unique to Dallas, and that is the constantly re-negotiated and re-considered boundaries between journalists and film festivals. I even see this in New York and L.A. let alone “smaller” host cities like Dallas or Seattle or Santa Fe. And that is the fact that journalists by and large (I include myself when I’m wearing this hat) have a soft spot for the service that film festivals provide, which is film programming not completely overwhelmed by the commerce and corporatization and lowest common denominator of it all. Film festivals are the good guys as far as any journalist that truly loves film is concerned.

And because of this, those working with and for the film festivals can be lulled into the feeling that those journalists would never do harm to the film festival, forgetting that they have a job to do. And that job is to deliver the news and deliver it truthfully (as much as they see it). Last year, Film Threat’s own Mark Bell and I had a similar dilemma on our hands as he had witnessed an unfortunate incident following a night of post-screening partying and reverie that went to excess and very, very south. He felt terrible about the fact that he had to write about it. He told me so emphatically before he wrote the story. And my response was that – as much as it sucked for us (the film festival) I would expect nothing less than for him to write about it because of my respect for his place in the equation. And he is still very much a friend of the film festival. In fact, he’s here this weekend too.

But when you are on the PR side of things for a film festival, that dilemma, that situation will happen a lot. Some are minor and some can be absolutely threatening. I mean, I could go on about the time an entire issue of the film fest’s newspaper was about to be scrapped because there was a picture of a peach on the cover that looked too much like a person’s a*s. And the heads of the festival were scared shitless that it would upset some crotchety board members (and inspire them not to write some big checks). All because of an obscene peach.

That’s what you call a crisis.

So, after doing my job and reassuring Emily that her instincts were correct and this did not warrant any kind of response since there was really no there…there, we moved on to the preparations for the big opening night gala.

Texas film favorites Barry Corbin and G.W. Bailey on the red carpet

Since part of my stock in trade is now the running of red carpet entrances, I agreed to help out while I was here for the weekend. The proper red carpet presentation was something I brought to DALLAS IFF and now it is a primary part of the film fest’s identity. For that reason, I can see myself many years from now being trotted out to a Dallas IFF red carpet, escorted and supported by two assistants decades younger than myself as I ceremonially announce the first filmmaker to the pen of photographers and paparazzi – similar to throwing out the first pitch at a ballgame.

And talk about presentation. The opening night was being held at the Winspear Opera House with the after party nearby at the Crow Collection of Asian Art. Glamour meeting high society meeting movies and film culture meeting red carpet hoopla and fanfare. This is exactly why DALLAS IFF and SXSW can exist so harmoniously together. They are like sisters that studied at different colleges – one taking film at a tony east coast finishing school and the other at a party college with an awesome school for digital technology.

TRAVELING SCR/DIR Rachel Shepherd with PROD Farah White adding some style to the red carpet

Anyway, following the red carpet entrances including several of the filmmakers screening their movies during the festival, local Texas film favorites like Barry Corbin, G.W. Baily and Burton Gilliam, DALLAS IFF founder and a DALLAS Star honoree this year, Liener Temerlin, Ross Perot (yes, THAT Ross Perot) and a lot of local filmmakers heading up the new Dallas moviemaking wave to come, it was time to head inside for the film.

The Opening Night Gala crowd making their way into the Winspear Opera House

Another first, as I actually had a ticket for a gala that had been set aside for me. The show began as people in the front of the house began singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. And then more people on the other side of the house joined in. And pretty son they were all making their way up to the stage, singing grandly. Which would be weird unless you were in Dallas and you knew that one of the honorees of the night was DALLAS IFF Founder and Chairman Emeritus Liener Temerlin. The marketing and advertising legend LOVES him the singin’ and a dancin’ so being that tonight was his night more or less – that was exactly what he was gonna get. But the first honoree was Ann-Margret. And after a nice clip package (another thing Dallas has down pat – the well-put together honoree clip packages), she was brought to the podium to accept her award.

Here’s another film fest insider nugget. The fear and trepidation you go through as an honoree takes the podium to speak. To yourself, you’re saying, “Please be funny, please be brief, please say something important or quotable, please be brief, please make sense, please don’t ramble, please be brief…” One year, I literally was seconds away from having to pull Mickey Rooney from the stage with one of those giant show business hooks before his wife rescued us all and intervened his improvised reading of “War and Peace and each one of my Divorces”.

Ann-Margret accepts her DALLAS Star Award

So – Ann-Margret. Her speech. She was gracious. She was sweet. She needed a speechwriter. To summarize what she said, “I love Dallas. One of my sons is named Dallas (so there’s your proof). We filmed STATE FAIR here. And that was fun. Liked that. You are funny people. You are patriotic people. Uhm…okay then. As you were.”

So – she was brief. We’ll take that as a win.

Then it was time for Liener. His appearance was preceded by a clip was various people telling anecdotes about the man, quips and well wishes. The friends and well-wishers included both Presidents Bush, Perot, the head of Target, and many more people that have much more money and wield much more influence than you or I ever will even in our very best games of Monopoly or Risk. And they are all in his thrall. And I have to say, he is one of the few people that I have personally worked with or for that I get that inner wave of pride when I think of the fact I got to do what I do by his side for a time. So as he spoke and reveled in his moment, I had some emotion working on me. That was a cool moment.

DALLAS IFF Founder and Honoree Liener Temerlin with Ross Perot

The Opening Night Gala presentation was Constance Marks’ documentary BEING ELMO.

Marks’ documentary follows the life and career of Elmo creator and puppeteer, Kevin Clash. The film takes us from the inspiration behind Clash’s interest in puppeteering as a child and high school student through his work on Sesame Street.

I had heard good things about the film while I was at Sundance and figured that it would be enjoyable because let’s face it – it’s about Elmo. You can’t get any more “feel good” than that. (note to self – shoot email to programmers at the Feel Good Film Festival). But what was more impressive to me watching the film is how well Marks draws the parallels between Clash and his idol, Jim Henson. Clash’s journey to meet and finally work with Henson is definitely a long and winding one and the fact that he eventually took the baton when Henson passed is presented in a way that seems not simply a logical conclusion, but a proper one.

Therefore, the film should be one that could find a happy place and a solid audience in multiplexes as Elmo (and Kevin Clash) continue to bring the love.

The film also was about as perfect an opening night choice as you can get without having a parade of movie stars to trot out in front of the press and the film fans. Afterwards, everyone made their way over to the Crow Collection museum and despite the best intentions of the party planners walked right through the museum to get to the outdoor patio area where the alcohol and food lived.

For me, it was reunion time with the festival staff and volunteers – all friends and defacto family now, local filmmakers and journalists, etc. A lot of reporting back and forth on how things were going with their film projects or businesses and what life was like in New York and with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The ego received some puffing up from people happy to see me and describing how they had heard rumors that I wasn’t going to be able to make it, etc. (second note to self – remember to follow up on that idea and spread similar rumors of not making the next trip to build anticipation for my actual arrival) and it was great to see the film festival kick off things yet again the only way DALLAS IFF knows how – with fun AND style.

(left to right) Dallas Film Society Chairman of the Board Michael Cain, DFS President Tanya Foster, BEING ELMO Prod/DP James Miller, Sophia Marks, BEING ELMO director Constance Marks, BEING ELMO producer Corinne LaPook, DALLAS IFF Artistic Director James Faust

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