At the Palm Springs International Film Festival's opening night screening of "Selma," filmmaker Ava DuVernay surprised festival director Darryl Macdonald and the audience by reminding them that her first short film played at the Palm Springs International ShortFest in 2005.
The Palm Springs festival's particular mix of glamour and discovery came together as she noted how important that experience was in her early days as a developing filmmaker.
"We're the opening night film, and we are in pretty dresses and suits, but you have a lot of other beautiful filmmakers that have beautiful work that's been carefully programmed and curated," DuVernay said. "I would encourage you to seek out things that you've not heard, seek out things that are not Golden Globe nominees. That's how folks grow and gain confidence in front of audiences."
The two main events of Palm Springs, the dizzying glitz and glamour of an awards gala against the parade of obscurities and discoveries of the festival itself, would seem at odds, yet somehow festival organizers have found a way to make them live in relative harmony.
The festival's awards gala Saturday night attracted 2,400 people to a lavish black-tie affair that raised $2.4 million for the Palm Springs Film Society, with some of Hollywood's biggest names — including Reese Witherspoon, Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rosamund Pike and Robert Duvall — attending as either award presenters or recipients.
At the same time, the film festival itself is in the midst of playing 192 films from 65 countries, including 50 of the 83 submissions for the foreign language Academy Award. (The festival runs through Monday.) Last year more than 135,000 people attended, making it one of the top film festivals for attendance in the country.
"They have different missions, but I see them as closely related and helping each other," said Harold Matzner, chairman of the festival, a few hours before the gala while sitting amid a sea of elegantly set tables as final preparations swirled around the Palm Springs Convention Center, the red carpet outside still covered in plastic.
Macdonald, in a separate interview, noted that while some 70% of the attendees come from outside the Coachella Valley, that split is flipped in favor of local attendees at the gala.
"How many festivals in North America, or even worldwide, have this mix?" said Macdonald. "Some of the biggest names in the business, some of the most recognizable faces in the business and a great lineup of the best art films from cinema around the world? It's a heady combination."
Matzner is a businessman and philanthropist who first became involved with the festival through his friend, tennis partner and the festival's founder, the late Sonny Bono. Having been involved in the festival's beginnings — this is its 26th year — he stepped away for a few years but came back in 2000 and has been part of building it to what it is today.
The gala has come a long way since 2002, when it was attended by only about 200 people. The intense media coverage now generated by the event as the machinery of awards season reignites after the holidays has become a key component as for-your-consideration hopefuls are narrowed down to a select nominated few.
"We built a very strong following doing the right things and having a good product," Matzner said of the turnaround. "Listen, Cheerios wasn't always the best-selling cereal in America."
Though the festival's programming has a strong emphasis on foreign language films, there is still some conventional star power as well. "There are still so many people in this country who wouldn't cross the street to go to a film with subtitles or someone they don't recognize," said Macdonald. "And that's why you salt in some quality films with more popular appeal."
Besides the appearance on opening night of David Oyelowo, Common and DuVernay, all Golden Globe nominees for "Selma," there are some recognizable faces on-screen and off at the festival itself. Anne Hathaway attended with her upcoming "Song One." James Franco is to appear at the world premiere of "Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha," directed by his students in a production course at USC. Peter Bogdanovich is scheduled to attend the U.S. premiere of his latest film, "She's Funny That Way," which stars Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots and Jennifer Aniston.
"It's about the mix, making it artistically successful while at the same time popularly accessible," said Macdonald. "Not being perceived as an ivory tower event, and having the right mix really fuels that."
Poland's "Ida" and Estonia's "Tangerines" recently made the Oscar shortlist of nine foreign language titles. Both also had their first public U.S. screenings at Palm Springs last year. ("Ida" was a so-called "secret" screening so the official U.S. premiere could be at Sundance.) In an unusual move, both played again this year to sold-out houses.
Over the weekend outside the Regal Cinemas Palm Springs Stadium 9, one of the festival's core venues, staff coordinated lines outside the theater with friendly efficiency. There was a warm air, even though the weather was brisk by desert standards.
Some of those in line have been coming for many years and fiercely plan ahead to knock off a few dozen titles while others have been attending for only a few years and will see only a handful of films. "This is my yearly fix," said a woman who noted that most of the foreign language films will never play theatrically near her home in the Moreno Valley.
American filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead had just finished a Q&A after an afternoon screening of their horror/romance hybrid "Spring" and were chatting with a few audience members outside the theater as event staff tried to keep a path clear for lines moving in either direction.
Benson and Moorhead premiered their film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and have been traveling to festivals ever since. Their screenings in Palm Springs wrap up their domestic festival run ahead of a theatrical release in spring.
"This festival" — Moorhead said, surveying a bustling theater lobby with swarms of people moving about, a busy concession stand and the like — "this festival is like every film festival, but the events they have here, because of the Oscar season stuff, are beyond anything we've been to."
At an intimate brunch Sunday sponsored by Variety, at least one person cut to the chase of what's in it from the talent side.
"We're trolling for Oscar votes, let's be honest," said Chris Rock, writer, director and star of the recent "Top Five," in accepting an award. "So please vote for me."