Esoterica

Lights, Camera … Esoterica

Palm Springs International Film Festival embarks on its 30th year with star-studded screenings and a spotlight on the lesser-known ones to watch.

Emily Chavous Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital

Esoterica
Sony Bono and his wife Mary were the toast of the town, bringing glitz and glamour back to Palm Springs and opening a new and well-heeled stream of desert tourists.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

Thirty years ago, Sonny Bono, then mayor of Palm Springs, endeavored to supplement the city’s seasonal tourism numbers by launching an international film festival. Statewide, similar cinematic celebrations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara were booming, and Bono wanted in on that action. He angled to rouse the area’s arts cred by bringing in an array of offbeat movies, and attending media took note: “There’s something pleasantly hallucinatory about the idea that a community fabled for its lacquered luxuries should suddenly be deluged with art-house fare,” The Los Angeles Times reported in a January 1990 review of the desert’s inaugural event. “The film festival has wisely chosen to downplay the glitz and the corn, and instead waltz headlong into the esoterica.”

Mary Hart

PHOTOGRAPH BY SHERRI BREYER MARDONES

Host Mary Hart walks the red carpet.

2018 by the numbers
$1.8 million

Total ticket sales revenue of Palm Springs International Film Festival

$2.5 million

Total revenue of the festival’s Film Awards Gala

600

Employees and volunteers required to put on the Film Awards Gala

400

Law enforcement officers securing the Film Awards Gala

54

Festival honorees, out of 64 in the last six years, who went on to receive Academy Award nominations

13

Oscar nominations for The Shape of Water, which received the festival’s 2018 Vanguard Award

5

All five of the Best Foreign Language Oscar–nominated films screened at the festival, and their directors each participated in the festival’s Foreign Language Oscar Panel

Palm Springs International Film Festival’s first year drew 17,000 filmgoers for a 46-picture lineup, showcasing a handful of foreign films (including Cinema Paradiso, which went on to win the foreign language Oscar) alongside indie productions and other award hopefuls that had seen first light at Cannes. Despite initial success after Bono’s passing in the late ’90s, the festival struggled to stay profitable and draw the same caliber of crowd, but it regained momentum in the early 2000s when current chairman (and founding supporter) Harold Matzner took the reins — and that growth has only continued.

In January 2018, about 136,000 ticket-holders viewed 441 films from 77 countries, and 2,400 attended the opening-night awards gala honoring personalities such as Gal Gadot, Timothée Chalamet, Holly Hunter, and Gary Oldman. Touted among industry players as a barometer of the awards season, the gala recognizes established and rising stars, and many of its honorees go on to sweep the season. “Invariably they have picked who will ultimately become our Oscar nominees and winners,” says Mary Hart, longtime former host of Entertainment Tonight and the festival’s gala emcee for going on 16 consecutive years. The festival’s honors, she points out, are announced ahead of time, alleviating any anxiety leading up to the red-carpet party.

Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks was honored in 2017 for his performance in Scully.

Mary, Sony and Stewart

Mary and Sony Bono flank Jimmy Stewart.

The gala kicks off 11 full days of film screenings, including “Talking Pictures” events with cast and crew Q&As, and auxiliary festivities such as Variety’s Creative Impact Awards and 10 Directors to Watch Brunch held annually at Parker Palm Springs. These days there is no downplaying of glitz; however, the festival’s origin as a platform for lesser-known creative feats remains the best reason to attend.

Director Guillermo del Toro, whose film The Shape of Water received the festival’s Vanguard Award in 2018, counts festival attendance as a rite of passage for up-and-comers in the industry. “It’s vital,” he says. “It’s a unique festival that is founded on the love of cinema and the love of showbusiness in a city that is steeped in great lore for American entertainment … and it’s a great place to be.”

The festival runs Jan. 3–14 at theaters in Palm Springs and Cathedral City. Priority passes are available at psfilmfest.org.

FILM CALENDAR
December 2018

Dec. 3/ Remembering Tab Hunter Film Series: Island of Desire.
2 p.m. Rancho Mirage Public Library and Observatory.

Dec. 4Below the Line: Anatomy of a Movie.
Lecture, 2 p.m. Rancho Mirage Public Library and Observatory.

Dec. 10/ Remembering Tab Hunter Film Series: The Girl He Left Behind.
2 p.m. Rancho Mirage Public Library and Observatory.

Dec. 17/ Remembering Tab Hunter Film Series: The Burning Hills.
2 p.m. Rancho Mirage Public Library and Observatory.

Dec. 20The Dirty Dozen.
3 p.m. Rancho Mirage Public Library and Observatory.

2019

Jan. 3–14/ Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Multiple venues. psfilmfest.org.

Jan. 17/ Art Documentary Series.
6 p.m. UCR Palm Desert.

Jan. 19Janet Mock.
Palm Springs Speaks, 7:30 p.m. Richards Center for the Arts at Palm Springs High School.

Feb. 16Jane Fonda.
Palm Springs Speaks, 7:30 p.m. Richards Center for the Arts at Palm Springs High School.

Feb. 21Art Documentary Series.
6 p.m. UCR Palm Desert.

March 21Art Documentary Series.
6 p.m. UCR Palm Desert.

March 24–27/ Jewish Film Festival.
Temple Isaiah.

March 29–April 4/ American Documentary Film Festival.
Palm Springs Cultural Center.

April 18Art Documentary Series.
6 p.m. UCR Palm Desert.

May 9–13 /Arthur Lyons’ Film Noir Festival.
Palm Springs Cultural Center.