Maui Film Fest: View from the top

Jun. 12, 2013 | 0 Comments

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BY MATTHEW GUREWITSCH / Special to the Star-Advertiser

Had the chief — Maui Film Festival founder Barry Rivers — on the line the other day. First off, we talked about the well-publicized fact that he personally winnows down roughly 1,000 submissions to put together a program of some 50 features and shorts.

Barry Rivers, right, and Ryan Phillippe at the opening night of the 2013 Maui Film Festival on Wednesday, June 12. (Courtesy Matt Dames/Getty Images for MFF)

Barry Rivers, right, and Ryan Phillippe at the opening night of the 2013 Maui Film Festival on Wednesday, June 12. (Courtesy Christopher Polk/Getty Images for MFF)

“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I’ve seen portions of 1,000 films and many hundreds in their entirety. I look at every movie first before I give it to anyone else, separating the coal from the diamonds, or the potential diamonds.

“I do value other opinions, but it’s easiest to look at everything myself first. A lot of work isn’t going to make the cut, so I don’t bother anyone with that. And sometimes I’m on the fence.

“The most challenging thing is remembering that I’m not programming for me. I’m programming for the public,” he said.

I noted there never seemed to be any shortage of movies with a significant Hawaiian connection, whether it be documentary, historical, or narrative.

“That’s important,” Rivers said. “If a festival can’t serve it’s community, who is it serving? Some film festivals are markets. Cannes is a market. Toronto, Sundance, Berlin. Past those, how many markets does one world need?

“I want to be inspiring, enlightening, with some laughs, with some topics people haven’t seen handled before. We’re feeling good about the mix.”

STUDYING THE program, I thought I saw a real split between programming for the castle-like Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center (which has daytime screenings, sometimes pitifully attended) and the crowd-pleasing Celestial Cinema, with its picnic-ground atmosphere (though under county regulations, no outside food or drink may be carried in).

“It’s become that way,” Rivers agreed. “Studios like to see their films at the Castle, and we’re happy to accommodate them. The Castle is a showcase, an art house. At the Celestial Cinema we show more independent DNA. We’re casting a wider net.

Barry Rivers, left, and Jessica Chastain on the opening night of the 2013 Maui Film Festival on Wednesday, June 12.  (Courtesy Christopher Polk/Getty Images for MFF)

Barry Rivers, left, and Jessica Chastain on the opening night of the 2013 Maui Film Festival on Wednesday, June 12. (Courtesy Christopher Polk/Getty Images for MFF)

“That said, we’re talking about niche films. We don’t show films that are going to open on 3,000+ screens. We’ve got content that can do very well on 400 screens. The Celestial Cinema is a perfect place to start some buzz. Trevor Groth, the director of programming at Sundance, said from the stage that the Celestial Cinema is the most amazing place to launch a movie he’s seen anywhere. Smaller filmmakers are thrilled to make a splash here that they’d be challenged to pay for.”

In a Q&A with the Hollywood Reporter two years ago, Rivers told the great story of Clint Eastwood coming to the festival, parking his car in the public parking lot, boarding the shuttle, and setting up his chair on the lawn just like anybody else. Does he have a story to top that?

“There are lots of stories,” Rivers said, “and some of them I can’t tell. Let me just say this. I made a commitment in the beginning: to have the festival be about something, not about nothing.

“We invite luminaries, not celebrities — really good people. Getting to meet them is icing on the cake. And we respect their privacy. We share very little about what they’ve done while they’re out here.”

In that same Q&A, Rivers said that the principal challenge for any presenter was fundraising. How much does he need to raise a year?

“We don’t talk money too much,” said Rivers. “Let me just say it costs of seven figures to mount the festival. I’m that odd bird who feels there’s a place for privacy in a company that’s a small business. I will say that we spend 20 cents on the dollar compared to mainland events we’d like to think are in our same category. That’s a source of great pride—and also something I’m trying to change!

“It would be wonderful to be able to pay everyone what they’re worth. People do what they do because they love to participate in something that enlightens and entertains the Maui community. And we have the support of lots of wonderful local companies. They step up. Always have, since the beginning. Still do.”

Kirsten Dunst won't make the trip to Maui this year, as originally announced. (Associated Press)

Kirsten Dunst won’t make the trip to Maui this year, as originally announced. (Associated Press)

ON TUESDAY, June 11, word leaked that Kirsten Dunst — announced as this year’s winner of the Pathfinder Award for “eclectic choices and charismatic performances” that “encourage us all to expand out definition of what it means to be human” — would be a no-show.

That was good news for chocoholics who had been wondering how to juggle the presentation with the $150-a-pop “Taste of Chocolate” blowout at the Four Seasons.

“We show as many great films as we can,” Rivers said without apology. “People have to make choices.”

In parting, I wondered how many movies Rivers sees when it’s not festival-selection time (if it’s ever not festival-selection time).

“I go to a lot of good movies over the course of a year,” he said. “I’m drawn to more thoughtful work: independent films, foreign films, not the tentpole, popcorn stuff. I don’t just go to whatever happens to be coming out this Friday.”
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Matthew Gurewitsch moved to Maui in 2011 after nearly three decades in New York City covering the arts for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other publications. Follow him on Twitter.

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