Size will likely be a topic of conversation among local cinephiles this month as the 31st annual Seattle International Film Festival gets underway. With nearly 300 films on hand, our fest is the largest and most attended cinema showcase in the United States. Yet every year we’re upstaged, in terms of influence and recognition, by sleeker events—and not just heavy hitters like Sundance and Cannes. SIFF’s clout is trumped by mid-level fests from Tribeca to Telluride—models of a less-is-more philosophy that still manage to launch more careers, attract more industry guests and generate more hype than our own.
So, what’s weighing us down? Competition, for one thing. Thanks to the massive fest explosion of the 1990s, we’re sharing the limelight with high-profile newbies in places like Austin, San Jose—even the Hamptons. SIFF is still the biggest, but amid this clamor for attention, does size still matter?
Not as much as it used to, says former SIFF publicity director Kathleen McInnis, who left last September to run the edgier Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Gone are the glory days when high-powered film distributors flocked to SIFF just to see how films would be received by our city’s uniquely robust crowds. “Seattle gained a huge reputation for its audiences early on,” she recalls. “That reputation alone isn’t enough anymore in the cutthroat business of distribution.”
And it seems that no one at SIFF wants to risk losing some of that audience in exchange for something that might put it back on the map as a really big player in the film fest circuit—by including more daring programming, for instance. SIFF’s current approach is heavy on sure things, light on risky ventures. Last year’s screenings of 225 feature-length offerings were bogged down with award-winning titles and films that had already found distribution. (Consider the mainstream gala opener, The Notebook, which saw a theatrical release less than two weeks after the festival ended.) In all, only seven features were bona fide world premieres. True, SIFF will always be more cultural event than sales convention. But, with 25 days to kill, couldn’t more diamonds in the rough find their way in?
“Somewhere along the way, SIFF turned a blind eye to how useful it could be as an engine for truly great work,” says Jamie Hook, a longtime Seattle filmmaker and co-founder of the Northwest Film Forum, who believes SIFF’s priorities have gone astray. Hook, who recently left Seattle to become executive director for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, says, “It’s like the cart has gotten in front of the horse. SIFF thinks it’s the reason the films submitted to it are getting made. Why not reinvest itself with the people in Seattle who make films?”
Hook’s own feature film, The Naked Proof, premiered at SIFF in 2003. While his new position gives him a bit more sympathy for folks in the tricky world of festival administration, he still sees a disconnect between SIFF and a local film community that tends to view it as a behemoth. Of course, if SIFF were to, say, fulfill its higher aesthetic function with a more active role in fostering local talent such efforts could also bolster its reputation as an event where films and filmmakers are discovered.
But if SIFF does have a responsibility to act as a springboard for local auteurs, where does it end? SIFF’s director of programming Carl Spence says staffers would lose credibility if they unfairly favored local submissions, and he counters the charge that SIFF is frosty toward homegrown talent by pointing to its locally geared events. There’s the much-lauded Fly Filmmaking Challenge in which Seattle-area filmmakers try their hand at impromptu moviemaking, and the Screenwriters Salon, a forum where local scribes get to pick the brains of professional screenwriters, to name a few. SIFF even waives its entry fee for any production shot in Washington state. Still, Spence doesn’t deny that the festival’s first priority is to its audiences—and not local filmmakers.
Yet discovering great films, local or otherwise, is really what sets sales-oriented, Sundance-esque fests apart from the rest of the pack. When a festival makes the decision to involve itself in the nurturing of undiscovered work, it becomes part of the creative process. If SIFF has a conviction that film is art, surely it should see creating that art as important as showcasing it.
Despite its undying commitment to audiences, the time may still be ripe for change at SIFF. Last year saw the departure of both McInnis and co-founder Darryl MacDonald. MacDonald, who left to head up the Palm Springs International Film Festival, ran SIFF since he and filmmaker Dan Ireland founded it in 1975—and is proud of his creation and the numbers it attracts. He’s quick to compare SIFF’s 160,000 attendees to Sundance’s 45,000. His new Palm Springs gig pulled in 105,000 this year—nearly double the number from when he took over (a feat he takes at least partial credit for).
But will MacDonald’s replacement, Helen Loveridge, follow the same audience-driven path? Loveridge is a well-respected film industry veteran who long worked at the London Film Festival and as a film seller in Germany and Holland. Her presence at SIFF has left many anticipating a fresh start. Even Hook thinks she’s perfect for the job. “If anyone can put SIFF through a workout and give it some tone and definition, it’s Helen,” he says.
But a chat with Loveridge reveals a more complicated version of SIFF’s road ahead. Before taking the reins, she was the festival’s managing director since 2002—long enough to catch wind of some hurdles. Among these, Loveridge says, is timing. Part of SIFF’s near-month duration overlaps with the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, which tends to keep key industry cliques preoccupied. Moving SIFF has been suggested, but out of the thousands of attendees who participate in the fest’s written surveys every year, the vast majority of respondents say they like SIFF right where it is. Some of those polled, in fact, have been downright hostile toward the idea of moving it. While it’s true people often resist change, even when it’s for the greater good, Loveridge says the shift would be more trouble than it’s worth. Regardless of when SIFF is, she adds, “it’s never going to replace Cannes, anyway.”
What Loveridge does acknowledge is the need to think beyond the numbers and find a way to rekindle industry interest in SIFF. Last year she helped unveil the first annual Seattle Summit, an industry and press-only panel discussion entitled, ironically enough, “Who’s taking the risk?” The event brought in top-notch execs from Paramount and Miramax, and Loveridge hopes it will help establish Seattle as a place to engage in open dialogues about new trends in independent film.
Ideas like this are a good start for SIFF’s next chapter. But all tinkering aside, the new chief makes one thing pretty clear. “I definitely don’t want to sacrifice the audience aspect of this,” she says. “I think it’s what makes Seattle so special.”
That said, the sheer fervor Seattleites embrace this festival with every year probably speaks louder than any budding Spielberg or Hollywood suit ever could. There’s no doubt we love SIFF, if only a little too much.
Originally published in Seattle magazine, May 2005