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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."
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