Monday, March 11, 2013

SVFF 2013—The Evening Class Interview With Executive Director Ted Grennan

You have to love the intimate displacements of the modern age. From my desk in San Francisco I phoned Ted Grennan at his relatively new desk in central Virginia (he's just moved his family from Los Angeles to north of Charlottesville) to talk about his involvement with the sophomore edition of the Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF), where we'll both be converging this coming weekend. Here, there and everywhere.

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Michael Guillén: Ted, can you tell me a bit about your background and how you've come to helm the Sun Valley Film Festival?

Ted Grennan: I was in Sun Valley a couple of years ago. I had just been fired off a story I had sold to Fox Searchlight and didn't have anything else to do that summer. I loved that you could walk into a movie theater in Ketchum and Sun Valley and get a beer and/or a glass of wine and watch a movie. I called a friend of mine up and said, "Wouldn't it be fun to have a film festival in Sun Valley?" She said, "There's film festivals everywhere." "Yeah," I said, "but there isn't one in Sun Valley." Which wasn't completely true—there used to be the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival a few years back—but I meant a festival in a broader sense. I contacted a couple of people—Sabina Dana Plasse, Rick Kessler, and the Sun Valley Resort—and though this wasn't an original idea by any means, it was good timing. We launched in the fall and slotted the festival in for March.

Guillén: Hollywood's connection to Sun Valley has historical precedent. So I'm surprised that a festival of this caliber hasn't been proposed before?

Grennan: They had a film festival in Sun Valley about 10-12 years ago that we didn't learn about until we were well underway with our festival. We actually got some kind and supportive emails from some of the people who had been involved with that original inception of the festival. They did it one year and—though it was a good idea—the timing wasn't with them. I really don't know much else about it other than the emails we received wishing us good luck.

Guillén: But you feel the timing is with you? Can you speak to why now is the right time to launch the Sun Valley Film Festival?

Grennan: Timing is everything, though I don't know if there's always a reason for it. The key to the good timing was that the Valley was not only receptive but incredibly supportive. We had over 75 volunteers in our first year and most of them who are able are returning this year. Further, the Valley has fantastic venues—the Magic Lantern, the Opera House, the nexStage Theatre—which are great places to sit down and have a beer or a glass of wine and watch a movie. And although Sun Valley's not next-door, it has a proximity to Los Angeles by way of a short flight to Sun Valley. It's not that far to get to, but once you get there it feels like it is a real destination.  [Alaska Airlines, one of SVFF's main sponsors, offers non-stop LAX-SUN flights all winter long.]

Guillén: I wasn't able to attend last year's edition of SVFF, but it appears the effort was worthwhile, the feedback from audiences was positive, and you engineered a strong programming coup by engaging the Weinsteins. Are you furthering that collaboration this year?

Grennan: We are. The Weinsteins are coming back with three films this year. Lionsgate is coming back with a film or two. National Geographic has been the most pleasant surprise for us. They're such a fit for Sun Valley anyway and there's a local population of National Geographic guys—Greg Carr; Bob Poole won the One in A Million Award last year for War Elephants—and National Geographic considers Sun Valley a good home for them and they're coming back this year in a much larger capacity. They're launching two new television series that they'll be unveiling at SVFF and they're also holding a press conference where they'll be making a really exciting announcement in conjunction with the African Wildlife Federation (AWF). In fact, SVFF was the genesis for AWF and Nat Geo working together on a project revolving around a film-centric idea. So we're really grateful to have Nat Geo involved with an event that shares a lot of Nat Geo's values.

Guillén: Wonderful accomplishments! Now to backtrack just a bit, I understand you come from a screenwriting background?

Grennan: I do. Sometimes I get paid for it. Sometimes I don't.

Guillén: As do we all. So I've had my eye on this year's new development: the Screenwriter's Lab with Will McCormack; an event that everyone I've spoken to is planning on attending. It seems obvious to me that this will help to distinguish SVFF. On that train of thought, what do you consider the brand of SVFF? With proliferation of film festivals being something of a hot button issue, what is it that you think will set SVFF apart as a unique event?

Grennan: Frankly, it's the destination. It's Sun Valley and what it has to offer as a location. As for the festival's tone? It's family-friendly, as the Valley itself is family-friendly. We've tried to model the spirit of the festival on the spirit of the Valley. Let alone—as you mentioned earlier—Sun Valley's historical connection to Hollywood.

Guillén: Do you offhand know if the Sun Valley Resort has an archive of materials relating to its association with Hollywood back in its heyday?

Grennan: One of the richest in America! It's extraordinary. For example, they've got the most extraordinary photograph of Marilyn Monroe getting off of the Snowball Special where she's wearing these little pompoms on her toes. They've got a great photograph of Clark Gable up on the mountain next to Henry Kissinger. Jimmy Stewart. The Kennedys. It's extraordinary the amount of photographs they have in the special archive room they have in the Resort. I think it's an American treasure. We're just now getting about 12 pictures from the Resort to put up on our website.

It's actually an interesting story—I don't know if you know, stop me if you do—but the man who launched Miami Beach in the '20s, Steve Hannigan, was hired by W. Averell Harriman to help develop a winter resort. In fact, Hannigan was responsible for naming the resort Sun Valley. He was the original starfucker. He advised that if Sun Valley really wanted to open itself up as a ski shangri-la, they needed to invite up all of Hollywood's startlets and their hangers-on and so that's exactly what Averell did. He established a train called the Snowball Special that ran from Los Angeles' Union Station into Sun Valley. Everyone came and brought their family, friends and managers and the only thing Averell asked for in return was to photograph them while they were eating, drinking, skiing and they used all those photographs for their original ad campaign to sell Sun Valley.

Guillén: Fascinating. That's an early example of what film festival studies would term the "spectacular dimension" of a film festival; the necessary celebrity presence with its attendant red carpet premieres. Will SVFF be able to offer any of that this edition? Have you secured any talent to help promote the festival?

Grennan: Jodie Foster's coming! Geena Davis is likely coming. And we have some other celebrities who have expressed an interest in coming to the festival this year: Joshua Leonard, Will McCormack. One of the things I learned last year was about being ready for that celebrity presence. We had entered into arrangements to bring Guy Pearce to the festival to accompany one of his films and to provide PR for the film and Guy. The publicist called me up and she said, "We should bring Guy up and this, that and the other" and I had to tell her, "Look, you know what? We love the film but we're not ready for Guy. I'm not going to be able to put on the dog for him." She laughed at me but said, "You're smarter than I thought." I didn't want to let Guy Pearce down. I realized it was a great opportunity and it would have been fun for him to have attended the festival, but—as the girls in the office put it—we didn't have the bandwidth to handle it.

Eventually the stars will come as SVFF grows forward. Jodie Foster is an old friend of my wife's and she comes up to Sun Valley frequently; but, I didn't invite her last year because I wasn't sure how the festival was going to turn out. I asked her to come this year and she was lovely to accept the invitation. As SVFF begins to establish itself, it will naturally attract films and the actors within those films.

Guillén: Absolutely! I firmly believe that Sun Valley has the solid potential to become a true destination film festival, which—amidst festival proliferation—seem to be the festivals that are actually working and surviving.

Grennan: We had several hundred submissions this year and have ended up with a great line-up. We've really lucked out. Trevor Groth, the Director of Programming at the Sundance Film Festival, is coming up to SVFF and he's going to do a talk. But he was also kind enough to build a slate of films for us composed of films that crossed his desk at Sundance. Some of those films were admitted into Sundance but others he didn't think were right for Sundance but felt would be great for SVFF. He gave us films he really liked that we've incorporated into the festival.

To go back to your question about what will individualize SVFF on the festival landscape, we have an award that we call the Vision Award. It's our festival's top award and it recognizes the producers in this field of filmmaking who are ultimately responsible for making a film. In terms of the amount of films and where they were coming from this year, that Vision Award turned out to be an important angle that has proved quite productive for us: recognizing producers and what they actually do to help create a picture from conception to screening. This year we're featuring Jim Burke who produced The Descendants (2011). He's coming up to open our Coffee Talk series this year. These guys are the gas in the tank that keep the thing going and, as I said, I really think that a lot of the films that came to us this year are a direct consequence of our focus on producers. Alaska Airlines has been very generous this year in providing a special-flight budget to bring in more filmmakers. For example, this year we're bringing in documentarian Barbara Kopple from New York. At least, everyone's committed if not confirmed.

Guillén: Well, Ted, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me this morning. Any final thoughts regarding your hopes for this year's edition of SVFF?

Grennan: I said last year when we opened up this festival that it takes a village to do it. And it has. It's taken the entire Valley. We've had so much support from the Valley and Boise. There's a spirit in Idaho that's unique in the West. We were allowed to capture some of that at SVFF last year and—given the momentum that we have this year—I'm anticipating a lot of more of that will happen this year.

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