Charlize Theron walks the red carpet at Palm Springs International Film Festival.
PHOTOGRAPHY VIA GETTY IMAGES, PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVE, PALM SPRINGS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
In the beginning, Sonny Bono had a sign. It wasn’t a premonition or a lofty vision (that would come later), just an oversized restaurant placard that failed to meet Palm Springs’ city code and therefore couldn’t hang outside his eatery on Indian Avenue. He felt shackled by red tape and the small-town thinking of the city leaders — the “old guard,” he called them — whose myopic restrictions had stymied not only his personal economic development, but that of the entire city. An exodus of businesses and residents to other desert cities had left Palm Springs awash in T-shirt shops and for-rent signs. At that point, he decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. In 1986, two years before he won a landslide election and was sworn in as Palms Springs’ 16th mayor, Bono set out to reinvigorate the city.
His ideas to increase tourism included the Palm Springs Grand Prix, Desert Harvest Days and Harvest Festival, and the Balloon Festival, which resulted in one local assemblyman taking off in a helium balloon from Ruth Hardy Park and landing in a dusty Mexican riverbed. Among those missteps, one idea, as they say in Hollywood, had legs: the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Ahead of its 34th anniversary and the first in-person festival and awards gala since the COVID-19 pandemic emptied movie theaters, we spoke to more than two dozen people who were or are still involved with the event. Their stories cast a warm light on Palm Springs’ most glamorous and, arguably, most famous event.
Mary Bono and Mayor Sonny Bono smile at the inaugural festival in 1990; Brad Pitt and Gloria Greer at the 2007 festival; Anne Hathaway, who took the Desert Palm Achievement Award in 2009.
Mary Bono, Sonny’s wife: In 1986, Sonny was approached to become involved with the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce. It was a pro bono development position to help the city to capture more business ... to put some of the glitz and glamour back. He threw out ideas, including the film festival. People pooh-poohed it, said it was a dumb idea, would never happen.
Bruce Fessier, former Desert Sun entertainment writer: Sonny called my editor and asked if I could join the committee he was heading to start a film festival. I went to regular meetings with Sonny and a bunch of volunteers. To raise money, we mounted a celebrity tennis gala with music headlined by Jim Messina.
Kosti Shirvanian, founder, Western Waste: We were having lunch and Sonny said, “Palm Springs is dying, if I had $100,000, I think I could bring it back.” I said, “I’ll give you $100,000.” He started calling all the hotels and said, “OK, I got my seed money,” and that’s how it started.
Linda Shirvanian, festival board member: I think Sonny convinced my dad to give another $150,000.
Harold Matzner, chairman, Palm Springs International Film Society: Sonny didn’t need my involvement, but I said I would help. I gave $25,000 the first year.
Fessier: The only reason that the film festival got off the ground was because Sonny had the city hall staff at his disposal, and he had Marshall Stone, the regional director of Metropolitan Theaters, donating the theaters. City manager Norm King will tell you his staff was working on that first film festival when they should have been attending to city business.
Jeannette Paulson Hereniko, festival executive director, 1990: Everything is just an idea until you get the movie theaters. You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have theaters, you don’t have a film festival.
Bono: In the early days, it was Sonny calling in favors. We were digging deep to get people to believe. Because he did use this as part of his mayoral aspirations, he had political forces working against him who didn’t want him to succeed. He always had that head wind.
Julie Baumer, city of Palm Springs director of marketing and tourism, 1988–1995: Two members of the [city’s] tourism committee weren’t supporters of Sonny when he was mayor. He canned them from the committee. They wound up running for council, and they both won, so now he’s got these two on the council. Somehow, over the course of a few years, he won them over and everyone was supportive of the film festival.
Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono stands alongside an early piece of festival artwork.
THE ORIGINAL TEAM
Baumer: Denis Pregnolato and Jeannette Paulson Hereniko were the driving forces of getting this thing off the ground.
Fessier: Denis was Sonny’s righthand man, his road manager back in the Sonny & Cher days. He was somebody Sonny really trusted and knew could get things done.
Hereniko: Sonny was a big dreamer, and that excited me. I brought in a crew of people who knew me. One was Jeff Gilmore, who had worked at UCLA as a program director. Another was Darryl Macdonald, who was director of the Seattle Film Festival. The three of us, with some other suggestions, programmed that first festival. I think we had 46 films over a five-day event.
Fessier: The driving force that made the festival credible was Darryl Macdonald. For the first three years, he was working under people who, with the exception of Jeannette Paulson Hereniko, didn’t have film festival experience. He was doing the work of an executive director and was the face of the film festival, but they wouldn’t give him the title or the money. He went back to Seattle.
Craig Prater, festival executive director, 1993–2000: In the first two years, they didn’t have a staff. I was working as a volunteer.
Fessier: Craig was brought in because he was a finance guy. He was the fundraiser for Desert AIDS Project [now DAP Health]. People don’t understand how important to Palm Springs the Desert AIDS Project was.
Prater: I told Sonny, I don’t have a film background, and he said, “I’m not looking for somebody who has a film background. I’m looking for someone with administration and fundraising capabilities.”
Fessier: We were putting on a fundraiser to raise seed money, but we were also [saying] things like “What kind of film festival do we want?”
Denis Pregnolato, Sonny’s manager and festival director, 1991, 2001–2002: I researched what would make the festival different from every other festival in America.
Hereniko: There was an awful lot of pressure, not from Sonny, but from other people, to make it a sort of Hollywood festival — to premiere studio films that were just coming out and to provide the contrast to Sundance.
Bono: For Sonny, it was whatever could bring the industry.
Fessier: We were talking about wanting to capitalize on the stars that used to live here and do a tribute to them. Sonny did not want to do that. He asked me to call Todd McCarthy, who at the time was the chief critic of Variety and head of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He said what Southern California really needed was an international film festival.
Pregnolato: So, we focused on all of the films that were going to be nominated for best foreign film. Sonny said it was going to be bigger than Cannes. And we always found ourselves being persona non grata at Cannes because he had said that.
Festival posters from 1990 (the inaugural year) and 1997.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Bono: Sonny’s No. 1 goal was to expand the transit occupancy tax, to bring more people in, to get more taxes, and the No. 1 way he wanted to do that was during the shoulder seasons, when most of our hotel rooms were empty.
Norm King, city manager, 1980–1990: I remember sitting down with Sonny and a public relations firm and talking about when we can fit this in. We didn’t want to step on the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Timing with Sundance was an issue, and we wanted to do something before the Oscars.
David Kaminsky, programmer: Somebody had the idea that if you schedule the gala before the Sunday of the Golden Globes, all the stars were already in Los Angeles and were likely to come out, and that’s exactly what happened.
Matzner: We put the festival into the first week in January, which has to be the toughest time in the whole calendar — there’s a weather factor, the timing of it is horrendous — and we’ve made it very successful.
THE FIRST FESTIVAL, 1990
A cold wind was blowing down Palm Canyon Drive on the night of Jan. 10, 1990. Outside The Plaza Theatre, a crowd gathered for opening night of the inaugural Palm Springs International Film Festival. An excited roar filled the courtyard as the doors swung open and the crowd hurried in. Inside, the smell of fresh paint hung in the air along with excited anticipation. Standing at the back of the theater, Sonny Bono felt a sense of accomplishment as he watched Sally Kellerman, David Carradine, and critic Leonard Maltin take their seats.
Hereniko: There was enormous pressure to have a Hollywood film be the opening film at The Plaza Theatre, but we had the opportunity to have Cinema Paradiso. I thought having an Italian film with an Italian-heritage mayor in that beautiful old theater was perfect and that Cinema Paradiso was absolutely the right film.
Pregnolato: The Plaza Theatre was redone especially for the film festival. In fact, they were still plugging in the brand-new seats on the afternoon of the opening.
King: No one had a clue about the movie we were about to see. The film is about an old movie theater [that] is destroyed, and on that night, the movie premiered in a newly “saved” and rehabilitated theater.
Pregnolato: I’ll never forget sitting in that theater on the first night. I was petrified that the audience was watching subtitles and there was not a whisper, not a sound. And then at the end, the applause was fantastic.
King: I was wiping my eyes when the movie ended. Not just because the movie was beautiful and touching. It was all these elements combining to create something that was really good for the soul and for the city.
Bono: The selection of Cinema Paradiso was brilliant. I think it gave the audience a glimpse of what could be. Sonny was just floating with happiness. He loved that it was an Italian film, that the turnout was great, the buzz was great, the audience was excited. We had turned a corner.
Prengnolato: We felt it was on its way, nothing could stop it.
Bono: I think Sonny felt success as the mayor, success as the driver of the bus to some degree, and I think he felt success about proving the naysayers wrong, which he loved to do. I think that was one of those nights where people got to see Sonny Bono, himself, for who he was.
The Palm Springs City Council initially approved $58,000 for “phase one” costs. Ultimately, Wells Fargo and American Airlines would come on board. In 1994, Northern Telecom’s district manager, Buzz Steussy, brokered a valuable partnership.
David Baron, treasurer and vice chairman: We didn’t have a premiere sponsor for the first three or four years.
Steussy: We needed an outlet to entertain executive clients like the president of GTE — that level of people — and we knew the awards gala might be a wonderful way for us to entertain them. In 1994, the company gave $25,000 to put on the gala.
Fessier: They would invite their big clients to their gala. It wasn’t the public gala that it is today.
Steussy: In 1996, Northern Telecom changed its name to Nortel, and we decided to become title sponsor of the festival. Craig Prater and I flew to Dallas to meet with the regional president of the company. It took a lot of guts, but I asked for $1 million. He looked at me and said, “Really?” I made a presentation about how it could help with our corporate entertaining and help us get our name out there in Hollywood. The decision was made to move forward for $250,000 a year for the next three years.
Prater: It was the biggest single contribution that the film festival ever had. They invited their executives from all over the world, and we would block out 200 seats at the gala.
In 2003, the city of Palm Springs upped its annual contribution to $350,000, and in 2004 it became the title sponsor.
Fessier: Ric and Rozene Supple were a major force in town as the owners of the top-ranked radio station. In 1993, Sonny brought Rozene in. As [Sonny] got more involved in politics and less involved in the actual running of the festival, it was necessary to have [the Supples] running the festival. Ric was the chairman for two years, and she became chairwoman two years after that.
Steussy: They were dedicated to the success of the festival on a personal level and gave money when there was no corporate money to sustain the festival.
Rick Moore, Rozene’s son: She was very generous. Her vision was that education was a prime need on the planet and that film was a great vehicle for that.
Prater: Rozene called and said, “Would you meet Ric and me over at the old Camelot Theatres? We think we may have found a new home for the film festival.” So, we went to look at it, and she said, “We’re thinking about buying this, and if we do, we’ll eventually turn it over to the film festival as your official home.”
Fessier: Rozene saw it as something that they could use year-round, and the film festival could bring quality art films and international films to Palm Springs year-round. Ric was saying that it was a risky endeavor, that he didn’t want to put the film festival at risk, so they didn’t turn the theater over to the festival. That caused the rift between the Supples and Harold Matzner. Harold was thinking they had this home theater and suddenly they didn’t.
They were trying to bring quality art films to Palm Springs. She wanted to bring in a lot of different film festivals. Actually, it was her support of the American Film Institute that created one of the first divisions in the board. Craig Prater was the executive director at the time, and Fred Lynch was the board chairman, and they believed that the AFI was competition for the Palm Springs festival.
Prater: The film festival was struggling to get its positioning in the community. You don’t bring in competitive film festivals.
Baron: I remember some board meetings that were incredibly tense. I was in the Harold camp because he said he was going to basically save the film festival. He was going to personally put in whatever money it took to prevent the festival from failing.
Matzner: The festival ran out of money in 2000. It managed to lose $1 million. I don’t know how you do that.
Baron: I remember this particular meeting. Harold gave an impassioned plea as to what we needed to do. Then Rozene gave an impassioned plea the opposite way, and it was kind of like either-or — either Harold’s out or I’m out kind of thing. I remember getting up and saying, “Harold’s exactly right: We have to commit in a big way to making this festival a success.”
Pregnolato: Rozene wanted to keep the theater throughout the year and program foreign films and bring other programs to the theater, but she had promised to give the theater to the film festival, and Harold kept pointing out that it was in the minutes of a board meeting.
Moore: I think that was a painful period for Rozene. Her great love of movies was profound, and she kept moving forward with different film festivals.
Baron: But she didn’t pull her theaters out of it. Rozene was a wonderful philanthropist; so was Ric. At some point in time, she called me and said she wanted to be paid for the use of her theaters, and I told her I thought that was reasonable and appropriate. We did a contract with the theaters every year after. We still do.
Tom Hanks accepts the Chairman Award in 2014.
THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Amid mounting financial difficulties and the festival’s uncertain future, in November 2000, less than two months before the January 2001 event, Craig Prater, Fred Lynch, and their staffs resigned.
Fessier: Harold Matzner stepped in as one of three board members who managed to put it on, and he became incrementally more involved with the festival as it went on. He became the tri-chairman in 2001 with John Wessman and John Martin, and then Harold came back the next year and ran the festival as the chairman.
Pregnolato: Everybody was like, OK, the festival is not going to happen. Our PR got right into it and said, “No, the festival is going ahead, and these are the dates.”
Matzner: We invited a full slate of honorees. None of them came except Sean Connery. He couldn’t figure out why nobody else came.
Baron: At that juncture, Harold started to assert himself.
Bono: The Sean Connery year was a great learning moment. And I think it was a turning point when Harold said, “Enough of this.” Because he did that and set down guidelines and boundaries for the festival, he was able to turn it into what he did.
Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman in 2017; Gisele Schmidt and Gary Oldman pose on the red carpet at the 2019 festival; Christian Slater presents the Breakthrough Performance Award to Rami Malek.
THE AWARDS GALA
In its nascent years, the festival awards gala honored legendary stars who had a connection to Palm Springs: a posthumous tribute to Lucille Ball, followed by salutes to Cyd Charisse and Ruby Keeler.
Bono: In those early years, [the idea] was to work with anybody who was willing to help Palm Springs. Anybody who would defy the naysayers or not be told by their agent or the studio you shouldn’t do this. The marquee names came along much, much, much later.
Scott Mauro, gala producer, 1994–2001: Sonny wanted to take the awards gala to the next level. They were honoring one person a year, like Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren. I wanted to make it more like the Kennedy Center Honors and celebrate all the aspects of film, so we went with a lifetime achievement award winner, a current celebrity who had a film that year, and a composer or costume designer to give it more diversity.
Pregnolato: What changed it was Jimmy Stewart [in the third year]. He was truly the first superstar Palm Springs gave an award to. His presence put that on the map.
Therese Hayes, programmer: The 1994 Sophia Loren tribute is the year that changed everything.
Mauro: I reached out to Susan Sarandon’s team because she had Dead Man Walking. I felt that was going to be part of an Oscar campaign. Sean Penn presented to her. Then I got John Travolta the year of Primary Colors, and we just kept on building on that.
In 1998, three days before the festival began, Sonny Bono died in a skiing accident in South Lake Tahoe. To honor his memory, the Sonny Bono Visionary Award was established.
Mauro: The big challenge we had was how does the show go on with that elephant in the room? And I said to Denis, “The first thing we do is you go on and talk about the tragedy we’ve all experienced, but Sonny would want the show to go on.” It took the onus off the audience, so they could still have a good time. Everyone took a breath, exhaled, and then the party started.
MATZNER’S MAGIC TOUCH
Under Harold Matzner’s direction, the festival and awards gala have achieved a level of legitimacy and respect that have made it one of the most important film festivals in the world.
Will Kleindienst, mayor of Palm Springs, 1995–2003: The board needed somebody with horsepower. There’s no equal to Harold Matzner.
Prater: I think what they’ve done with the gala is absolutely fabulous. It’s probably one of the most talked-about galas in the world.
Mary Hart, longtime gala emcee: It’s as exciting to walk the red carpet at Palm Springs as it is to walk at the Golden Globes or any of the other shows. We are the first step toward Oscar gold, and that became apparent years ago.
Mauro: I booked Mary Hart. She was on Entertainment Tonight ... I thought it would be fantastic to have her. She’s very good on her feet; she’s just a pro.
Hart: The event was growing in the desert, but it was growing in the Hollywood community just as much, and the stars were realizing this was a fun event. I remember presenting a garbage bag to Bradley Cooper after he was given his award for Silver Linings Playbook because there was a scene in the film where he wears a trash bag.
Fessier: In 2005, Nicole Kidman, Samuel Jackson, Kevin Spacey, and Liam Neeson were honored. I recall that as a turning point due to the magnitude of the stars.
Baron: If there’s an unsung hero in the Palm Springs International Film Festival, it’s the late Ronni Chasen, because without Ronni’s contacts and direction on which artists, which actors, which films we should try to get, I’m not sure where we’d be right now.
Fessier: Ronni secured the stars, but Harold put them under contract to show up. Harold made sure that unless a star could prove that they were sick, they were going to be there.
Matzner: We’ve built a tremendous reputation because everyone we select wins a nomination; many go on to win Oscars. That is why they come here.
Shirvanian: It’s been said, our gala is like a good luck charm for a lot of them.
Matzner: This awards gala has grown from a little, tiny event for 200 when I got it to 2,400 that grosses $2.4 million to $2.5 million. The 12 billion media impressions the gala and festival generate are a powerful force in the economic life of the city. The festival itself attracts 135,000 people, and its ticket sales are in the area of $2 million. We have an artistic director, Lili Rodriguez, who’s outstanding.
Lili Rodriguez, current artistic director: I feel a great sense of responsibility for this organization, and every day I’m excited that I get to be a part of it.
Shirvanian: Lili has more of a youthful eye. Her strong point is keeping it current.
Rodriguez: I’m most proud of the films that aren’t necessarily easy sells. The ones that maybe deal with difficult subject matters but find an audience that appreciates that we showed them. Advocate and Rewind from the 2020 festival come to mind.
Matzner: Our job is to generate press and strengthen branding and imagery for the city of Palm Springs, to bring glamour to the city, which we certainly have done. Nothing attracts attention and opens doors like this level of celebrity. Nothing.
Bono: Sonny would be enormously proud of the gala. I think he’d be saying, “I told you so.”
Amy Adams walks the red carpet in 2014.