Stony Brook Film Festival director Alan Inkles is the type of fast-talking, excitable character who can take a simple, 15-word question and talk it into an 1800-word filibuster—that covers pretty much everything. In fact, that’s exactly what happened when MM spoke with him in February, several months prior to the 14th incarnation of his Stony Brook Film Festival. But is it precisely this eagerness and passion that has helped Inkles turn the Stony Brook Film Festival into a formidable presence on the circuit—and precisely the reason you should want him on your side.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): What have been the biggest differences between now and when you started 14 years ago?
Alan Inkles (AI):
[On the formation of the festival]
This year is my 25th year running this [Staller] Arts Center and 15 years ago we got to a point—we were doing an international theater festival in the summer, bringing companies in from around the world—and it got to be impossible with immigration and dealing with costs; a lot of the subsidies from foreign governments were drying up. I said, ‘We got to do something different.’ I said, ‘You know what? Everyone goes to the movies. We’ve got this great big theater—it’s a 1,000-seat theater—we’ve got this wide proscenium, what about the days of the movie theater?! What about making a theater here with a big screen like they used to have in the old days?’
[On figuring out what to screen]
It got some great funding from the university, from some of our donors and we built this screen without knowing what the heck I was going to put on this screen. I said, ‘Let’s do some old movies, let’s do some classics.’ Then I find out of course 35mm prints are impossible to find. So we kind of felt our way through for a couple years. We were showing Spielberg movies and we were showing Miramax films; feeling like I’m a cool guy doing some independent films.
[On his Sundance influence]
Maybe 11 or 12 years ago I went to Sundance. I said, ‘Let’s do something really cool with this. Let turn this into a sort of film festival.’ So I went to Sundance in ’97 [or] ’98. From there we just started, over two, three years bringing in some independent films, bringing in some actors who live on the East End; people like Cliff Robertson and Eli Wallach and Rod Steiger and we’d do some talks. We just started, the first few years of this, just building up an audience.
[On how not being pushy has given him a stronger program]
I’m not the guy who has to be, ‘I’m the programmer this year. I want to make my mark this year. Give me your it film.’ I’m the guy going out there and saying, ‘I’m the founder of this festival. I got a team, but I’m basically the guy wearing the hat, wanting to make it work. I want to work with you. If you have a film for me this year, let’s show it. If you don’t, we’ll talk about it next year.’ So I developed relationships with sales agents, distributors, with filmmakers that it came to a point three, four years ago, where we could get some really interesting films and develop an audience to come see these films.
[On year 14]
We’ve hit our groove. I’ll never be the one to say we sit on our laurels, but for a mid-range festival…
In the summer we turn into, for 10 days, all films that are premieres. Now they may not be the first time ever, because I’m not that hung up on that. My feeling is if I have a film that played Tribeca last year but is really great and my audience didn’t see it, I’ll show it. I don’t care that it’s not going to be the first time in New York. Now you and I both know I need a few of those or I’m not going to get any press. You guys aren’t going to write about me if I don’t have a couple little premieres, but I really tried to develop this festival into a real friendly festival that’s about the filmmaker. It’s about showing the films to a very hungry audience that won’t get to see these films anywhere else unless.
[On how he’ll work for you]
We’ve finally arrived in a place the last couple years where filmmakers know about us, they know we’re a really good venue, they know we’ll treat them right. We’ll put them up, we’ll have a full house for their screening and then I’ll work for them. Because after my screening’s over, I’m on the phone with Lionsgate, with IndiePics, with Bavaria Films. I’m the phone, saying to these folks, ‘You gotta look at this film.’
[Mary Stuart Masterson: A case study]
A great example is Mary Stuart Masterson. Mary came out here in 2001. She had acted in a film called The Book of Stars. We showed the film, we got to know each other. She came out here, met with my audience; we had a great time.
She’s got her brand new film, Tickling Leo, which she produced, and she wants to give me the world premiere this summer. And what have I told her? ‘Let’s get on the phone and help you sell it.’ I’ve been on the phone now with Stratosphere, with Strand, with [Fox] Searchlight, Lionsgate helping her try to sell this film. I might help her sell it, it might get picked up, open in June and I won’t get to show it this summer. But you know what? It’s not about me showing it, it’s about me trying to help a filmmaker.
We may not have Harvey Weinstein sitting in the audience watching the film, but you know what? If the film plays really well and it wins an award here and my audience loves it, Harvey’s going to hear about it because I’m going to write to him.
[On the headaches that come along with securing a tough-to-get premiere]
I learned my lesson. If I could tell you how many times over the last 10 years I wanted and waited for that premiere… I held out, I wined and dined, and you know what? Nine times out of 10 when I’ve gotten that film, it was a film that meant nothing during the festival. So I’ve learned that if I’ve got to fight that hard for a film, it’s going to just be more work for me. Because, I’m telling you, when I’ve done that, [the moviemakers] call me: “What’re doing for us?” I hate that. I love to do things for filmmakers; I hate to be asked. (laughs)
[On why the exposure doesn’t stop in Long Island]
Put yourself in the place of a sales agent or a distributor. Even if they don’t know anything about me or don’t care about me or have no respect for me, I’ve watched 800 films [this year], I’m doing this for 15 years, I was a writer-director in an earlier life; I have a little clue. I’ve watched 800 films, I’ve chosen the top 50, this one wins my best film… Why wouldn’t you take a look at it? (laughs) You got nothing to lose; I’m not asking for 10 percent.
[On disliking speaking with the press]
What I’m doing to you right now, I don’t love doing because the truth is, I don’t want to say how great our festival is I want people to feel it and experience it.
Boy I talk fast. (laughs) What was the question again? (laughs)
Call for entries deadline for the next Stony Brook Film Festival is May 1, 2009. There is no entry fee. Visit http://www.stonybrookfilmfestival.com for more information.