An Epic: Elaborate Plan to Watch 100 Movies in 5 Days at HIFF

East Hampton movie theater during the 2014 Hamptons International Film Festival.
East Hampton movie theater during the 2014 Hamptons International Film Festival. Photo credit: Brendan J. O'Reilly

Well, the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) has come and gone. The Golden Starfish Awards have been handed out and the winners for features are the documentary film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, about the difficulty of getting a divorce under Jewish law because your husband needs to officially give you permission, and The Special Need, about two men trying to help an autistic friend lose his virginity. The Audience Awards have also been selected—the feature winners are The Imitation Game, about a brilliant young mathematician and his work trying to crack the Nazi’s secret code, and Iris, about 93-year-old-fashion designer Iris Apfel and her recent comeback, while Feast, a love story about a man’s love life as seen through the eyes of a dog, won for Best Short Film.

All sorts of famous and accomplished actors and actresses were here making speeches, giving advice and hawking their wares, including Bill Murray, Hilary Swank, Patricia Clarkson, Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern.

Just under 100 movies were shown during the five days of the festival, selected from the 1,200 that were sent in for consideration. Thousands upon thousands of people watched at six film venues in four towns. And traffic on Monday going back to the city was backed up for miles. What a huge shot in the arm this was for the local economy in the off-season. And here they were, so many beautiful women and handsome men, intense directors and deep-pocketed producers, eager talent agents, happy cinematographers and everyone else in the business, all on one 30-mile-long South Fork peninsula, all hooking up at parties, lectures, “conversations,” multi-leveled meetings, showings and dinners everywhere.

But what I want to talk about here are the tens of thousands of moviegoers fighting to get in to see as many of these 100 movies as they could. Armed with a 96-page program, a fistful of money, a wide variety of tickets and the determination of army commanders, they created battle plans for these five days in their film programs, linking up the name of a movie with the color of the category it was in, with the time and day it was being shown, at the theater it was shown, in what town that theater was—and they could get in their car and, if they got there on time, see the films. Waiting on line, I saw many people with marked-up programs with circles and arrows to assure themselves they could do this.

The key was getting there on time. Regardless of anything else, ticketholders had to be there half an hour before the show to begin waiting on line. The important people, those with photo-ID plastic passes on chains around their necks, had to get there 15 minutes ahead to wait in line, a different and more important line. Meanwhile, since some of the venues were multiplexes, different movies in different theaters inside overlapped times, so the ticketholder-and-important-people lines for those other movies had to be kept separate from the other ticketholder-and-important-people lines. And there was still a third line for each film, called the “Rush” line, where those without tickets could wait to see if they could get in after everybody else. In addition, there were reporters and photographers stationed behind floodlights to photograph the actors and actresses and movie people who got into still another line to, one at a time, stroll across a red carpet to a space in front of a backdrop where they could be photographed, interviewed and applauded.

Those shepherding all these people onto all these lines for this and that were, for the most part, volunteers with clipboards, eager starry-eyed people with little experience, standing in front of volunteer supervisors with bigger clipboards and earpieces and microphones to help them along.

Suppose the movie you wanted to see inside was Panda Car Crash. Outside on the sidewalk there was this melee, through which shoppers and passersby and gawkers walked, all of the above further overseen by police officers and security people to see that human beings were kept separate from the automobiles, which continually arrived curbside to unload still more people, with tickets, without, with photo IDs or with sunglasses and jewelry and beautifully coiffed hair for the red carpet.

The fact that at certain times during the weekend it rained hard, well, that only added to the experience. This was a film festival. A famous one called HIFF. And it wasn’t the Hoboken HIFF or the Hawaii HIFF, which are small potatoes. This was the big deal. Think Sundance, think Tribeca, think Monte Carlo. Unfurl those umbrellas. Put that battle plan into plastic sleeves. We are all part of the show. When are they going to make a movie about THIS?

As it happened, there was an unavoidable dynamic between the festival volunteers and the important people and the ticketholders and the rush people. The important people, whose tags said FOUNDER or BOOSTER or FILMMAKER or SPECIAL GUEST, were not used to being bossed around by a bunch of hesitant yet eager young volunteers. Sometimes tempers flashed.

The volunteers sent people this way and that. They made cut off points on some lines—“after this couple we can’t guarantee seating, and yes I know you have a ticket.” People needed to go to the bathroom. People needed to get out of the rain. All was forbidden. And through it all, the photographers jostled and the reporters shouted to the filmmakers coming through.

This was about rules. At half an hour before show time, the guaranteed seating for those with tickets ended. In front of what had been the back of the ticket line at 30 minutes before launch—and some lines were 100 yards long—those people would get in. Those arriving later, well, maybe you’d get to see Panda Car Crash, but maybe you would be bumped. Those in front of this imaginary point were a chatty bunch. Those behind it were somber and nervous.

This could be an Academy Award winner. Remember the name Panda Car Crash.

The important people were ignoring this at the half-hour point. They were relaxed, on their cell phones, thinking about something else. At the 15-minute mark they would be urged toward the glass doors. They’d be IN. Those too late—well, too bad. Should have gotten here earlier. Even Masters of the Universe. Even Alec Baldwin, Steven Spielberg, the Weinstein Brothers and Jack Nicholson would be turned away. Well, no, not them.

The 15-minute mark passed and the crowd of Important People surged forward into the lobby in a great stampede. Directly behind, the ticketholders with the guarantees galloped forward. After that came the ticketholders and important people who got there too late, and after that, the Rush people.

And there, in the lobby, separating them from the glass entry doors behind and the popcorn counter and the theater and seating beyond for Panda Car Crash, the theatergoers were given little slips of paper that said Excellent, Very Good, Good and Poor.

“Just tear off the word you want. Put it in the basket on your way out. You’ll be deciding the people’s choice.”

People grabbed them, then headed off to the uniformed security people and their X-ray machines. Shoes off. Jackets in the plastic bin. All jewelry and wristwatches. Wallets. Take computers out of their briefcases. Empty your pockets. And in the X-ray, stand still with your hands over your head.

After that, this way, please, to Panda Car Crash.

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