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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, December 26, 2001

Successful film festival also saw its shortfalls

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor

Is big better?

That's one of the questions facing the Hawai'i International Film Festival, the lone statewide film event of its kind in the nation, which last month exhibited nearly 180 titles including 55 premieres over 10 days on six islands.

Attendance totalled 57,000, up 2,000 from last year, but counting the take has not been completed.

"We presume, based on admissions, that the dollar numbers will be up, too, in what appears to be looking like a record year for us, not only in number of films we showed," said Chuck Boller, who wrapped up his second season as executive director of the festival. "People have come to expect a lot from us." He said Hawai'i's festival remains unparalleled.

"There are so many film festivals," Boller said. "We see ours as an important conduit for Asian films and a gateway to the other states. Hawai'i has the most multi-ethnic make-up, and our audiences have a built-in interest in the cultures of our neighbors. It's all about cultural diversity — the Korean family living next to the Japanese."

Indeed, the 2001 festival had diversity to spare — not only in the number of quality films shown, but in the range of ethnicities represented, from Japan to Korea to Polynesia, and, of course, the Islands — according to Jeff Portnoy, a Honolulu lawyer who is president of the festival's board.

"By far, I believe we had more films than anticipated — possibly a record number of titles," he said. "But the number of films we show directly affects the efficiency of the festival and the staffing it requires. I would think that we've reached the optimum this year on the number of films we show; I would like to see the numbers get closer to 100 or 120 titles to be manageable."

Paring down isn't all that simple, because a lot depends on how many entries are received, availability of titles, the race among festivals to discover the next "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

"Sometimes, filmmakers make it easy for us to show their films; other times, it's complicated," Portnoy said. "The competition for Asian films also has become more intense; five years ago, we had the genre basically to ourselves. But now, Cannes and Venice also have been exhibiting Asian films that win the awards. So it's becoming difficult to get the titles we want."

Boller, who succeeded Christian Gaines as executive director (Gaines has since joined the American Film Institute Festival in Los Angeles), said the festival had its share of problems, some associated with the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax scares. But it was largely smooth-running, considering the obstacles.

Even with higher attendance, Boller said complaints decreased because of an efficient ticketing system and larger venues able to accommodate more viewers.

"Getting the films in was the key problem," Boller said. "In light of 9/11 and the anthrax problems, it was tough to get some films in. Other festivals like Sundance, Tokyo, Pusan and London all were affected in the same way, so we had to build delays into the scheduling."

Donne Dawson, a movies-in-Hawai'i advocate, knows the festival as manager of the Hawai'i Film Office and as former publicist for the festival, with a six-year history going back to founder Jeannette Paulson and Gaines.

"I think Chuck is doing the best he can, given the limited resources," she said. "Primarily, he's trying to do more with less. And it's not easy."

The film office is a festival sponsor, giving the Film in Hawai'i Award (won by Disney this year), so it has a vested interest. However, Dawson said that given the economic climate, the festival board — which appointed Boller, whose contract is annual — possibly needs to scale back programming to anticipated limited resources and money. "Maybe the best way to do a better job is perhaps not be as ambitious," she said.

Gaines had a penchant for aggressive, innovative, celebrity-oriented programming. Boller has been more subdued, basic and theme-conscious, attempting to stick to diversity films that reflect the mission of the festival to promote and advance cultural understanding among peoples of East and West, using film as a window to the world. No one will argue about the validity of stardust, but no one will quibble about the festival's identity and mission of scouring the film scene for nuggets that have that cultural ingredient.

Don Brown, film curator at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, generally the festival and its film niche.

"I was pleased to see that they got a few titles that were sold out in festivals elsewhere," Brown said.

"There was one, that was terrific, that was completely sold out for all screenings at the Toronto Film Festival," he said of "Fast Runner," a Canadian entry.

A festival-goer not only here but abroad, Brown said he had one reservation about the homegrown event. He utilized a FAB factor — Fun (we don't have that much of it, in the glamour aspect), Art ("good variety, great quality") and Business ("I supposed good, but on the low end compared to other festivals").

But he said the Hawai'i festival has a way to go to get on the global festival map. The way to leap ahead, Brown said, is to be ahead of the pack and flesh out unknowns who will be the stars of tomorrow.

Hawai'i was a pioneer in promoting Asian films, Brown said. "But the world has caught up to Hawai'i; festivals at Rotterdam and Cannes and even Berlin have been promoting Asian films, following Hawai'i's lead. It's a tough niche, and the only way we can improve and grow and still be a leader is to go after emerging young filmmakers. Research, and some risk, might be able to pull it off. The risks are not taken now."

"Bigger may not be better, but bigger risks might be something HIFF should consider," he said.