At festival, premieres are the gold standard - 27 East

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At festival, premieres are the gold standard

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author on Oct 13, 2008

Movie buffs and festival fans might get a thrill from the little tags that follow the title, country of origin and running time of films on the Hamptons International Film Festival’s schedule: “World Premiere,” “North American Premiere,” “U.S. Premiere.”

But for filmmakers and festival programmers, those descriptors are like medals hanging round the neck of an Olympic champion. For programmers, it’s a point of pride—not to say survival—to slate as many premieres as possible; for filmmakers, the success of a launch can depend on picking the right place to splash down.

“Each filmmaker has two very big decisions to make,” explained David Nugent, HIFF’s director of programming. “Where to world premiere your film and where to U.S. or North American premiere your film.”

To world premiere. To U.S. premiere. In the film industry, these are active verbs, and the concept of never-before-seen (or, at least, never-before-seen-on-this-continent) is unmatched currency on the festival circuit.

Festivals want to present new work, and they flourish by presenting films that audiences can’t see anywhere else. They want to make discoveries and take credit for screening the films first. They want the cachet that comes with directors and producers giving them the vote of confidence that their festival is a worthy coming-out party. In this country, the most prestigious film festivals either require or strongly prefer opening night films and films in competition to be at least North American premieres.

At the same time, filmmakers want to make a splash with their debuts. Premieres offer the first opportunity for the industry to see films and gauge audience reaction, the time when distribution offers are tendered and the first round of reviews are written.

“First impressions are very important,” Mr. Nugent said. “It’s when buzz gets built up or it doesn’t. It’s a very important thing for a filmmaker who’s been working on a film for one, two or three years and who has spent who knows how much money on it. It’s a nerve-wracking, exhilarating decision.”

This year, more filmmakers have decided to ante up their premiere status in a bet on the Hamptons International Film Festival. The schedule includes 55 films that are considered world, North American or U.S. premieres. That’s up from 30 last year and 38 in 2006.

“It’s a very smart place to launch,” asserted Henry Schlieff—president and CEO of Crown Media Holdings, which owns the Hallmark Channel, and a HIFF board member—during a phone interview last week. Hallmark, the exclusive sponsor of the festival’s “Focus of Family” series, will premiere its new television film, “An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving” on Thursday, October 16, at the UA East Hampton 6, and the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, will sit down with Alec Baldwin on Friday afternoon at the Bay Street Theatre for a special “Conversation with ...” program. The film will make its broadcast debut on the Hallmark Channel on November 22.

Mr. Schlieff hopes to build some momentum and word of mouth (can you say “buzz”?) about the film before its broadcast, and he believes HIFF offers “the very best of all worlds”: a small, intimate setting; a star-studded, powerful attendance list; proximity to New York and the city’s industry bigwigs, and a dedication to true independent film.

Among the 14 world premieres at HIFF is “Fingers,” a short directed by 23-year-old Danny Mooney, about a young musician in Nashville. The film is a candidate for the Golden Starfish award for short films. Mr. Mooney said by phone last week that his decision to premiere at HIFF was part serendipity (it’s where the film was accepted), but he says he feels good about debuting at a festival that has such a strong track record premiering short films that ultimately are nominated for Academy Awards.

“It’s a festival that’s not big in sheer numbers like Sundance, Cannes or Toronto, but it’s pretty picky,” he said. “It’s pretty big in terms of who goes. There are good buyers and good names. It’s a fun atmosphere.”

Director Patrick Read Johnson’s film “’77,” about a young science-fiction cinéphile, is also making its world premiere, and it’s up for a Golden Starfish award in the narrative feature competition. Mr. Johnson said that the enthusiasm of the HIFF staff for his film convinced him to screen at the festival. “The people who put on [HIFF], as well as those who continue to attend year after year, seem to be seeking something new, something interesting,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Hopefully ‘’77’ will play to that desire.”

For documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, whose previous two films (“The Trials of Darryl Hunt” and “The Devil Came on Horseback”) premiered at Sundance, the decision to unveil “The End of America,” a documentary based on the writings of journalist Naomi Wolf, at the festival on the East End was, in large part, an issue of timing.

Last week, the duo was still finishing up work on the film, which includes footage from such recent events as the Republican National Convention, “We’re going to hand-deliver it to the festival on Friday,” a harried Ms. Stern said by phone last week as she was leaving a sound recording session in Manhattan.

“We wanted the film to come out before the election,” Ms. Stern continued. “We think [HIFF] is the right fit. It’s New York, and Naomi’s from New York. It’s got an influential crowd.”

Mr. Nugent is proud to be presenting so many world premieres, but he said that North American premieres (HIFF has 23 of those this year) are just as big of a deal, because “unless you were in the Czech Republic” and caught the world premiere of “Dancers,” a feature directed by Pernille Fischer Christensen, “you didn’t see this film.”

A few premieres of note at this year’s festival:

“Arn—The Knight Templar.” North American premiere of a war epic that is the most expensive Scandinavian film production ever, according to Variety.

“Eve.” North American premiere of a short film with Lauren Bacall and Ben Gazzara, marking Natalie Portman’s directorial debut. The film premiered out of competition at this year’s Venice International Film Festival.

“For My Father.” U.S. premiere of an Israeli film directed by Dror Zahavi about a would-be suicide bomber who gets a second chance at life, which won the audience award at this year’s Moscow International Film Festival.

“Snow.” World premiere of a film directed by Aida Begic, about women living in the village of Slavno after the war in Bosnia. The film won the grand prize at this year’s Critic’s Week at the Cannes Film Festival.

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