Palm Springs Fest Earning Film World's Attention

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The eighth annual Palm Springs film festival began Thursday, and its executive director, Craig Prater, has reason to be pleased. First of all, he's beginning his fourth year of a festival that went through five executive directors in its first four years. He says with a laugh that the fact he's still here is "historic in itself."

"Over the years, the festival has been extended from five days to 17, our ticket sales have gone from $55,000 to $250,OOO and attendance has grown from 17,000 to 46,000," Prater said during a phone interview this week. "With any new organization there is a settling-in process. I think that in the early years the people who held the executive director's job and those who were on the festival board were not sure what the job description was all about.

"When the festival's founder, Sonny Bono, came to me offering the job, I said to him, 'I do not have a film background.' My background is in event planning and administration, and I choose to think that Sonny was right about picking someone like me." (Bono is now a Republican congressman.) Prater, 51, for more than 20 years produced promotional shows for the beauty-products industry. "I have nothing to do with selecting the festival's films," he added. "I feel that there's an organizational structure now that was not there four years ago."

The festival, which since 1995 has been sponsored by Nortel, a developer of communications products and systems, opened at Palm Springs' Plaza Theater with Italy's "Follow Your Heart," a story of three generations of women, and will close with "Chasing the Kidney Stone," a Norwegian fantasy-adventure centering on an 8-year-old boy.

On Saturday, there will be a black-tie awards gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center honoring Lauren Bacall, Richard Dreyfuss, director Norman Jewison, composer Bill Conti and hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff.

Among the many special programs are a salute to the Italian cinema and screenings of "Tarzan and His Mate" (1934), with seven minutes restored--mainly, a swimming scene featuring Maureen O'Sullivan's scantily-clad Jane, which was deleted by censorship; Marcel Carne's "Children of Paradise" (1945); and "Brigadoon," the 1954 Vincente Minnelli-directed version of the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical. This is the first year for film programmers Paola Freccero and Paul Gachot, who have selected more than 120 films representing 41 countries, including 11 world premieres, 40 U.S. premieres and 19 official Oscar submissions from foreign countries.

"We have more premieres than we've ever had, and our strength comes in with those best foreign film Oscar submissions," Prater said. "We've had five of the seven winning best foreign films.

"Our placement in early January also offers high visibility for filmmakers and actors hoping for Academy Award consideration."

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An example, he said, was last year's visit by Susan Sarandon, who came, with co-star Sean Penn, for the presentation of "Dead Man Walking"; Sarandon went on to win best actress for the film.

Prater says that about 65% of festival attendees are from the Coachella Valley, and notes that the festival is supported by Mayor Will Kleindienst and the city council. "Sonny continues his support and always attends," he said. "Our biggest challenge is letting everyone else know that we're a strong festival worthy of attention."

* For box office and program information: (619) 778-8979.

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