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Gavin's Underground

Salt Lake City Film Center

by Gavin Sheehan
- 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.
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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.

Geralyn Dreyfous
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http://www.slcfilmcenter.org/


Gavin:
Hey Geralyn. First thing, tell us a bit about yourself.

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?

Geralyn: 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.
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Gavin: What was it like for you seeking out an education in the field and experimenting with films?

Geralyn: 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?

Geralyn: 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.
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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?

Geralyn:
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.
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Gavin: What eventually led to you moving out to Utah?

Geralyn: My husband -- it was a non-negotiable pre-nup.

Gavin: How did the idea come about to start up the SLC Film Center?

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.
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Gavin: What was it like for you in the early planning stages and getting everything set up?

Geralyn: We 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".
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Gavin: As far as the films go, what's the selection process like in choosing the content and deciding the overall set every month?

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?

Geralyn: Nothing that gave anyone heartburn. A couple of emails and revoked memberships -- but less than a handful and most were thoughtful and measured versus diatribes.
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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.

Geralyn: While 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 privilege.
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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?

Geralyn: We 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 filmmakers.
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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 community?

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 to achieve?

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.
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Gavin: Going local for a bit, what’s your opinion of the Utah film scene, both good and bad?

Geralyn: 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 to leave.
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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 make?

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 Sundancing.

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 sponsors.
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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 participate in?

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).
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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.
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