Posted // 2010-01-22 - If
you didn't already know, Sundance officially kicks off today! The
premiere film festival for both Utah and Hollywood as a whole,
showcasing films from independent and major studios alike, all on a
national stage for the public to view and enjoy. Along with other
festivals such as Slamdance, X-Dance and a few other smaller ones
getting their showings off the ground today, this is the one time of
the year we become the hub for the world's film community. But while
the big focus on everything and then some is up in Park City the next
few weeks, to kick it off we'll focus more local and take a look at a
Utah film program.
The Sale Lake City Film Center has been
pushing the exposure of innovative and culturally provocative works
for a number of years now. Bringing in everything from the dramatic
to the documentary, influencing local filmmakers and pushing the
cultural awareness of movies that exist beyond the overhyped and
big-budgeted that populate the bigger theaters. While in the midst of her busy schedule and working with Sundance, I got the opprotunity
to chat with the Center's Executive Director, Geralyn
Dreyfous. About her career and starting up the Center, as well as her
take on local filmmaking and the festivals. And throughout the interview, a look ahead with posters of films
they'll be bringing the next few months.
Gavin:Hey Geralyn. First thing, tell us a bit about
Geralyn: I am closer to 50 than 40 but don't
think much about mid-life -- more about loving life . I am a mother
that is informed by my children and deeply motivated to
augment/change the media diets of our citizendship. I moved to Utah
fifteen years ago from Boston . Before moving to Utah I founded the
Philanthropic Initiative in Boston, which guides families of wealth
in strategic giving opportunities, and I worked as the head of the
Special Projects office at the Kennedy School of Government,
reporting to Dean Graham Allison. The job that led me to a career in
film was teaching Documentary and Narrative Writing with Dr.
Robert Coles at Harvard University. I fell in love with storytelling
while teaching that course and became captivated by the moral
imagination of documentarians. I helped establish the
DoubleTake Community Service Corporation, which
published DoubleTake Magazine. I also founded the
DoubleTake Summer Institute that brought educators, activists and
emerging storytellers together to explore the connections between
service, moral inquiry and storytelling. I produced” The Day My God
Died”, a documentary on the global trafficking of children for
sex. I was Executive Producer of the 2004 Academy-Award-winning
documentary “Born Into Brothels”, about the children of Calcutta
prostitutes, which spawned the Kids With Cameras Foundation. The
foundation sells the children's photography and thus allows them to
attend school and leave the brothel. I am currently working on
building a school and boarding home for children who were born in the
red light district in Calcutta. I think film can have a triple bottom
line that is measured by eyeballs, impact and heartbeats. If done
correctly, time, talent and treasure get unleashed.
Gavin:What got you interested in filmmaking and what
were some of your early inspirations and favorites?
I got interested in filmmaking after moving to Utah and working with
the House Of Docs at Sundance. After attending panels and listening
to filmmakers it occurred to me that producing really is a similar
skill set to fundraising and project managing - -which I did a lot of
working in philanthropy.
Gavin:What was it like for you seeking out an
education in the field and experimenting with films?
Filmmaking is hands-on and field based. You can only learn
filmmaking by making films with people smarter than you. I made
lots of mistakes and tried not to make them twice. Our film fund was
established to protect investors from the mistakes I made and also to
bring a financial discipline to the documentary space.
Gavin:What eventually led to you teaching at Harvard
University, and what was that experience like for you?
I was a student of Robert Coles and returned to Harvard to work at
the Kennedy School. He advised me on a lot of philanthropic
programming for children and coached me on how to work with families
of wealth. He gave me short stories for these families to read
-- Tillie Olsen, Raymond Carver -- which really opened people up to
what I call the spiritual side of giving. He then invited me to teach
with him and that revealed to me the power of storytelling. Teaching
at Harvard was a great privilege -- my students were amazing. But
they also were afraid of ideas for their own sake -- asking
them to write from a narrative place versus an analytical space was
hard. Photographs helped -- but films unlocked a kind of writing that
was authentic, humble and brave.
Gavin:Prior to coming to Utah you did a lot of work
with several organizations. Philanthropic Initiative in Boston and
founding DoubleTake just for starters. What drove you to found and
push forward these initiatives?
I have always been obsessed with the randomness of life and as a
young child could never understand how I was lucky enough to be born
into my family instead of an impoverished one in another country. At
the heart of all the work I have done is a curiosity and sense of
profound gratitude to work with people whom I can learn from.
Philanthropy, DoubleTake and filmmaking have been vessels that have
allowed me to travel both literally and figuratively to different
worlds and to learn.
Gavin:Looking back on those works, and you
comfortable with how they've progressed over the years or do you wish
you could do more?
Geralyn: I always wish I could do
more -- but I have learned to remove the burden of should with the
desire to accelerate and amplify.
Gavin:What eventually led to you moving out to
Geralyn: My husband -- it was a non-negotiable
Gavin:How did the idea come about to start up the SLC
Geralyn: The SLC Film Center was founded
by Nicole Guillemet. It was her idea. I was going to be a partner or
champion and three months after we launched, she was offered the job
to re-brand the Miami Film Festival. It was her turn to make Miami
for Ibero Cinema what LA is for the Latin Grammys. I took
over the idea under the condition I could work part-time and
produce films, and three months later, we hired Kathryn Toll with a
vague idea that film could be a tool for community building and
democracy building. Both of us were transplants and wanted more
community, diversity and democracy in our lives. We were also more
interested in the social impact of film than the film arts
appreciation and we wanted to curate stories that mattered to Utah
and needed to be heard. By offering important,
thought-provoking films from Sundance and other international
festivals free of charge, we strive to nurture a strong film culture
among Utah residents while exposing world-class filmmakers to Utah’s
vibrant filmmaking tradition. Our in-depth experience in film
programming, production and marketing provides the know-how to build
film-related programming that entertains, inspires, and informs. By
leveraging close relationships with filmmakers and distributors, we
had an early and successful track record in inviting filmmakers
to accompany their films to Salt Lake City and filling the house. We
could not do that consistently without partnering with
organizations whose missions overlap with the content of each
program. That is our version of McDonald's secret sauce. Screenings
are often followed by moderated discussions that can take on
important issues in an open, civil, and safe forum. Last year,
20,200 Utahns attended 205 programs that have enhanced, inspired, and
cultivated community dialogue and artistic engagement for audiences
diverse in age, backgrounds and geography. 99% of our programming is
free and open to the public, and we have hosted over 100 visiting
filmmakers and special guests.
Gavin:What was it like for you in the early planning
stages and getting everything set up?
started small and for the first year our office was in our car. We
did screenings once a month and very quickly grew to screenings twice
a week. There was a real pent up demand for the programming and
discussions and we were packing the house consistently.
Gavin:The Center started up in 2002. What were some
of the first films you had shown, and what was the public reaction
like to the concept?
Geralyn: The first film we showed
was Justine Shapiro's film "Promises".
I remember the day before she called and had a babysitter issue and
wanted to cancel. I was devastated. As a mother I completely
related and we talked -- and I told her our vision and why we
selected her film to launch. She got on a plane -- we turned away 75
people. This year I Executive Produced her latest film "My Summer In Tehran".
Gavin:As far as the films go, what's the selection
process like in choosing the content and deciding the overall set
Geralyn: We program on a quarterly basis
and try to offer three to four series of films that explore a subject
matter, geographical part of the world or emotional terrain. We
attend film festivals, read the trades, order screeners, watch tons
of films and get referrals for the best filmmakers in the business.
We also have a great programming team and often involve our partners
in selecting the films.
Gavin:Has there ever been an issue from the audience
over certain films you've picked?
that gave anyone heartburn. A couple of emails and revoked
memberships -- but less than a handful and most were thoughtful and
measured versus diatribes.
Gavin:How has it been taking the films all over the
city and showing them in different venues? Like the Art Center,
Westminster, SLC Library, etc.
sometimes it feels like we need air traffic control software for all
the moving targets, we love it. We are providing content to
existing venues that have underserved and untapped audiences for
independent thinking and film.
Gavin:Back in July the news broke that you were
moving the center to the old Utah Theater on Main. What's the
progress so far in taking up residence, and is there a date down the
road to open up?
Geralyn: As part of Salt Lake
County’s Center for the Arts Cultural Facility Master Plan, a Film
and Media Center was identified as a needed facility in our
community. A coalition including the City of Salt Lake City, the
County, the Chamber of Commerce and other corporations and community
organizations recognizes the power of film programming and education
to help revitalize the economic and cultural landscape of downtown
and also to further promote Utah as a premier film destination. In
December 2009, the City acquired the 65,000 square foot Utah Theater
which hopefully will be used for this purpose. We anticipate being
invited to be tenants of this magnificent space along with our
partners the Salt Lake Film Society and SpyHop Productions -- but we
have no formal agreement with the City or County -- so nothing is
firmly in place. For now we are sending deep bows to the RDA
for having the wisdom and foresight to save the building. If we
are officially asked to help design a new Film and Media Center and
be tenants, we will be thrilled and humbled by the task and
Gavin:One of the most recent additions has been the
video wall by Sam Wellers. How did that idea get started, and what's
the response been like to the films shown?
were asked by the Utah Arts Council and Stephen Goldsmith to think
about ways to "animate downtown." Our initial idea was to
record and document the changes in downtown as it was reinvented and
reinvigorated by City Creek and this morphed into Sidewalk Cinema.
Our managing director, Topher Horman, designed and implemented the
concept. After receiving a Creative Communities Award from the
Utah Arts Council, we have installed three animated screens in two
storefronts on Main Street, and we have plans to install another in
2010. The screens feature animated art, short films, trailers
for upcoming programs, notices of other arts organizations’
programs, donor acknowledgments, and NowPlayingUtah.com.
Gavin:Outside the Center you've produced several
films, such as "Kick Like A Girl", "Project Kashmir" and
"Born Into Brothels" to name a few. What got you into
producing those works and how has that influenced the work you do
with the Center?
Geralyn: I got the courage to
produce from attending panel discussions at Sundance. Producing
really helps me be part of the filmmaking community in a hands on way
versus just as a curator. It also provides real time experience in
the shifting distribution and exhibition landscape, and it helps us
work extra hard building audiences for our films and visiting
Gavin:Much like you did back east, you're involved
with a number of projects in Utah. Spyhop, Moab Music Festival, Utah
Symphony & Opera. What's it like for you serving on so many
projects that have both an entertainment and cultural impact on our
Geralyn:When I moved here I was a young mother. I
had worked with some of the most inspiring people on the planet and
was not in any hurry to take a job for a paycheck. I wanted and
needed to work to feed my sleep-deprived new life, but I also wanted
to find out who the cultural creatives of Salt Lake City were and how
this community worked. Serving on boards taught me much about the
depth of this community and the unbelievable -- almost inconceivable
- commitment and passion for the arts. In a city our size, I have
never seen anything like it. Serving on boards also taught me
that this is an " if you build it they will come" community
and that there were not the barriers to entry and funding you find in
cities like Boston and San Francisco, as long as you work hard and
exude enthusiasm and appreciation for what we have here.
Gavin:What's the vision you have for the Center down
the road, and are there any goals you have in mind that you want it
Geralyn: We want to find new
and deeper ways to collaborate with other film organizations and non
profits. Our impact as a film exhibitor is determined by thoughtfully curated programs accompanied by intellectually
stimulating community discussions. That is how we defy passive
consumption and make our experiences more interactive and engaging.
We look for new ways to educate and entertain, and our audiences
believe that our content must connect to other world class thinkers
or NGO's in order to grow our base and conversations. We look for
stories and audiences that are under-represented and we help them
find each other. We want to be part of a collective that provides
outreach screenings, discussions, and master classes to participants
throughout Utah, and we will help build the distribution system to do
so. Ideas travel -- and film is an inexpensive way to bring new
ideas to communities large and small.
Gavin:Going local for a bit, what’s your opinion of
the Utah film scene, both good and bad?
The Utah film scene is growing and exciting. It needs more
connective tissue -- because many of us don't even know the talent
base that exists. Every film made here has an astonishing
experience, and we need to stop being surprised by that and
unabashedly promote the talent here.
Gavin:Anything you think could be done to make it
bigger or better?
Geralyn: More incentives --
recruiting companies to relocate here, turn the fairgrounds into a
studio lot and shamelessly seduce more business to come here -- once
they come -- much like most of us who live here -- we/they won't want
Gavin:Now that we're in the film festival season
here, what are your thoughts on those festivals that come through
every year, and are there any changes you wish you could
Geralyn: To some degree we are all standing on
Sundance's shoulders. It has been a miraculous achievement to go from
a small independent film festival to one of the premiere
international film festivals. The current challenge filmmakers,
film exhibitors, distributors and film festivals all have is how do
we stay fresh in the changing independent film landscape -- how do we
still build audiences and demand for independent storytelling when
films are not being sold and distributed with budgets that can market
and promote them. I think John Cooper's leadership at Sundance as the
new Festival Director is a fresh new voice and we will see a lot of
the future at the Festival this year. The only thing I wish I could
change about Sundance is the general perception that it is so
successful that it does not need our support. As a non-profit,
Sundance has been hit hard by the economy like the rest of us -- they
have fought tirelessly to reduce expenses without impacting scale. It
is a huge cultural and economic contributor to our state and deserves
our financial and public support. They help to put Utah on the map
not only for the film industry but also for the general public. We do
a few things here better than most places in the world. Snow,
genealogy, multi-level marketing, theology and independent
storytelling -- some are divine and some are man-made. Most have
to be reinvented. Here is to the pioneering spirit of doing
more with less, to re-invention and the collective. Happy
Gavin:While we're on the topic, Tromadance of course
decided not to come this year, and it looks questionable if they'll
ever return. What kind of an impact do you believe that will
have down the road?
Geralyn: I personally predict that
we will see a lot of festivals close or scale back this year.
Festivals in and of themselves are not sustainable and require
a subsidy -- there has to be intent, demand and underwriting to stay
alive. And you have to earn the loyalty of audiences and
Gavin:Last year the first SLC Film Festival kicked
off in the summer. What was your take on the work they were doing and
the results that came from it? And now that there's an intent for a
second, is that something the Center would either support or
Geralyn: I always applaud ambition and
intention -- we have offered to help with promotion and curation.
That offer still stands.
Gavin:What can we expect from both you and the Center
throughout the year?
Geralyn: In the coming months, we
will be presenting at the City Library the following: Cinema Extrema
(Spanish Language series), documentaries from the
Academy-Award-nomination short list, and a Body Image series. We'll
also be continuing our Films Without Borders (international cinema at
the City Library), Creativity in Focus (art films at the Salt Lake
Arts Center), Sexually Explicit: Exploring Gender Issues and
Sexuality (at Westminster College, with the ASWC), and our children's
films series (Sorenson Unity Center).
Gavin:Is there anything you’d like to promote or
any final thoughts you wanna voice?
Geralyn: Mostly I
want to say thank you to Salt Lake audiences and funders. It is truly
inspiring to us that you continue to show up and contribute to our
work and discussions.