You Can Pay To Be A Founder Of The Filmfest

So I am standing with the crowd out in front of Guild Hall on a rainy evening, all of us under umbrellas, waiting in line for the opening night film of this year’s Hamptons International Film Festival. I am in a giddy mood. The upcoming weekend features over 120 films in seven theatres in the Hamptons, and because I have the prestigious FOUNDER’S PASS, which I wear around my neck indicating I am one of the founders, I can go to each and every one of them just by showing up—I don’t even need tickets. I am also welcome at all the parties and talks by the famous actors, producers and directors. It is going to be quite a weekend. [expand]

In front of me in line is a well-dressed middle-aged couple also each wearing the coveted FOUNDER’S PASS. I don’t recognize them.

“Exciting weekend coming up,” I say.

“Yup,” says the husband.

“Know anything about this film?” I ask. The film is Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and it stars, among others, Susan Sarandon, who, at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday will be interviewed by the actor Bob Balaban.

“Nope,” says the wife. “We don’t know anything. We’re from Ohio.”

Ohio?” I say. “I don’t recognize you.” I am thinking that all of us founders, who were here at the beginning in 1993 would likely know about each other.

We introduce ourselves. I still don’t know who they are. I learn that they are in the department store business. They have a department store in Dayton.

“So, how did you get the founder’s pass?”

“We bought them,” the husband says.

“You bought them?”

Thus ensues a remarkable conversation, from my point of view. I’ve been getting the founder’s pass since about 1997, when they started giving out the passes to us founders. I wear mine proudly.

“You PAID to be a founder?”

“We wanted the very best pass. This gets us into everything. Did we do anything wrong?”

I am thinking maybe the people now who are running the festival did something wrong. They are now selling the sacred founder’s pass.

“Maybe they should have sold you a Platinum Pass. They could make a Platinum Pass even be more important than a Founder’s Pass.”

“Is there such a thing?”

“Maybe they could call it the Titanium Pass.”

I’m thinking—selling the Founder’s Pass is a breaking of the sacred trust. In 1992, a woman named Joyce Robinson, who lived on Pantigo Road, called me up out of the blue because she’d been told I might help her out in starting a film festival, since I ran a newspaper. I visited her at her home, a modest 200-year-old converted barn affair. She was about 40 years old, recently divorced with a 10-year-old daughter, and in the divorce she had gotten the summerhouse while her husband had gotten the apartment in the city.

She was sort of stuck out here though, because both of them had worked and she had made her money as a casting director. Now doing it involved such a trek back to the city that she had to give it up.

“I love the film business,” she told me. “I know everybody. What if we had a film festival out here, like Sundance? I could do it. I know I could.”

“That would be a wonderful idea,” I said. “Why didn’t I think of it? Steven Spielberg is out here. Roy Scheider. Barry Sonnenfeld, Alan Alda, Lauren Bacall, Chevy Chase. Herb Ross. I’ll help you in any way I can.”

The next year, 1993, she was set to run the Hamptons International Film Festival over a weekend in October. There were about a dozen films to be screened. She hired a secretary. She ran around in her van. She’d take her daughter to school, then set up a filming venue. She recruited some others to volunteer with her. She got sponsors such as Arrow shirts. TimeWarner. She made a partnership with the well-established Deauville Film Festival in France.

She hired Darryl MacDonald of the Seattle Film Festival as director. She made arrangements with four theaters—Sag Harbor, John Drew and the Southampton UA Multiplex, and over four days in October, would show 100 films. She got Steven Spielberg, Alan Alda, George Plimpton, D.A. Pennebaker and Alec Baldwin to be on an honorary board of directors, and soon decided she’d need an office and an active Board of Directors to raise seed money.

During this time she asked me if I would like to be on the board and I said sure. But a month later, after I never heard back from her, I called her.

“The board decided it didn’t want you,” she told me. “I don’t think it was personal. They have enough members.”

I did wonder just why I was rejected. I asked one of the board members—it’s a secretive group—to tell me. October was approaching. He said he couldn’t talk to me about it. I thought, uh oh, somebody doesn’t like me.

And then, in September, one month before the first festival was to begin, the Board fired Joyce Robinson. It seemed there was something of a revolution amongst the board members about Mrs. Robinson running it. I went to talk to her, but she said it was personal stuff and the board wanted it kept that way.

Many years later, I was told in confidence by someone who was there about what really happened, or at least what they said happened. Mrs. Robinson, many felt, was in way over her head. And she was running it as a mom-and-pop business, mixing personal expenses with business expenses. When asked about it, she said it was her festival and she wasn’t making any money with it and she didn’t see it that way and her daughter needed to get to school in the morning. Much of it was still being run from  her home, after all.

There was nothing wrong with all this, but to grow, the board concluded they needed her out. This is what I was told.

So it goes. And on that line, it suddenly occurred to me that it was possible I had been rejected for a spot on the board all those years ago because I was HER nominee. They didn’t want more votes for her. They needed the votes to get her out.

The festival today, a non-profit organization, is humming along, running like a clock, and is now probably one of the top five film festivals in the world.

At this point, under our umbrellas, we saw the kids with the clipboards and the earpieces come out to announce that the founders, in the line on the left, since they were the prestigious group, would now be welcome to file into the empty theatre and take their seats. After that, after we got the best seats, everybody else would be allowed in out of the rain.

We went in and I waved goodbye to the folks from Ohio. They sat on one side, I sat on the other. After awhile, I saw T. J. Clemente, one of the journalists for our paper, sitting off to one side alone. I invited him over to sit with me. He’d been at the front of the line with the great unwashed to be let in after us founders.

“Where’s Chris?” he asked.

“In Turkey touring the country with one of her sisters,” I said. “Where’s Cindy?”

“She had another meeting in New York for a television series on psychics” We enjoyed the film immensely. It was a comedy about two brothers and their mother trying to get through life with limited skills and everything going wrong. Afterwards, we sat and listened to the Q and A and then went off to the opening day party at East Hampton Studios.

I got in easy of course. I just flashed my FOUNDER’S PASS.

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