In an industry that can be very fickle, longevity and consistent success are often elusive. Since the Mill Valley Film Festival came to exist in 1977, it has managed to remain a cornerstone of the film festival circuit, encouraging the careers of many beginning moviemakers and offering great programming for movie aficionados, selling approximately 40,000 tickets each year for its 11-day event. MM sat down with Mill Valley’s founder-executive director Mark Fishkin and director of programming Zoe Elton in order to discuss the festival’s appeal, what’s new for this year’s event and what it’s like to turn 30.
Alexis Buryk (MM): The Mill Valley Film Festival will celebrate its 30th year this fall. How did the festival got its start?
Mark Fishkin (MF): Ironically, it was filmmaking, and not film programming, that lured me from New York to the Bay Area in 1976. I once heard Francis Coppola at the Telluride Film Festival talking about good ways to break into the film industry. He confirmed my gut feeling that it should be done through screenwriting. Appalled that a community the size of Marin had virtually no alternative cinema, I began programming a weekly College of Marin film series and later took over Mill Valley’s legendary Saturday Night Movies, held at the local Odd Fellows Hall.
In October 1977, Rita Cahill, Lois Cole and I, organized a three-day film festival. It featured three film tributes, Coppola’s Rain People and George Lucas’ The Filmmaker. We did a very innovative program that I would not be embarrassed to repeat today-it was a big hit. Now in our 30th year, we have grown to be an 11-day festival, in two cities and three theaters presenting 214 films (33 of them are premieres) from 49 countries. Our innovative programming is still among many things that defines The Mill Valley Film Festival as one of the world’s premier non-competitive film festivals.
MM: How has being located near San Francisco impacted your event?
Zoe Elton (ZE): The San Francisco Bay Area is known as a progressive part of the world and that lends itself to the cinematic arts. Northern California has a thriving community of documentarians, experimental filmmakers, renowned animators and excellent film schools. Many of the innovators of 20th-century cinema (Coppola, Lucas, Pixar, etc.) are also located in the Northern California area, providing an amazing intersection of technology and aesthetics and a parallel evolution with those communities. The San Francisco Bay Area is also one of the top three markets for independent and international film in the United States and a haven for filmmakers and thoughtful and sublime, intelligent audiences. All of this is part of “being at the right place at the right time” to launch a film festival back in the 1970s during an explosion of art, activism and invention in one centralized location.
MM: Being that you are a noncompetitive festival, what is it that prompts moviemakers to enter?
ZE: MVFF is known as a filmmaker’s film festival and, in fact, I think it was MovieMaker Magazine which named our festival “one of the top 20 film festivals worth the entry fee,” mainly because our focus on the filmmaker. We have been told by directors and producers time and again how much they appreciate our non-competitive environment and find this one of our strengths as a festival. They enjoy attending a festival where they are not in competition with their peers and are there to share and discuss their art and ideas with our warm and welcoming community. MVFF has made a commitment to thoughtful quality. The lovely Marin County communities of Mill Valley and San Rafael, California, where our venues are located, become little cinema villages and places to meet and network. Our festival is about quality programming and quality presentation in the theaters, about the support of publicists, about our intelligent audiences and a place where careers have been fostered, connections have been brokered and the work of new talents plays alongside the work of some of the greatest names in world cinema.
MM: Many famed moviemakers have attended the festival over the years. Who have been some of your favorite guests?
MF: I wouldn’t know where to start-there have been so many. Many of the festival’s tributes have ranked among my most memorable moments. We have also cultivated warm and ongoing relationships with many brilliant artists including actor-writer-director Sean Penn, who resides in Marin County, and director Ang Lee-they are both a part of our 30th anniversary year. We were thrilled to be able to screen Into the Wild on September 13th and have Sean be able to hand Emile Hirsch our first MVFF Award for his remarkable performance. We were also lucky to have Ang Lee’s new film open our festival this year in conjunction with our scheduled tribute to his body of work.
One year we did a tribute to Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon). It was an especially great thing to see how the audience responded to him. People came to the midnight screening of The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3-D glasses and even brought their kids because they wanted them to experience this classic horror film. Jack wasn’t in very good health even then, but he just wanted to acknowledge the crowd. When he stood up and faced the audience–with his 3-D glasses on–the roof almost caved in from the applause. He cried. It was an incredibly moving moment.
MM: At the same time, many unknown moviemakers have come to the festival and made names for themselves afterwards. What are some of the success stories from Mill Valley?
MF: I am especially gratified at the role MVFF has played in nurturing such independent films as The Crying Game, My Left Foot, Like Water for Chocolate and Strictly Ballroom–films that until more recently would have enjoyed only a limited audience but which in the 1990s went on to widespread success. Also among success stories from years ago was the 1987 world premiere of Walking on Water, with Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips. That film later went on to achieve critical acclaim and commercial success as Stand and Deliver. It received a 10-minute standing ovation at its premiere.
I also feel some gratification that our growth has paralleled the growth of the independent filmmaker movement; I think we’ve had some role in that. The programming team at MVFF has a knack for spotting emerging talent. Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee premiered his first feature film, Pushing Hands, at the 1992 Mill Valley Film Festival and this year we are honored to be not only showing his new film Lust, Caution on our opening night on October 4, but also having a special Tribute Night to Ang the next night featuring clips and conversations with him.
MM: Turning 30 can be a tough birthday for individuals, but it seems like Mill Valley only gets better with age. What sorts of festivities do you have planned for this year?
MF: This year is not only the 30th anniversary of the MVFF, but is also the inaugural year for the Mill Valley Film Festival Award. The MVFF Award, a specially designed sculpture by longtime festival supporter and local Mill Valley artist Alice Corning, will be presented to the recipients of tributes and spotlights, our special programs honoring and celebrating the work of distinguished artists and innovators in the filmmaking community. Our tributes recognize a career and legacy of work, and our spotlights highlight the exceptional talents of a film artist as exemplified by a current project. Our 30th anniversary Mill Valley Film Festival will be honoring several renowned artists with a Mill Valley Film Festival Award through our Spotlight or Tribute programs. This year’s Spotlight Programs include actor Emile Hirsch, for his breakthrough performance in writer-director Sean Penn’s new film Into the Wild, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh for her performance in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding and Irish writer-director Terry George for his powerful new film Reservation Road.
Also, in honor of our 30th anniversary, our San Francisco-based advertising agency Scheyer/SF has created not only another amusing festival trailer, but also, agency principal Dennis Scheyer has put an edge on the anniversary concept as the festival turns 30. His creative team is giving the festival a new identity and logo for the 30th. Dennis’ work over the years has always brought a great sense of creativity and whimsy to our trailer and overall marketing campaigns. Turning 30-as a concept-is yet another example of creatively flipping an anniversary message with a look forward and not backward.
MM: What do you think the festival will be like at 40? 50?
ZE: I hope that the nucleus we planted-celebrating innovation and excellence in film-will continue.
MM: After years of helping moviemakers show their work to appreciative fans, what advice do you have to fledgling festivals?
ZE: Find out what the need is in community and the nature of your community first-find a niche and speak to your people. Also, it’s all about service!
For more information on the 2007 Mill Valley Film Festival, which will take place October 4 – 14, visit www.mvff.com.